The 1,000,000 Piece Climate Change Jigsaw Puzzle

While at a conference last year organized to honor climate science pioneer Steve Schneider, I brought up the “high hurdles” facing any successful response to climate change.  The pushback from eminent members of the climate community surprised me.  They argued that climate change isn’t hard to solve at all.  All we have to do is deploy technologies that to a great extent already exist and which to a great extent are already cost-effective.  How hard can that be!

Pretty hard, actually.  First, I disagree; I don’t think we have the ready-to-deploy cost-effective technologies we need to reduce GHG emissions by 70-90% from today’s levels.  Second, climate change mitigation isn’t primarily a technology problem; it’s a problem of risk perception and risk management, which to date has translated into an intractable policy problem.  I can see what my colleagues were probably getting at; if we can make solving climate change sound easy, won’t that reduce the opposition to tackling climate change?  But that argument is counter-productive.  Using such an argument would mis-state why we don’t have climate policy and, I would argue, undercut the priority of climate policy.  If the problem is simple to solve, the public could be forgiven for concluding that: 1) climate change isn’t as big a problem as we’ve been leading them to believe; and 2) there’s certainly no rush in light of other really difficult problems we’re grappling with (like jobs and deficits).

We have a tendency to think about solving climate change with hopeful “wouldn’t it be nice” blinders on, blinders that are fashioned from inherent cognitive biases (see Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow for an excellent discussion of these biases) as well as from our individual backgrounds and competencies:

  • If only we could deploy existing technologies, we’d almost be there!
  • If only we could impose a price on carbon, we’d solve the problem!
  • If only we could improve science literacy, we’d get good policy!
  • If only we could enact campaign reform, we’d overcome political resistance!
  • If only we could better communicate climate risk, people would “get it”!

If only, if only…..It’s not surprising that we’re always looking for silver bullet responses. Unfortunately, climate change isn’t amenable to a silver bullet solution. There are lots of pieces that have to fit together for a successful climate change response. Our inability to envision and assemble those pieces is leading to the transition from 20 years of climate change mitigation efforts to today’s growing focus on adaptation.  A 2008 political cartoon by Australian cartoonist Neil Matterson aptly describes the situation we face on climate mitigation:

"Climate Change" by Neil Matterson Sunday Mail Brisbane, 2 Nov. 2008 Image: Courtesy National Museum of Australia

“Climate Change” by Neil Matterson
Sunday Mail Brisbane, 2 Nov. 2008
Image: Courtesy National Museum of Australia

A 1,000,000 piece jigsaw puzzle is indeed daunting. The good news is that people are working on the puzzle’s missing pieces, and making real progress.  The bad news is that no one is in charge of assembling the overall jigsaw puzzle. The vast majority of individuals, NGOs, universities, and foundations focus only on their own puzzle piece, to which they can easily point and measure impact. Each player tends to perceive his or her piece as the dominant piece of the puzzle, if they perceive that there is a larger puzzle at all.  To the extent we recognize the existence of the puzzle, we tend to assume that the puzzle will assemble itself.  For a one million piece puzzle, that’s even less likely than chimps recreating Shakespeare based on randomly hitting typewriter keys.

We need to need to pay more attention to the challenge of assembling the climate mitigation jigsaw puzzle.  We need to make sure that some of us are focused on the puzzle instead of the individual pieces, and on accelerating puzzle progress.  Once we have a better idea what the finished puzzle might look like, progress will be even easier!

Neil Matterson, who is editorial cartoonist for The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Australia) has kindly given us permission to use his 2008 climate change cartoon on an ongoing basis at www.climatographer.com.

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