In a seminal article Rittel & Weber (1973) notes:

The search for scientific bases for confronting social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problem cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about optimal solutions to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers.

The policy challenges associated with climate change is described as an acute instance of wicked problem, Levin, Cashore, Bernstein & Auld (2012) go even further and call it a “super wicked problem”. We focus in this post particularly on three interconnected features of this wickedness, the 2°C target, prospects of stranded carbon assets and the “carbon majors”, collectively called the wicked trinity.

To contain the dangers of anthropogenic climate change political leaders at COP21 in Paris agreed to limit the rise in global temperature to 2°C and strive to stay even below 1.5°C. This essentially means the world can’t incessantly burn all the underground fossil fuel reserves at will to avoid further increase in GHG emissions in the coming days. The implication is that the owners of fossil fuel reserves should not be able to fully monetize their existing fossil fuel reserves and should face a real risk of stranded with their fossil fuels reserves or in other words carbon assets. This importance of imposing this risk is highest particularly among the so called “carbon majors”. Carbon majors are taken to be the 90 corporations from the fossil fuel and cement sectors who cumulatively contributed to the 63% of the global anthropogenic emissions from 1854 to 2010 (Heede, 2014).  International Energy Agency (IEA, 2012) forecast that, to meet the 2°C target, no more than one-third of the proven fossil fuel reserves can be consumed by 2050. Most of these proven fossil fuel reserves are in the hands of these “carbon majors” (Heede, 2014).

It seems implausible to tame the wicked trinity in absence of a global central authority on climate change. As noted by Rittel & Weber in a pluralistic world governed by hundreds of sovereign states it is hard to reach a consensus on what is an undisputable public good? The problem is further exemplified considering out of the 85 existing carbon majors, 54 are located in the developed and 31 are in the developing country (Heede, 2014). Hence, the burden of historical responsibilities can’t fall squarely on the developed countries alone as denying the right to exploit proven fossil reserves to the “carbon majors” of the developing nations would deny their justifiable aspirations for equal levels of economic development compared to the developed world. This draws attention to another characteristic of the wickedness: lack of an “objective definition of equity.” Which one to be given preference? Equity in terms of economic prosperity or equity in terms of right to emit GHG emissions? There seem to be no straightforward right or wrong answers.

While acknowledging the seemingly unsolvable nature of wicked problems, Levin et al. (2012) propose to reorient the dominant policy formulation process based on examination of historical causal processes to what they call “applied forward reasoning”. Unlike the conventional top down policy formulation process, this method is a bottom up approach aiming to implement policy interventions that trigger “sticky interventions” leading to incremental irreversible changes across larger populations towards a low carbon fossil fuel independent society.

If indeed such an approach can tame the wicked trinity only time can tell, but with climate change the time is not on our side and with time taming the wicked trinity will become more and more elusive.

Photo: People’s Climate March New York. CC-BY-NC 2.0, John Minchillo.


Heede, R. (2014). Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010. Climatic Change, 122(1-2), 229-241.

IEA. (2012). World Energy Outlook 2012. IEA, Paris.

Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S., & Auld, G. (2012). Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Sciences, 45(2), 123-152.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.