Do We Really Intend to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change?

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April 10, 2017

To be clear, I’m not asking “do we care about climate change?,” or “are we worried about climate change?,” or “would we like to see something done about climate change?” The answer to all of these questions is obvious from dozens of opinion polls documenting public concern over climate change.

But we care about lots of wicked problems. We care about global peace, while the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Doomsday Clock gets ever closer to midnight. We care about global inequality, while it gets worse. We care about the international wildlife trade, yet the illegal trade continues decade after decade. We’ve cared about climate change for 30 years now, and yet we remain on track for dangerous climate change.

So what I’m asking isn’t “do we care?” It’s “do we intend to do anything about it?” That’s a much harder question to answer. To explore the question further, I’ll use Neil Matterson’s 2008 vision of the 1,000,000 piece climate change jigsaw puzzle.

men discussing 1,000,000 piece puzzle to solve climate change
Source: Neil Matterson, Sunday Mail Brisbane, 11/2/2008. Image courtesy National Museum of Australia

After working on many aspects of climate change for more than two decades, I’m fascinated by the fact that so few of the 1,000,000 pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place despite the efforts of millions of individuals, thousands of organizations, and dozens of countries. Why haven’t we made more progress?

I’ve spent the last four years focused on understanding the 1,000,000 climate change jigsaw puzzle. What might the puzzle actually look like if it could be completed? What are the pieces, where do they stand, which could be assembled quickly and which not, who is working to assemble the puzzle and who is trying to slow it down? To this end I’ve read dozens of books, hundreds of reports and journal articles, thousands of news stories, visited thousands of websites, and watched hundreds of videos. With the help of knowledge management tools I “remember” almost all of it, so I can honestly claim to have as in-depth an understanding of the jigsaw puzzle as anyone else.

It’s pretty much inevitable that we’ll decarbonize our energy systems eventually. But why will we wait to finish that transition until we’ve committed to levels of climate change (probably between 2 and 6 degrees C) that will range from disruptive to catastrophic for billions of people on the planet? We have most of the tools we need, and in the larger scheme of things it wouldn’t cost very much. So why is progress on the climate jigsaw puzzle so slow in the face of certain risk and almost inevitable disruption? That’s the really challenging question.

I know that climate change is a wicked problem, perhaps the ultimate Gordian knot for human and societal decision-making. I can list dozens of factors that impede progress on avoiding dangerous climate change, some of which are summarized in this cartoon.


cartoon great wall of climate change information delugeThe bottom line is that based on best available information any rational risk-averse society would prioritize completing the 1,000,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The tools to complete most or all of the puzzle already exist. The money exists. But the 1,000,000 piece puzzle hasn’t progressed much beyond what Neil Matterson drew in 2008.

Recognizing that reality, I don’t see convincing skeptics of climate action of the error of their ways as the place to focus if we intend to do something about climate change and ultimately complete the puzzle. Pogo stated on Earth Day 1971, “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.” I would argue that the when it comes to the 1,000,000 climate change jigsaw puzzle, an important enemy still is the “us” working on the puzzle; we could be doing a much better job. For example:

  • Are there very different views of what the completed puzzle should look like, based on our disciplinary tool sets, political world-views, and financial self-interests? Yes.
  • Are we more committed to completing the puzzle “our way” than to the larger goal of getting the puzzle put together? Yes.
  • Do we only “see” those parts of the puzzle we want to see or are most comfortable seeing? Yes.
  • Are we incentivized to generate ever more information about the puzzle, as opposed to figuring out how to assemble it? Yes.
  • Are we happy to “reinvent the wheel” for individual puzzle pieces if it advances our personal (e.g. need to publish) or organizational (e.g. need to raise funding) interests, no matter how much of a diversion? It seems that way, yes.
  • Do we tend to convince ourselves that “our” puzzle piece is by far the most important, that climate change would be easy to solve if everyone else would just come around to our way of thinking, thus justifying our relative lack of interest in other puzzle pieces? Yes.
  • Do we denigrate the importance of the “other” puzzle pieces (think about the renewables vs. nuclear debate to name just one)? Yes.

The bottom line is that in addition to the many other reasons climate change is such a wicked problem, those of us working on the 1,000,000 piece jigsaw puzzle are part of Pogo’s “we have met the enemy and he is us” problem statement. Our incentive structures lead us to focus much more on “our” piece of the jigsaw puzzle than on the goal of completing puzzle. We seem to assume that Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand will take care of that part of the process.

If we really want to do something about dangerous climate change we should go to Puzzle School to learn how we could most contribute to completing the 1,000,000 climate change jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, Puzzle School doesn’t exist. What does that say about whether we actually intend to do anything about dangerous climate change?

About the author 

Mark Trexler

Mark has more than 30 years of regulatory and energy policy experience. He has advised clients around the world on climate change risk and risk management. He is widely published on business risk management topics surrounding climate change, including in the design and deployment of carbon markets. Mark has served as a lead author for the IPCC and holds advanced degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.

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