A Complexity-based approach to Climate Change

I live in British Columbia, a province that began implementing a Climate Action Plan in 2008. Last year citizens were invited to submit their ideas and thoughts to help an appointed Climate Leadership team refresh the plan. The message I offered was that  climate change is a complex, not  a complicated problem.

You can analyze a complicated problem by breaking it down into parts, examining each piece separately, fixing it, and then putting the pieces all back together. In other words, the whole is equal to the sum of its parts.

In contrast, a complex problem cannot be reduced into parts but must be analyzed holistically because of the relationships amongst the various known and unknown pieces. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The main lessons taught at colleges and universities focus on Newtonian physics, reductionism, cause & effect, linearity. Complexity science is only 30 years so it’s not surprising that concepts such as emergence, diversity, feedback loops, strange attractors, pattern recognition, self-organization, non-linearity thinking remain on the sidelines. Yet these phenomena of complexity are spoken in everyday language: going viral, butterfly effect, wisdom of crowds, tipping point, serendipity, Black Swans.

We are taught how to thinking critically and value being competent at arguing to defend our position. We apply deductive and inductive reasoning to win our case. Sadly, little time is invested learning how apply abductive reasoning and explore adaptation and exaptation to evolve a complex issue.

“I think the next century will be the century of complexity.”
Stephen Hawking January 2000

We are 15 years into the century of complexity. My submission applied complexity science to today’s climate change issues:

1. Climate change is a complex issue, not a complicated one. The many years of training has steered us to analyze parts as reductionists. Think of mayonnaise. You can’t break it down to analyze the ingredients. So spread holistically.

2. Stay open-minded. Delay the desire to converge and stop new information from entering. Don’t lock into some idealistic future state strategic plan. Remember, once you think you have the answer, you’re in trouble.

3. Don’t be outcome-based and establish destination targets. Be direction- oriented and deliberately ambiguous to enable new possibilities to emerge.

4. Adopt a sense-making approach – make sense of the present situation in order to act upon it.

Here is the link to the Climate Leadership team’s report and 32 recommendations. The word “complexity” appears twice. Hmm.

As an engaged BC citizen, I will carry on being a skeptic in a good sense and voice my opinions when I see a hammer nailing a screw.