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How to Solve the World’s Trickiest Problems

April 3, 2012

Climate change is not about the weather - it's about climate. Photo: Ann Alcock

Eric Knight, Reframe: How to Solve the World’s Trickiest Problems

We look at the world through blinkers, says Eric Knight. We see only what attracts our attention, the bright, shiny objects. To solve complex political or economic problems we need to reframe, to bring more of the world into focus.

Thus the Global Financial Crisis happened because traders and analysts focussed on the immediate past rather than long term data. The invasion of Iraq was a disaster because the US goal was to kill terrorists rather than to tackle the networks, grievances or insurgencies that give rise to terrorism.

The hardest problems to resolve are multidimensional and Knight devotes most of the book to one such issue: climate change. As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford he studied the economics of climate change for his doctorate. He considers three dimensions:

Dimension 1: The debate between believers and sceptics often focusses on what the weather is doing, with both sides pointing to weather events to support their arguments. This is wrong and counterproductive, says Knight. Climate change is not about the weather, it’s about climate, and changes in climate are barely perceptible over a decade. If you point to a heat wave, sooner or later the other side will trump you with a cold snap. We should reframe the problem from weather to climate.

Dimension 2: As long as the issue is framed as a choice between belief and scepticism, it cannot be solved.  Instead we should look at who has expertise or authority in the spheres of science and politics. Scientists are qualified to speak about the world, but not to tell us how to respond to their findings. The rest of us do not have the skills to judge the science, but we have the authority, through the democratic process, to decide what to do about it.

The vast majority of climate scientists have concluded that, with a high level of probability, human-made carbon emissions are contributing to climate change. But no scientific conclusion ever reaches certainty, and this is no exception. It is beyond reasonable doubt, but not certain. Thus when the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says there is no more room for doubt on climate change, when Obama’s science advisor calls sceptics “heretics”, and when scientists dictate what should be done about their findings, they politicise the science. The democratic process is also distorted from the other side by concentrations of corporate power such as the fossil-fuel industry.

Framing climate change as a Hollywood-style battle between belief and scepticism misuses science. We need to reframe the problem to respect both science and democracy, and seek “the right balance between delegating power to scientists who understand the meaning of carbon emissions and giving the wider public the freedom to form their own judgement on how best to deal with climate change” – even if that wider public freely chooses to live in a more dangerous world.

Dimension 3: If the scientific findings are accepted, what is the best way forward? Here the problem is often framed as a choice between the environment and the economy. This leads some to focus on the greed and waste of material consumption, “the tyranny of unnecessary things in our lives”, and to advocate reversing economic growth. Knight presents an alternative view: cutting consumption may be a good thing to do for social and moral reasons, but this is a different issue from climate change. Instead we should reframe to focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. It could then be seen as a technical rather than a moral issue, similar to challenges we’ve successfully managed in the past.

The Hedgehog and the Fox. Drawing by JoyceCL via Flickr

In Prosperity Without Growth (my review here), Tim Jackson argues that a continually expanding economy that depends on carbon emissions collides with the limits of a finite planet, causing climate change, and that this cannot be solved by technological innovation because such innovation would need to occur many times faster than it has in the past. Eric Knight examines this argument, and says that by using global averages Jackson misses the complexity of the world energy sector, thus understating the technological transition towards lower carbon intensity, just as earlier prophets of doom missed the demographic transition.

While there is little new in Reframe, the book is well written, an easy, quick and enjoyable read with all concepts clearly explained. My only criticism is that Knight sometimes over-elaborates, as he does in a longwinded section on the history of experts who wrongly predicted eco-catastrophe, beginning with Malthus.

In the book’s conclusion, Knight uses Isaiah Berlin’s description of hedgehogs and foxes (the origin of this blog’s name) to illustrate his approach. Hedgehogs use a single, unifying idea, focus their magnifying glass on one part of the world only, and believe they are right. Foxes continually shift their perspective, seeing many different ways to solve a problem, never certain they have the right answer, always searching for a better one. Knight runs with the foxes.

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