The Wicked Problem of Climate Change: A New
Approach Based on Social Mess and Fragmentation
Jiazhe Sun * and Kaizhong Yang
School of Government, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China; email@example.com
*Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tel.: +86-10-6288-8809; Fax: +86-10-6275-3412
Academic Editor: Marc A. Rosen
Received: 10 November 2016; Accepted: 8 December 2016; Published: 13 December 2016
The 21st century has been the warmest period on record since 1880, making the problem
of climate change a central issue in the global political arena. While most approaches to climate
change emphasize setting and imposing thresholds for greenhouse gas emissions, this paper argues
that the issue of climate change and its solutions should be viewed in a more dynamic and complex
way, involving social messes and the fragmentation of industries and organizations. In this context,
learning models can offer a starting point to understand the reasons why organizations engage in
certain types of corporate environmental strategies with regard to climate change, and can help in the
search for solutions to the problem of climate change.
climate change; wicked problem; social mess; fragmentation; learning models;
Climate change is increasingly understood to be one of the most important and urgent problems
of our time, one that requires a global, integrated (i.e., mitigations and adaptation) response. Only
in this integrated way is it possible to limit the effects of climate change and to achieve sustainable
development (as deﬁned in [
]) and social equity, including poverty eradication [
]. According to
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and NOAA (The National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration), the year 2015 was the warmest year on record since 1880. According to
NOAA, the average global temperature for 2015 was 0.90
C higher than the 20th-century average of
C. This was not only the highest calendar year temperature, but also the highest temperature
ever recorded during a 12-month period while 15 of the hottest 16 years have occurred since 2001 .
Not surprisingly, this issue has taken a central position in the international political agenda. While
the notion that climate change is a global problem is widely accepted, the issue of what to do remains
highly controversial, with different disciplines providing a variety of recommendations. As such,
it is a problem ripe for future studies, particularly as they relate to ecological modernization and
sustainability, in that climate change is ‘complex, interconnected, contradictory, located in an uncertain
environment, and embedded in landscapes that are rapidly changing’ [
] (p. 183). Moreover, the
interwoven social, political, and cultural differences across countries make the issue of climate change
difﬁcult to address on a global scale.
This paper argues that complexity theory, often considered an extension of general systems
], can offer a valuable foundation from which to examine organizations and their frequent
lack of, or inadequate, environmental response. Unpredictable and inconsistent environmental
actions by an organization often derive from the organization’s inability to decipher the complex
problems it faces. Unlike a simple linear, static system, in which the outcome of a certain decision
can be predicted according to the observed regular-pattern behavior of the system’s component parts,
complexity arises when dynamic interactions take place between a number of independent and/or
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Sustainability 2016,8, 1312 2 of 14
poorly understood variables. No type of behavior can be distinguished and understood on its own.
It is rather unpredictable due to the interrelated actions and reactions of these variables [
]. A complex
system consists of hierarchies, each with its own interrelated subsystems. In turn, subsystems have
their own complexity due to the dynamic interactions of variables between subsystems, and between
subsystems and the overall system [
]. Altering any given system often creates a domino effect,
setting other actions into motion in unpredictable ways and—most importantly—with unpredictable
The problem of climate change has been increasingly described as a ‘wicked problem’ [
The notion of wicked problems is an approach to understanding the dynamics of a major proposed
change with multiple and conﬂicting inputs and multiple possible outcomes, all of which play
over time against, or occasionally with, each other. Wicked problems occur at the interface of
human/environmental interaction and are characterized by the fact that solutions create a ‘plethora
of new problems’ [
] (p. 183). Rittel and Webber [
] used ‘wicked’ as a term “akin to that of
‘malignant’ (in contrast to ‘benign’) or ‘vicious’ (like a circle) or ‘tricky’ (like a leprechaun) or
‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb)” (p. 160). They [
] based their
deﬁnition of wicked problems on their previous work in city planning and public policy, where
they discovered ill-structured problems featuring complex interrelationships between many social and
environmental factors [
]. They concluded that understanding the true nature and scope of complex
socio-psychological/environmental problems is both the most important and the most elusive part of
the solution-ﬁnding process.
The concept of wicked problems has evolved to include a series of characteristics that differentiate
this approach from other problem-solving theories [
]. Rittel and Webber [
] note at least ten distinct
properties of wicked problems, including (pp. 161–166):
•Wicked problems have no deﬁnitive formulation
•Wicked problems have no ends to the causal chains—‘no stopping rule’
•Wicked problems do not have ‘true-false’ solutions, rather ‘good-bad’ ones
•Wicked problems offer no ‘immediate’ or ‘ultimate’ tests for a solution
•Wicked problems mean that every attempt at a solution is consequential
•Wicked problems do not have an ‘exhaustively describable’ set or series of solutions
Every wicked problem is unique—having at least one ‘distinguishing property that is of
•Every wicked problem points to another wicked problem—each a symptom of another
Wicked-problem discrepancies can be explained in multiple ways—each ‘choice of explanation
determines the nature of the problem’s resolution’
Wicked problems pose particular problems for those aiming to resolve them—exempting them
from the right to be wrong.
Notably, that solutions offered for the problem only serve to uncover other aspects of the problem
that need to be addressed illustrates the extent of misunderstanding and stakeholder disagreement
about the true scope of the problem [
]. Whelton and Ballard [
] theorize that this tends to happen
because ‘different stakeholders view problem formulations and alternative solutions with different
performance criteria and value sets’ (p. 4) and, thus, judge the potential solutions with different levels
of approval. The failure to reach an agreement on the desired outcome further exacerbates the original
wicked problem, therefore transforming it into a ‘super-wicked’ problem [
]. This description can
be applied to the process of climate change negotiation, including different perceptions of the true
extent of the problem, the role and responsibilities of each country in tackling climate change, and the
severity of the consequences for economies and societies alike if climate change is not addressed.
To change this unwise behavior, resulting in ‘doing the same thing over and over again and
expecting different results’ [
] (p. 310) and break out of this impasse, stakeholders need concrete
reasons, deﬁnitely a new paradigm able to explain, objectively, the complexity of the problem.
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To offer complexity science [
] as a means to address climate change as a wicked problem, this
paper is structured as follows: Section 2explores climate change as a wicked problem; Section 3
introduces the theory of social mess to examine climate change, while Section 4discusses the issue of
fragmentation in climate change; Section 5examines possible strategies for ﬁnding solutions to the
climate change problem; and Section 6provides concluding remarks.
2. Wicked Problems in Environmental Response
The debate on climate change is inherently political. It takes place in the political arena, is
shaped by networks of power, and it is impacted by political maneuverings. These include strategic
inconsistency, which are contradictory rules created in the hope of undermining other rules in other
agreements; forum-shopping—the selection of an international venue most beneﬁcial to their own
policy; and regime shifting, where loyalties are shifted to parallel regimes that will acquiesce in
their policy priorities [
]. It can be argued, therefore, that such complexity makes it more difﬁcult
to understand causality. This can confound the ability to ‘[identify] optimal policies and [assign]
accountability for problematic decisions’  (p. 18).
Fiol and Lyle [
] suggest that organizations need both to learn (develop insights, knowledge, and
associations of past actions) and to adapt (make incremental adjustments where required). As both
of these aspects seem to be lacking within climate change processes at the present time, the slight
interest shown by Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
towards the Doha Amendment [
] (which, if entered into force, will establish the second commitment
period of the Kyoto Protocol [KP]) seems less surprising, while the ability for any comprehensive
policy on climate change may be limited at best.
There has been widespread reluctance to exchange the traditional proﬁt-oriented business
model—valued for its history of promoting countries’ economic development—for a new business
model tied to environmental processes, which may or may not deliver the same level of proﬁtability
and economic development [
]. It can be argued [
] that a new economic model that integrates
ecological modernization and sustainable development offers ‘win-win scenarios’, and the reluctance
on the part of policy-makers to adapt such a model is a discursive failure to recognize, articulate,
and press for the potential of these scenarios. On the other hand, as pointed out by Sezgin [
can be claimed that ecological modernization represents ‘an attempt to green capitalism rather than
challenge its environmental contradictions’ (p. 241); this is due to different causes, including ‘a weaker
interpretation of sustainable development, namely an ecological modernization policy strategy [
. . .
opted for by major environmental policy actors such as the UN, the OECD and the EU’  (p. 240).
One of the main problems that afﬂicts the current regime on climate change is the disconnect
between stakeholders, which include the scientiﬁc community, politicians of various countries, large
corporations, small to medium-sized enterprises, industries, social activists, consumers, and the
media, among others. The various forms of disjunction derive from what both Hoffman [
] theorize as a lack of shared understanding of climate change as a problem of the roles and
responsibilities that organizations must play, and of the potential solutions offered by clean technology.
Stakeholders, these authors say, seem to have mixed motives, which depend on how they assess the
existing debate on climate change, along with a long-held uncertainty about the consequences of
behavioral change. They appear to have difﬁculty in balancing the perceived value of their current
path against changes that may or may not lead to future value [27,28].
Lacking a deﬁnitive scope or end-point, which is a feature of tame rationality-responsive problems,
a wicked problem receives only cursory attempts at solutions [
]. Stakeholders resort to what Rittel
and Webber [
] called ‘good enough’ measures that seem neither right nor wrong, and which do
not necessarily result in any quantitative change to the problem. This was possibly the case during
the 2009 Copenhagen Conference, which discussed the Kyoto Protocol and other agreements under
negotiation. Stakeholders appeared to believe that the apparently rational linear solution of setting
targets for the reduction of emissions and cutting back on the use of fossil fuels are the key means by
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which the climate change problem should be addressed. While not necessarily right or wrong, these
target-setting imperatives are clearly not working. Moreover, they are not viewed by all stakeholders
as an appropriate solution, with some countries even ignoring the targets altogether. In addition,
these efforts do not entail the radical changes necessary to tackle climate change on a global, national,
industrial, and organizational level.
2.1. Wicked Problems and Linear Rationality
Every wicked problem is unique due to its social complexity and the diversity of its causes,
consequences, and constituent factors. Moreover, in attempting to solve a wicked problem, each
proposed solution carries with it the risk of creating new problems that may also be ‘wicked’—unlike
solutions to simplify or tame problems, which may or may not work, but pose no risk of exacerbating
the existing problem [
]. A further dilemma is that it is difﬁcult to trace or predict the ‘waves of
consequences’ caused by a wicked problem [
], especially as such problems consist of many complex
issues or roots that have become tangled together [
]. The impossibility of understanding the full
repercussions of climate change and the impact of each decision at both an organizational and a
national level make many stakeholders reluctant to move forward toward proposing or implementing
We can see clearly that wicked problems do not ﬁt comfortably into the customary linear-rational
model of science, which takes the straightforward analytical approach of solving problems through
cause–effect mathematical equations, or with reference to speciﬁc assumed logical–positivist laws.
Indeed, the linear model of science may even have contributed to the formation of wicked
] argues—as a cumulative effect of the technology that has sprung up from
linear scientiﬁc methodology.
At ﬁrst glance, since scientiﬁc knowledge is necessary for a full understanding of climate change,
it might seem sensible to approach the problem from a positivistic scientiﬁc approach. The problem of
climate change, however, has economic, social, and political ramiﬁcations, and relies on behavioral
decisions made by countries and organizations (that generate high levels of socially constructed
uncertainty), making positivist approaches less appropriate to solve the climate-change problem.
], for example, contends that effective solutions to the problem of climate change cannot be
created by means of equations or parsimonious ﬁgures, or indeed, cause–effect linearity. There exists
some evidence suggesting that the application of a linear approach to decision-making and negotiations
on climate change has repeatedly led to an impasse [
]. Even more problematic is that positivist
approaches do not even provide clear answers when modelling different scenarios of emissions’
reductions to test their relative effectiveness [
]. Additionally, communicating climate-change
knowledge to the public is difﬁcult, and knowledge of climate change does not always translate
to human behavioral change [33,34].
Wicked problems have often resulted, in part, from social constructions and conﬂicting
perspectives held by the stakeholders or decision-makers involved in an issue, which lead them
to focus solely on their own bounded and situated interests, or to believe that another stakeholder
should shoulder responsibility for resolving one or more of the problems which, once connected, form
a wicked problem [
]. These competing constructions of the future, which vary according to an
organization’s or country’s socially constructed, performance-criteria value-sets [
], and the different
levels of knowledge about climate change create an environment of conﬂict that simply deepens the
underlying divisions between stakeholders, such as .
Adding to the dynamic nature of this conﬂict is the continual temporal variation in the levels of
interest, beliefs, power, ability, resources, and intent held by the different countries, industries, and
organizations involved. Since the extent of the problem’s complexity or ‘wickedness’ is not yet fully
understood, the ﬁrst step in developing an approach to resolution must be to determine what elements
of complexity are truly involved in climate change, while being aware of the inherent bounded or
situated rationality that climate change involves.
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2.2. Super-Wicked Problems and Climate Change
Over time, the concept of a wicked problem has been further delineated to create a new category:
the ‘super-wicked problem’ [
], which displays all of the features of a wicked problem, as
previously described, with a few additional traits. Building on the initial deﬁnition proposed by
Rittel and Webber , Levin et al.  describe these additional characteristics as follows:
No central authority holds the responsibility for controlling all of the factors, which contributes to
a super-wicked problem.
The division of responsibility is essential, especially when addressing a problem like climate
change, with many choices, perspectives, needs, and alternatives to consider.
The absence of a central authority to coordinate efforts, respond to queries, and establish the
common ground needed to maintain cooperation from all stakeholders results in further chaos
and conﬂict among those involved.
No single body is capable of enforcing the necessary changes clearly and consistently across all
countries, industries, and organizations.
The variety (and variability) involved in stakeholders’ understandings of climate change issues,
as well as their existing knowledge of the problem from their individual perspectives, calls for a central
authority capable of levelling understanding. Aldy and Stavins [
] claim that such an authority
is necessary in order to remove the handicap for countries lacking an adequate understanding of
the aspects of the problem, thus preventing them from responding effectively. Additionally, this
authority could provide individualized research and development programs speciﬁcally tied to climate
change policy for developing countries. For example, these specialized, systematic responses may
be particularly important to ensure justice and equity in designing a new climate agreement [
especially for less developed countries that have faced, and will continue to suffer, the brunt of climate
change consequences in increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters.
Problems deﬁned as super-wicked may have a time-limited option for resolution, and it is widely
felt that the world has few options with regard to slowing the pace of climate change. As Levin et al. [
argue, it is possible that the problem may have become ‘too acute, have had too much impact, or,
in the case of climate change, owing to the time lag effects of various greenhouse gases (GHGs), be
too late to stop or reverse’ (p. 8). The crucial point they emphasize is that ‘human beings can [
. . .
control their behavior to alter their impacts, but they cannot control the response of the natural system
once a decision is made’ (p. 8). In many cases, these researchers argue, those who seek to solve the
super-wicked problem of climate change are at least partly responsible for bringing about some of the
factors that have caused the problem. This appears to be a vicious circle, since no matter how hard
humans try to avoid damaging their environment, we will inevitably have some adverse impact on it.
It is, thus, very difﬁcult to differentiate the ‘antagonists’ from the ‘protagonists’ in the climate change
debate and negotiation process—an ambiguity that further obstructs momentum toward a clear and
common understanding .
Social mess and fragmentation are constituents of super-wicked problems and pose, perhaps, the
greatest challenges as to how human beings learn and how they process information. It may be the case
that these dynamic, ﬂuidly interacting aspects of the wicked problem of climate change are interfering
with stakeholders’ ability to think through the various interrelated components of the climate change
issue, thereby preventing them from addressing the problem effectively. It is important, therefore, and
necessary, to deﬁne social messes and fragmentation in order to understand how complexity science
offers a solution to a future characterized by climate change.
3. Social Mess
The theory of a social mess states that no problem exists in isolation, but is inﬂuenced by other
issues afﬂicting society [
]. Social messes, therefore, foreground the part played by social actors, rather
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than by objectively identiﬁed material issues. In Ackoff’s [
] words, ‘every [social] problem interacts
with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems’
(p. 423). Simon [
] characterizes these types of problems as ill-structured and lacking well-deﬁned
parameters. Social messes have also been described as occurring when ‘individuals in interdependent
situations face choices in which the maximization of short-term, self-interest yields outcomes leaving
all participants worse off than feasible alternatives’ [
] (p. 1). Inevitably, narrow self-interest generates
harmful side effects and isolation, which can be controlled and compensated by communities or
governments, only through well-enforced laws and strict liability legislation [
] (pp. 43–44). This is
often seen in countries in which political, economic, and ideological constraints have resulted in a
fundamental resistance to change. However, as reported by the Brundtland report [
] (p. 27), the
increase of social and ecological stability can be achieved only by abandoning old approaches and
Complicating matters further is the fact that social messes originating within particular countries,
both developed and developing, have tended to become global problems [
]. To a large extent, this
is due to the increase in globalization over the last few decades, which has led to what Ackoff [
calls a ‘systems age’. He argues that countries have become reliant on each other for the goods and
services necessary to fuel their own economic development (e.g., as a result of increased outsourcing
and foreign direct investment globally), which results in a social mess on a global scale, with the
internal social messes of individual countries tangled up together. For this reason, climate change
has, itself, been described as a social mess [
] and, insofar as these global problems are connected in
ways that cannot be readily identiﬁed or understood, the theory of a social mess resembles that of a
Whether occurring at a national or a global level, social messes are invariably difﬁcult to
conceptualize. Governments must ﬁrst address the task of ‘designing and managing systems so
that they can cope effectively with increasingly complex and rapidly emerging sets of interacting
problems in an increasingly complex and dynamic environment’ [
] (pp. 426–427). This particular
assessment of the situation for both developed and developing countries suggests that governments
must ﬁnd ways to ‘serve the purposes of the parts of a system more effectively’ [
] (p. 427). This
includes the economic, social, cultural, and political components of a given system. This is all the more
relevant given that, as Sanderson [
] outlines, institutional complexity often prevents policy-makers
from simplifying the dynamics involved in social messes, which could then be more readily addressed
through effective policy mechanisms.
It is possible that a more modest approach to social change would prove more beneﬁcial than
seeking to tackle the entire social mess of climate change. For example, scholars have recommended
that expectations be redirected toward local approaches rather than universal solutions, thereby
allowing countries to identify the components of their own problem—the social mess—in order to
achieve a better understanding of its global context [
]. This, in turn, requires that the wicked
problem of climate change be handled by means of multiple innovative approaches to governance
and institutional frameworks, as well as new problem-solving techniques [
]. Andersson, Törnberg,
and Törnberg [
] offer their solution of ‘wicked systems’ that combine theorizing of complexity
and complicatedness to overcome recalcitrant approaches to complex future problems such as
climate change. Perry [
] insists that ‘clumsy solutions’, while intrinsically inefﬁcient, provide
the way forward (p. 8). Clumsy solutions recognize that conﬂict among stakeholders is inherent
to complex issues and, as such, these solutions incorporate dialogic methods that bring together
disparate perspectives in a manner that is at once, adaptive, participatory, and transformative. Finally,
governments have been advised to ﬁnd ways to address their countries’ respective environmental
contexts as components of an overall system [
]. However, for various reasons, all of which are
unique to their respective countries, there may be signiﬁcant obstacles to overcoming the central
problem responsible for the social messes that countries are now experiencing, which is how to balance
economic and social needs with environmental obligations.
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Looking more deeply into the causes of social messes, it seems that theorists identify a set
of complex systems within every country, which has further hindered understanding of certain
problems. In essence, they say, each country is dealing with increasing fragmentation at the
industry level. The fragmentation of industries is widely held to be among the reasons why speciﬁc
international agreements on climate change have failed to work. There are too many different types
of business structures, and negotiations rarely take a sector-based approach to dealing with climate
] explains that fragmentation occurs when decision-makers each believe that they
have deﬁned the problem correctly to the exclusion of other deﬁnitions. As a result, individuals
and organizations alike perceive themselves ‘as more separate than united, and [
. . .
and knowledge are chaotic and scattered’ (p. 1). The fragmented organizations or individuals hold
different perspectives. They either show no interest in collaboration, or they fail to realize that their
differing opinions prevent them from collaborating [
]. This has been manifested throughout the
current international regime’s response to climate change. Fragmented information about the real
issues involved in climate change, and the extent of its impact, have further divided those involved in
the regime due to differences in understanding and agreement [47,49,50].
The lack of shared understanding and commitment may have a number of causes, including a
breakdown in communication between stakeholders [
]. The outcome, however, as claimed by
Bazerman and Hoffman [
], inevitably involves misunderstandings, frustration, and animosity, all
of which prevent stakeholders from making progress in addressing or solving a complex problem.
Organizations and individuals involved as stakeholders may also be facing ‘a cultural condition of
resignation, denial and grim determination’ that further exacerbates fragmentation [
] (p. 34). This is
especially noticeable in situations in which emissions’ reduction targets are set for industries. Carbon
trading and taxation on industries seem to be an unfair responsibility for both creating and solving the
problem of climate change, especially on those industries whose rapid development requires them
to deliver on a social and economic level [
]. Industries and organizations are then obliged to
address the problem by meeting identical, pre-determined targets for emissions’ reduction, despite
their extreme differences in size, technological development, innovation protocols, ﬁnancial backing,
and market share [
]. The responsibility for a problem like climate change is spread among
many industries and organizations, each of which may be internally fragmented due to a lack of
standardized procedures for measuring, monitoring, and comparing the effect of clean technologies
available, a common language and ﬁnancial mechanisms, and—most importantly—the absence of a
central authority to create and manage these standardization imperatives [47,53,56,57].
Intrinsic within human nature is the need to bring rationalistic order to all actions and decisions,
and to maintain some level of organizational structure within them [
]. Yet international
negotiations have, thus far, failed to bring order to industry and sector-based approaches, or to unite
various industries within the same sector, such as those involved in providing electric power to
countries around the world [
]. Instead, the attempts at negotiating emissions targets have
furthered the fragmentation already present within the climate change problem, especially as the
grounds for setting targets are base-weighted on past emissions. With its implicit apportioning of
blame, this approach seems only to have alienated certain countries and industries further [
As a result, other problems have emerged. Prins and Rayner [
] (p. 5) describe the Kyoto Protocol as
the ‘wrong instrument’ relying on the ‘wrong agents’ who are exercising the ‘wrong type of power’,
a view shared by Bodansky [
]. If a problem-solving process merely serves the separate agendas of
some of its most powerful stakeholders and does not seek to establish signiﬁcant content and consistent
collaborative action, a complex or wicked problem can hardly be addressed, let alone solved, especially
if there are no central authorities to put the pieces of the puzzle back together .
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Despite the positive achievements reached globally during the ﬁrst commitment period of the
Kyoto Protocol [
], overall the KP has been found to be more symbolic than substantive in delivering
conditions for countries and industries alike and does not address the considerable variation in the
emissions already produced by countries and various industrial sectors [
]. This shortfall further
complicates the efforts to generate an appropriate collaborative environmental response [
] theorizes that the fragmented and inconsistent approach to complex or wicked problems
actually drives stakeholders apart, leading to further fragmentation of the relationships between
industries and countries, rather than creating opportunities for collaboration. Thus, in this scenario,
these types of efforts to solve climate change ensure that that they remain impossible to solve. However,
a more hopeful approach would argue that the issue of climate change opens up ‘pluralistic potentials’
for future solutions  (p. 184).
5. Strategies to Enable Possible Solutions to the Climate Change Problem
This section discusses how to develop possible solutions to the problem of climate change using
the idea of fragmentation and learning models.
5.1. Address the Fragments
Seeking ways to redress wicked problems, Conklin [
] argues that addressing the fragments
individually—with an emphasis on human learning and interaction—may help to pinpoint areas
in which shared understanding can be most likely achieved. The result, Conklin suggests, will be
consensus-building at various levels, thereby lessening fragmentation at the industry level, and
remedying social messes on a national and global scale, a view shared by Sterman [
and Lyle [
] argue that organizations have choices about how to adjust and adapt to a changing
environment and the fragmentation of networks, processes, and systems, since they have the ability
to learn from complexity. In the case of climate change, they suggest that it would make sense to
dissect the problem by addressing manageable ‘chunks’ on an individual basis, with the eventual aim
of joining these fragments together again and learning from them. Collaborative efforts to solve the
smaller issues thus offer a means of untangling the larger problem and reducing uncertainty about
the issues involved, which otherwise prove to be a signiﬁcant cognitive barrier to understanding [
In order to address the smallest possible components of the problem, however, it may be necessary,
ﬁrst, to tackle fragmentation at the organizational level within individual ﬁrms in a given sector. In this
context, learning theory approaches may be appropriate to address the problem.
5.2. Learning Systems
It is important to understand that due to bounded rationality, an idea introduced by Simon [
what one is able to know may be limited. Bounded rationality, he claims, explains the inherent
limitations placed upon organizations and individuals with regard to ‘knowing all of the alternatives,
uncertainty about exogenous events, and inability to calculate consequences’ [
] (p. 502). Rationality,
he theorizes, is nested within case-speciﬁc socio-cultural, economic, and political behaviors and
limitations. Essentially, rationality is situated. The very nature of climate change, and its inherent
complexity—across not only social, economic, and political lines, but also cultural and global
lines—may limit the ability to understand all the processes involved at all times, and across all
sectors. The role that bounded rationality plays in how we conceptualize and approach climate change
is important when discerning how best to approach it, particularly with regard to learning.
Some level of ‘forward reasoning’ could be applied to help recognize contingency and alternative
outcomes, based on what Levin et al. [
] refer to as ‘contingent causal mechanisms and critical
uncertainties’ (p. 10). The accumulation of knowledge is necessary to shape human and organizational
thinking, which require processes of learning, reacting to change and complexity, and developing
cognitive ability through learning [
]. Given the complex nature of climate change, however,
it is often useful to simplify a problem by reducing it to smaller, more readily-digested ideas.
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In fact, based on Weber’s sociological stratiﬁcation theory, a group of individuals, communities,
or governments can be seen as a multidimensional system, increasingly fragmented and formed by
smaller components [
]. These components can then be pieced back together in ways that are both
clear and comprehensible, allowing negotiation to take place. Often, as Fisher and Ury [
incremental decision-making could be achieved in this way, without the impediments of frustration
In the organizational context, individuals seek to impose order, stability, consistency, and clarity
on issues that impact their lives. If this is not possible, they attempt to make rational decisions leading
to solutions, which themselves yield the desired order, stability, and consistency [72,75]. Even within
the loose and frequently complex structure of organizations, individuals continue to seek a semblance
of order and meaning framed by their work, role, and level of responsibility [
]. Often, this involves
processes of learning by doing or by craft skills, from which employees gain practical understanding of
the nature of the problems and how they might be addressed [
]. In the context of climate change,
small changes, based on increasing knowledge and making rational decisions, permit more complex
decisions toward seismic change.
In addressing wicked problems, some scholars suggest that there may be other ways in which
the learning process might be focused. For instance, basing their theories on cognitive behavioral
models (see discussion by Rescher [
]), they refer to the fact that human beings often beneﬁt from
thinking processes that exist outside the realm of rationality, namely imagination and creativity, tied
to emotional responses or affect. These, as claimed by Rescher [
], have led to innovations and
breakthroughs throughout history, which have provided solutions that restore order, stability, and
consistency. In relation to complexity theory, he suggests that affective aspects of human thought can be
of use in abstract or challenging situations or chaotic environments, producing necessary adaptation.
Building on the potential of the human mind to learn and to expand its diversity of thought and
imaginative processes, those looking to solve the cognitive processing shortcomings that perpetuate
wicked problems, including climate change itself, also seek to create new models for learning, capable
of breaking down the barriers and biases that prohibit freely shared understanding [
]. Such new
models include the use of speciﬁc functionalities of human thought, like reﬂexivity, to improve
learning capacity, in order to more fully ‘reﬂect upon our actions, intentions, and motives’ while, at
the same time, noting the fallibility of the human mind in matters of egocentrism and related traits,
in order to avoid error and enhance cognitive processing [
] (p. 1145). Climate change and its vast
unpredictabilities will force innovation, and reﬂexivity will be key to ensuring that it can be tackled on
a global scale.
5.4. Knowledge Clusters
Knowledge clusters—networks of accumulated knowledge to foster technological innovation—are
partly responsible for industry fragmentation that creates difﬁculties for solving wicked problems.
Yet when used in the right way—as part of a learning model—clustering may help disperse learning at a
faster rate, building a critical mass from widely varying perceptions of a problem [
]. This is especially
evident when addressing starkly different levels of competitive pressure, resources and knowledge,
skill sets, technology adoption, innovation, and economic development. It may be possible to build the
shared understanding necessary to put the pieces of the wicked puzzle back together [
clusters also have the advantage of stimulating and levelling social interaction and personal exchanges
of information and innovation, which constitute another means of observation and learning .
At the organizational level, many organizations seek out knowledge clusters in order to develop
their competitive advantage in today’s business environment with the understanding that, at present,
wealth accumulation most often comes from knowledge rather than from manufactured items [
The talent behind products and services may hold the real value for current organizations, allowing
Sustainability 2016,8, 1312 10 of 14
them to fulﬁll their purpose of generating wealth and stimulating the economy. Individuals and
organizations alike seek technical innovation, intellectual property, and ideas. All of these are, to
a greater or lesser degree, intangible assets, and far removed from a reliance on rational thinking
processes. Instead, these are predicated on risk, play, experimentation, and ﬂexibility [
lead, in turn, to adaptation and innovation. Knowledge clusters embedded in rapidly changing
landscapes create vast potential to solve climate change. Nowadays, scientiﬁc knowledge in tackling
climate change is widely accessible. However, its effective use by the concerned policy-makers and
corporate managers, who attempt to respond to environmental problems with constitutional actions,
is, to a certain extent, limited and challenging .
5.5. The Creative Workforce and Tacit Knowledge
Due to the anxiety about the availability of resources necessary to compete in the market or
address complex problems, organizations often forget one of their most important existing resources:
the creative individuals already within the company [
]. For tacit knowledge to be transferred to
the system from these talented and creative individuals, members of the system must be open to
receiving it and willing to trust that the knowledge being transferred is useful and valuable to their
own understanding of a particular problem. According to Collins [
], this requires an organization, or
other group, to adapt its working culture to embrace knowledge from the surrounding environment.
It may be a challenge for organizations to leverage new kinds of knowledge quickly and effectively,
especially in light of the current scope and nature of learning. It may also prove difﬁcult to determine
which factors facilitate and which ones inhibit the learning process [
]. The concept of tacit skill and
craft knowledge presupposes that an individual or organization knows what type of information or
knowledge will be most useful in helping them to achieve their objectives. This is especially relevant if
the quest for tacit knowledge then leads a person to question the status quo of organizational processes
and cultural norms, as individuals and organizations are not always certain what knowledge they
need, and indeed, whether change is necessary at all [90,91].
The consensus among many learning theorists, including those referenced earlier in this paper, is
that previous models based on linear rationality do not represent the optimal approach to a complex
or even wicked problem [
]. Rather, innovation, they claim, comes most frequently from the human
mind at moments of pressure, emotion, and imaginative play. The role and use of heuristics, skill
development, and sense-making or interpretation, such as the use of scenario-planning or strategic
mapping, are vital in responding to a wicked problem like climate change. Organizations would
do well to foster the type of human capital required to make complex and compelling solutions for
addressing an impending global crisis.
Future studies, by their very nature, are dedicated to solving the world’s most wicked problems,
not least of which concern climate change and ecological sustainability. This paper forwards complexity
theory to address the problem of climate change. An examination of the recent research on climate
change revealed that it is appropriate to move away from theorizing linear solutions to climate change
that simply involve setting targets for the reduction of GHG emissions for each country, industry, and
organization, and expecting people to change their practices for the sake of the common good. Theorists
and futurists who adopt the notion that climate change can be described as a wicked problem appear
to view both problems and solutions in more dynamic and complex terms, involving social messes and
the fragmentation of industries and organizations. Thus far, stakeholders involved in negotiations on
climate change have reacted to the problem based on a limited, bounded, and somewhat inconsistent
understanding of the issues involved. Our objective is to tackle the complexity of climate change by
breaking through fragmentary knowledge and learning how to build effective solutions that address
the social, economic, political, and scientiﬁc complexities that make climate change an impossibly
difﬁcult—but incredibly important—problem to solve.
Sustainability 2016,8, 1312 11 of 14
Future research could incorporate the role of social mess and fragmentation more explicitly when
analyzing the issue of climate change. This may help produce innovative solutions that policy-makers
could implement in collaboration with organizations of developed and less developed countries. While
this paper offers a new perspective on how to address the problem of climate change, the discussion of
speciﬁc solutions is left for future research.
To create momentum towards a shared understanding of climate change, the learning models
reviewed in this paper recommend that organizations serve as the starting point for breaking down the
problem into smaller components. These components could possibly be addressed through a number
of learning techniques that make use of tacit knowledge as an intrinsic part of the cognitive process,
essential for gaining new insights into how others perceive the same problem. These learning models
are a possible useful starting point for an exploration of learning and its connections with fragmentation
and complexity, as they may help to determine the underlying reasons for why organizations engage
in certain types of corporate environmental strategy in regard to climate change. Once this has been
accomplished, strategies for solutions to address the wicked problem of climate change can, and must,
The authors would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers whose detailed suggestions
and comments helped improve the manuscript.
Both authors contributed immensely to the article. Jiazhe Sun conceived the theoretical
ideas and wrote the ﬁrst draft of the manuscript with inputs of Kaizhong Yang. Both authors contributed to and
approved the ﬁnal manuscript.
Conﬂicts of Interest: The authors declare no conﬂicts of interest.
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