Can we really solve the million-piece climate puzzle?

ShutterstockMichael D. Brown

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; I can prove it to you with dozens of opinion polls certifying how much we care about climate change.

But we care about many 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, with countries meeting year after year after year to decry it, yet the illegal trade continues. We’ve cared about climate change for several decades, 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 Australian cartoonist Neil Matterson’s 2008 vision of the million-piece climate change jigsaw puzzle.

After working on many aspects of climate change for more than two decades, I became fascinated by the idea that so few of the million pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place after years of work by 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 climate change 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. So why is progress on the jigsaw puzzle so slow? We have most of the tools we need and, in the larger scheme of things, it wouldn’t cost very much. So why will we wait to finish the low-carbon transition until we’ve committed to levels of climate change that will range from disruptive to catastrophic for billions of people on the planet? 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. I think that this political cartoon sums up the situation nicely:

Courtesy Mark Trexler
As Pogo stated on Earth Day 1971, "Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us." Here we are, 46 years later — and the enemy still is "us."

What do I mean by that, using the climate change jigsaw puzzle as a guiding metaphor? I mean that we seem much less driven to make progress on the puzzle than we are to go through the motions of working on the puzzle.

  • 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 much more motivated to generate more information about the puzzle than to figure out how to assemble it? Yes.
  • Are we happy to "reinvent the wheel" when it comes to individual puzzle pieces if it advances our personal (need to publish) or organizational (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, justifying our relative lack of interest in other puzzle pieces? Yes.
  • Do we spend a lot of effort downplaying the importance of puzzle pieces other than our own (think about renewables and nuclear debate)? Yes.

I could go on, but is it necessary? The reality is that we have the information that ought to motivate us to complete the million-piece jigsaw puzzle. We have the tools that would allow us to complete most or all of the puzzle if we chose to use them. We have the money we would need to complete the puzzle.

But even though we focus more attention on the puzzle, it hasn’t progressed much beyond what Matterson drew in 2008.

The bottom line is that in addition to the many other reasons climate change is such a wicked problem, even those of us actually working on the million-piece jigsaw puzzle are part of Pogo's "We have met the enemy and (s)he is us" problem formulation. We are intensely focused on working on our piece of the jigsaw puzzle, but not on helping complete it. If we really did intend to do something about dangerous climate change, we would revisit our incentives and motivations and go to puzzle-building school to learn what completing a million-piece jigsaw puzzle actually requires.

Because the last 30 years suggest we haven't figured it out.