World Leadership Crisis. Exhibit A: Climate Change

By: Nick Hedlund-de Witt


You can probably feel the difficulty of the whole situation. Time is short, uncertainty is high, and the stakes may be even higher. Competing business and political interests collide every day. The tensions run deep, driven by conflicting values and differing needs. This is the nature of the hard problems of our time: they are densely interconnected, emotionally-charged and complex. They also change rapidly, often without warning. In effect, these are what scientists call "adaptive problems" (or "wicked problems"), where the problems may actually evolve by the day.  (In contrast to adaptive problems are technical problems, which tend to have a static solution where the skills, needs and capacities to solve them are known.)  Climate change is immensely difficult because it is an adaptive problem, and requires adaptive leadership to address.  Confronting an adaptive problem takes more than a bag of tricks, it takes a whole new way of being with a broader and more complex mindset on the world—a way of being that is naturally able to:

  • Step outside one's ideology and value system in order to re-craft a more complete view of a situation
  • Understand the evolutionary nature of the people, culture, behavior and systems that contribute to complex problems
  • Quickly grasp the complexity of a situation
  • Build trust between diverse interest groups
  • Stay grounded amidst the constant demands for change
  • Find the confidence necessary for courageous action

And here's the bad news: less than 1% of all college-educated adults have all of these capacities.  At the core of these capacities is the ability to readily take other perspectives while adapting your own to the context of the current situation. Dr. Michael Zimmerman, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, provides an admirable example in the field of climate change.

According to Dr. Zimmerman, there is an untold story behind climate science that we ignore at our own peril. His years of research have lead him to an urgent concern that climate science is falling under the sway of political forces and is not being recognized as the adaptive problem that it is.  It is also not attracting enough adaptive leaders to address it.  Far from being a small or struggling field, climate research has grown into a $60 Billion industry. Michael critiques the fairness of its peer review processes and the low diversity of viewpoints it publicizes, leading us to a disturbing question: has the scientific community's focus on funding and influence compromised the pursuit of truth? Watch the interview and notice how dug-in the value systems in the climate change problem really are.  Errr... Houston, we have a problem.

And notice the way Michael Zimmerman handles his disagreements with other academics and activists in this interview. He gives thoughtful articulation the different perspectives involved, even where his disagreements run deep. He also makes his own position unmistakably clear: we can't afford to get tunnel vision and we can't afford to ignore the influence of politics. In other words, he takes perspectives without being taken by them.

This ability and willingness to "look as" another person, to adaptively learn and test one's own deeply-held assumptions—while maintaining one's own deep sense of personal capability—is the basic formula for adaptive problem-solving in the 21st century, and humanity's most precious (and most rare) resource.

The next move is yours. Even if you aren't a leading Washington policy-maker, take a moment to observe how you handle perspectives in the complex and contentious parts of your own life. A little extra sanity can go a long way. If you like, sharpen your perspective-processing skills in our interactive poll/forum: How Would You Spend $100 Billion To Reduce Suffering World?

If you're an information junkie, here's more info on the climate change debate:

Climategate was a PR disaster

Could Cap and Trade cause another market meltdown?

De Boer Quits UN Post

World Misled Over Glacier Meltdown

Why We Disagree Over Climate Change (Book by Mike Hulme)

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