Spider Web climate change wicked problem
Image Credit: Philippe Teuwen CC BY SA 2.0 flickr

Twelfth place. That’s where the livability of our shared home sits in the minds of US voters. During the 2016 US presidential election, Pew found that “the environment” was the twelfth most important issue for voters. In front of “the environment” were eleven other things we said should take precedence over problems like climate change. Things like the economy, terrorism, foreign policy, health care, and immigration.

That means we’ve got a big problem in the way we talk about climate change. We discuss it like it’s just a singular issue. We roll it right up with all the other environmental problems; pollution, offshore drilling, fracking, and the like. That’s the way voters are polled on it. That’s the way we make candidates debate it. That’s the way we talk about it on the news and (rarely) around our dinner tables.

But climate change isn’t an issue that can be considered in isolation. It can’t be consigned to the tiny corner of our conscious that contains the “green problems.” It’s bigger than that.

The truth is, climate change isn’t a problem per se. It’s a problem of problems; a “wicked problem”. It’s “complex, with linkages to other issues evolving in a dynamic social context, and tackling one often leads to unintended consequences of generating new sets of wicked problems,” according to John FitzGibbon and Kenneth Mensah of the University of Guelph.

Of the many things voters said were more important than climate change, nearly all are touched by that very problem in some way. If you look closely, you’ll see it lurking in the background of immigration policy. It’s skulking in the between the lines of economic reports. It’s a haze that hangs around public health issues.

The climate crisis is one that makes nearly all other problems worse in some way; it’s chain of consequences is very, very long. It’s foolish to say that we must solve problems like immigration, national security, economic downturn, and healthcare before we address climate change. All of these problems are, in part, climate problems.

For instance, while the rise of ISIS and the “migrant crisis” are largely familiar to westerners, what is less well known are the conditions that sparked the conflagration; one that resulted in 5.3 million refugees fleeing the nation. While the violence escalated from a popular uprising during the 2011 Arab Spring, the stage for conflict was set much earlier. Tucked among a laundry list of social, political, and economic grievances was a severe drought beginning in 2006. Faced with greatly reduced rainfall, farmers in the country’s northeast turn increasingly to groundwater to irrigate their crops. But without proper oversight to control groundwater depletion, the aquifer dried up and farming in the region largely collapsed. Millions of Syrians dependent on farming fled the country side for the cities, straining jobs and resources there.

When researchers examined the region’s rainfall patterns, they found that climate change had exacerbated the drought. Further, it was a drought that largely disappeared when you eliminated humanity’s climate changing behaviors. While the drought was only one of the factors that lead to the current conflict, it was undeniably present and it was undeniably worsened by climate change. Ultimately, Syria’s instability lead to the rising profile of a new terrorist group (US voter’s second greatest concern) and a nation roiled by warfare. When people from the war-torn areas fled to other nations to find safety and stability, they induced the “migrant crisis” and dramatically tested the immigration policies of many other nations; including the United States . These policies will be tested over and over again as climate stressors continue to drive migration worldwide.

Above terrorism and immigration, the most important issue voters identified was the economy. Jobs, and particularly uncertainties around job security, played an outsized role in the 2016 election. This economic anxiety has been particularly acute in rural regions. One mainstay economic activity of rural areas, agriculture, faces unique climate-induced stressors. As our shared climate shifts, our seasons, rainfall patterns, rainfall intensity, and temperature ranges shift right along with it. All of this coalesces into a broadening picture of uncertainty for farmers as they work to secure both our food supply and their own economic security. As seen in Syria, these changes in climate can exert potentially catastrophic forces on agricultural communities. Beyond the direct impacts, rural communities can suffer losses to economic stability when local agricultural operations are disrupted.

Those of us in urban settings are in no way immune from the economic anchor of climate change just because our corn fields have given way to high-rises. Rising temperatures, growing CO2 levels, longer summers, and a worsening of smog in the warmer months mean direct and indirect economic losses due to poor air quality. Losses that are projected to be more than $130 billion a year in the US. When people miss work due to respiratory illness, they present an opportunity cost. Asthma, allergies, and COPD are triggered with bad air and cause people to sit economically motionless when they could otherwise be creating value. Many of those missing work and school because of this bad air will need medical care, placing more strain on our health care system.

Even beyond the physical health implications of climate change, there is a case to be made for deleterious mental health effects as well. Natural disasters, or even the risk of them, can worsen anxiety and depression for some. In others, the trauma of loss to climate strengthened storms can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The mental health effects can even impact entire communities. The degradation of community networks has made us less resilient to the traumatic consequences of stronger natural disasters. Losses of social cohesion have especially affected those of us in rural communities dependent on agri- and aquaculture for a collective sense of identity as well as economic inflow.

So we cannot talk about climate change as problem all on its own; to only worry about it after eleven other issues have demanded our attention. The reality is that climate change is not just an environmental problem. It’s an immigration and national security problem. It’s an economic and health problem. It touches nearly everything we have identified as more important than “the environment.”

It’s time we started discussing climate change for what it truly is: a messy, difficult, wicked problem. To have any conversation about terrorism or foreign policy or education or the treatment of minority communities without discussing climate change is to blind ourselves to a critical factor in these problems. When we talk about climate  change only as an environmental problem, we are opening ourselves up to the most dangerous risk of all; the one you never saw coming.


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