COVID-19 has thrown the interconnected and complex systemic nature of our global society into stark relief.  It has also sparked many questions within the international climate change community of practice around the lessons of the pandemic for the climate crisis.

In a paper for Climate Policy with Dr Brett Cohen, ‘Approaching climate mitigation policymaking in South Africa: a view from critical complexity thinking’, we ask whether we, as a community of practice, are engaging with climate mitigation as an inherently complex policy problem, and from here whether we are adequately equipped to respond to it as such.

A foray into complexity studies suggests that working with complex policy problems requires specific skills. Central to these is an awareness that, as a community of practice, we bring a particular ‘approach’ to our work – the term ‘approach’ is used in this context to denote a perspective that informs action.  This approach is social, ie it is strengthened through our community cultures and norms, and it interacts with the policy problem we work on.  Wenger (2000) argues that whilst communities of practice are essential for learning, they can also ‘learn not to learn. They are the cradles of the human spirit, but can also be its cages’.

The paper argues and describes, from literature, the existence of a dominant approach to international climate change mitigation policymaking.  It then uses empirical evidence to demonstrate this in the case of South Africa.  By considering Wenger’s ‘cradle’ in this way, the extent to which the climate change mitigation community’s dominant approach has become a ‘cage’ can be assessed.

We suggest that the climate change mitigation community’s approach illuminates many aspects of the climate change mitigation problem: we have a handle on the greenhouse gases causing global warming and their source, the emissions targets required over time to limit warming, technological solutions, policy instrument options and financial mechanisms.  We are growing in our understanding of the role of politics, power, culture and behavioural change.  However other aspects are obscured. Relationships – between sectors, mitigation and development, technologies and the social, disciplines – are underexplored.  We have a poor understanding of how complex social systemic transformation happens, the interactions between levels in a system and the role of feedback loops, the importance of making data available throughout the system to support self-organisation, how experimentation and failure create resilience, and of agile, responsive policymaking techniques.  We cannot see that we, as a community of practice, are entangled with our policy problem, both creating and responding to it through our approach.  

The world is changing very rapidly, and complexity studies and similar contemporary and transdisciplinary fields offer insights into useful ways of relating to and working on complex policy problems such as climate change mitigation, and these insights can assist us in responding more effectively.   Central to these is the awareness of the dominant approach we bring to the problem, and that this approach has agency.    

Read the full paper.

Dr Emily Tyler is a climate economist and complexity scholar, working in Cape Town, South Africa.