Climate change is not humanity's greatest challenge (even though scientists predict it may unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration in 20 years, and increase the global surface temperature up to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100).
Neither are pandemics, nuclear proliferation, water scarcity, the Middle East conflict, or many other things you might think.
Our greatest challenge is that our institutions can't resolve any of these challenges, let alone prioritize climate change as the challenge that poses the greatest threat if we don't act immediately. Until we address the crisis of the failure of our institutions to resolve the significant challenges we face, don't expect progress on any of them.
Climatologists are beginning to recognize that institutional failure is our real problem:
"One of the problems is that the issue is still being framed as a scientific and environmental issue. This is a major mistake. Climate change is just a symptom of dysfunctional social and economic practices and policies. It is a social and economic issue. The emphasis needs to shift away from the biophysical sciences now to the social sciences if we have any hope of solving this problem," said Bob Doppelt, director of the climate leadership initiative at the University of Oregon.
Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University, said: "Can democracy survive complexity? That is what this [energy-environment] problem represents. It is so difficult. It is multi-scale, multidisciplinary, with large certainty in some areas and small certainty in others. It is irreversible and reversible and we won't know how we did until it is over. We will only know forty years later. That is why climate complexity is a challenge to democracy. Democracy is short term."
The institutions we rely on to address the major challenges we face have many shortcomings. They don't view the challenges in a holistic manner or appreciate their interrelationships and those of their solutions (fortunately, we now have a U.S. President who seems to have a holistic view of our challenges; unfortunately, he's leading an institution that doesn't). They seem unable to anticipate, let alone address, challenges whose consequences won't manifest within the financial quarter of economic institutions or the two, four, or six-year terms of officeholders in government institutions. They are easily manipulated by special interests, money, criminals, nuts, and whoever speaks the loudest or has the ear of a decision maker last. They lack transparency that fosters understanding, involvement, and faith in how and why decisions are made. And the "solutions" they implement too often compound the problems they're supposed to resolve - like the hydra myth, each purported solution creates multiple new problems.
In order to address climate change (and give it the priority it demands), as well as the other significant challenges we face, we must rapidly evolve the capacity of our institutions to make better decisions than the ones that have put our survival in jeopardy.
In his book Nonzero: The Logic Of Human Destiny, Robert Wright posits that the best way to understand the evolution of human institutions is from the perspective of non-zero-sum game playing, which allows for win-win outcomes. Wright argues that non-zero-sum game playing is optimized by communication and trust, and that whenever communication and trust are lacking, new technologies emerge that increase their presence.
In a period seemingly devoid of trust and communication in governmental and economic institutions, the Web (the kind of technology Robert Wright wrote of) has unleashed a blizzard of information. Other innovations are beginning to help us organize the Web's massive flow of information in ways to make it trustworthy and actionable through an expanding number of communications technologies. There are many valuable experiments underway to leverage the Web to increase transparency in our institutions, including (but certainly not limited to) efforts funded by the Sunlight Foundation, such as Change-Congress.org and MapLight.org, and to use the Web for social change, including efforts covered by techPresident and the Personal Democracy Forum. At TransparentDemocracy, we're experimenting with ways to let people see how organizations and people they trust recommend they make governmental, economic, and other decisions. And there are many technologies, such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, and Twitter, which have the potential to significantly increase the ability of people to make a difference by making our institutions more accountable and responsive.
However, the resources available to support experiments to leverage the Web and other technologies for these purposes are woefully inadequate for the task at hand. An article by Jon Gertner in The New York Times Magazine on April 19, 2009 reported that "about 98 percent of the federal financing for climate-change research goes to the physical and natural sciences, with the remainder apportioned to the social sciences," a fraction of which goes to understanding how we make decisions about addressing climate change. Hopefully, the allocation of resources will soon respond to the admonition of climatologists that this is not "a scientific and environmental issue" but rather "a social and economic issue." Just as resources are needed to develop new energy sources and other solutions to climate change, resources are needed to evolve our institutional capacity so we can make wise decisions about which of those new energy sources and solutions we should pursue. And so we can make wise decisions about options we'll be forced to choose among to adapt to and mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, including geoengineering (using potentially radical technologies to cool the Earth's air), which the nation's top scientist, John Holdren, has said has "got to be looked at. We don't have the luxury of taking any approach off the table."
In addition to investing in new tools to effectively organize to address the many challenges we face, we need to invest in developing people - organizers - who can effectively use the new tools. "Tools don't build houses. Carpenters build houses," explains Marshall Ganz, who has been credited as the architect of Obama's field campaign (a fantastic fusion of effective organizers and new technologies).
Perhaps the most underreported, significant outcome (and legacy) of the Obama campaign is the army of organizers it trained. Just like the civil rights, farm worker, anti-Vietnam War, and other historic movements, the Obama campaign produced a large number of skilled organizers who will continue to contribute to American society for years to come in other organizing efforts. We urgently need to engage these organizers in addressing the looming threat of climate change and the other significant challenges we face.
H.G. Wells said "History is a race between education and catastrophe." Current events suggest that education may be losing that race. It is already too late for us to avoid all of the consequences of climate change - the earth's global surface temperature and the seas are rising at accelerating rates.
Our best hope is to invest in accelerating the development and deployment of innovations that increase trust and communication in our institutions so we can optimize our capacity to find win-win solutions to climate change and the other challenges we face.
Dee Hock, the Founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa Inc, recognized some time ago that most of the "problems" we think we have "are symptom not disease. At bottom, we have an institutional problem, and until we properly diagnose and deal with it, all societal problems will get progressively worse."
Continuing to expect our institutions to resolve the "problems" that their "solutions" are in fact compounding may fit Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." As Einstein observed: "The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them." It is time for us to consciously evolve our institutions to a higher level from which they can solve the problems they are now creating - the survival of our civilizations, and perhaps our species, depends on it.
(Updated: 5.27.09 to add 5th & 6th to last paragraphs about the importance of organizers)