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Launch: Solving the Climate Puzzle – How Systems Thinking Supports Environmental Decision-making

Dr. Nele Fabian, Christopher Gleadle

Good news ahead: decision-makers and businesses in Europe are admitting to climate goals, and they are trying hard to make ends meet. Last November’s COP26, for example, has shown a huge increase in determination: participants have been more outspoken than ever regarding the necessity to act comprehensively – and fast ‑ on climate matters. New and ambitious goals to tackle rising temperatures have been determined. But has the discussion led to any articulate action plan, which is both joint and binding? Not yet. It seems that one main outcome of COP26, much like all the COPs before this one, has been the joint decision to convene again in 2022. Which is, in and of itself, an important precondition for any future progress on the subject. But an agreement, even if made with determination, is far from a strategy. And even a strategy still needs to be translated into concrete action – the tactics – at the local level before more fundamental effects will be seen. In a race against time, tentative fragmented solutions won’t guarantee success. Have we really mobilised all the resources we can to turn things around? If we have, why are we still procrastinating on this issue? This, and many other related questions, are addressed in our new publication Solving the Climate Puzzle: How Systems Thinking Supports Environmental Decision-making. For this project, FNF Europe has partnered up with the UK-based liberal think tank The Paddy Ashdown Forum to tackle the dilemma of communicating complexity in relation to climate change. 

Embracing complexity

The struggle is, in fact, twofold: decision-makers have to negotiate their ways into viable strategies, and then tactically implement them. At the same time, the public has to have and keep having their backs. Decision-makers who are not re-elected have their hands tied. Yet, many voters have a hard time forming a truly informed opinion on climate-related issues due to their perceived complexity. And herein lies the core problem: climate-related issues – as well attempts to solve them – seem to quickly disintegrate into a confusing amount of smaller problems, the more aspects are taken into account. Causal relations between fragmented problems become increasingly difficult to trace back; stakeholders’ interests seem to become more contradictory the more responsible actors we add to the equation. The result is discouraging for everybody involved: decision-makers left with a mega-puzzle, businesses left with a decreasing range of motion, and a public that has an increasingly hard time to pick up on how it all concerns them. This situation challenges trust in all directions – in a democracy, it also brings more volatility to the political status-quo. 

Helping the wider public to befriend the complexity of climate-related issues is crucial to empower independent opinion-building, critical thinking, and smart decision-making in democratic societies. After all, within their own range of activities, voters are also decision-makers; they make decisions daily in their work lives and for their businesses, their consumption and mobility habits, their lifestyles, their choice of sources of information, and their choice to trust certain politicians over others. Failure to grasp complexity with relation to the environment is detrimental to smart decision-making. On the other hand, to embrace complexity means a hugely enlarged freedom of choice for the individual. Thus, the implementation of change does not solely depend on ‘professional’ decision-makers who currently apply the same problem-solving and analysis techniques upon the climate puzzle that caused the problem in the first place. Accordingly, the crucial issue at hand is how to move beyond ‘we’ve always done it this way’ to see behind the complexity barrier. 

Understanding interrelatedness: the power of systems thinking 

Starting from the assumption that a lack of diversity at the decision-making level could be caused already by a lack of understanding in our education system, this online publication presents a variety of informative materials: firstly, an essay collection presented by distinguished experts and activists who challenge one-dimensional ways to think about climate problems. They suggest not to shy away from complexity but instead to welcome models that embrace complexity as a way to better and more responsible decision-making that integrates within a single three-dimensional space all that can be a healthy environment, and a healthy economy. The essays are complemented by a small collection of animated explainer videos, which summarize key arguments from the essay collection and are also a quick and easy tool to communicate why a smooth access to complexity is crucial to move forward with climate action.

The main tool explained in this publication, systems thinking, is based on the idea of interrelatedness of environmental and economic decision-making. In the systems thinking model, the common (“2D”) approach to imagining action and reaction, cause and effect as a linear chain of events, each of them with a clear beginning and end ( – must everything have a cause? To say ‘Yes’, we are left with a logical impossibility; for there can be no beginning if everything has a cause – ), is replaced by an interactive (“3D”) space of activity where any action is simultaneously connected to a multitude of other actions in the same space, connected through feedback loops. In the model, feedback loops replace the notion of singular cause-and-effect-chains with morphing networks of complex change impulses that reflect back on each other. It serves to visualize why so many problems seem to ping-pong back and forth between environmental and economic decision-making processes that destroy value (both in the sense of economic value and healthy environmental commons, as well as the access to both) along the way. To regard them both as an integrated single space – in more mathematical or modelling terms, we would actually be speaking of a sphere – of action from the very beginning would not only be a useful practice tool for a general acceptance of their interrelatedness, but also a prerequisite for the gradual development of more integrated solution-building. 

Consequently, in advancing action to decipher the climate puzzle, decision-makers (including also decision-makers of the future who are still very young today) need more certainty to move from the traditional methods of decision-making, problem solving and analysis to multidimensional methods. This will require a greater reliance upon practical and diverse experience rather than just academic and theoretical knowledge since sustainable systems thinking requires a vastly broader spectrum of knowledge that can reflect the real world. This does not mean all-knowing and all-seeing, but a practical background builds intuition and feel for what feedback loops will and won’t lead to a wanted result. Systemic thinking ignites imagination, a skill seldom used consequently in decision making. It also gives greater insight to know what questions to ask of experts to bring known and proven ideas and technologies together to deliver robust action today and not at some vague point in the future.

Applying systems thinking in complex decision-making: a real life example

To give only one example of the capacity-opening qualities of systemic thinking, let us recount a situation that required three dimensional systems thinking and a diverse team willing to embrace this kind of complexity:

Apollo 13 was launched April 11th, 1970. On board were astronauts James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert, and Fred W. Haise. Two days into the mission and 200,000 miles from Earth, oxygen tank No. 2 ruptured in the spacecraft. Swigert called mission control: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” The requisite supply of oxygen, electricity, light, and water had been seriously degraded. 

The astronauts and mission control were now faced with huge logistical problems: how to stabilise the spacecraft and its environment, as well as provide enough energy to bring it home with re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere – and all this to be achieved when navigation was now also another problem. 

The astronauts and teams at mission control had to come up with emergency procedures founded on a very clear and agreed outcome. Apollo 13‘s course was dramatically and repeatedly corrected with untested manoeuvres. Multiple issues were overcome simultaneously. For example, overcoming the broken environmental control unit to reduce CO2 in the cabin immediately and for the journey home. To achieve this outcome, they could use only what they had, which they integrated differently by understanding feedback loops. Odyssey, the damaged spacecraft – or mothership – continued to the moon, circled it, that it could be propelled on its a long journey back to Earth. On April 17th, tragedy turned to triumph as Apollo 13 with its compliment of astronauts touched down safely in the Pacific Ocean.

This was triumph based on leadership, cool heads, logical problem-solving minds and understanding of feedback loops – systems thinking in its pure form. For what was also vital to bring the mission home was to make not just any decision that prioritises certain parts of the system over others (in this example, it could have been the mission’s reputation, thus the needs of its marketing department) but to make sustainable decisions in the right order for a solution to work optimally, immediately, and with a long-lasting integrative effect that comprises as many parts of the system as possible.

3D thinking as mental training: integrating climate and the economy

A model does not have to be hypothetical. Obviously, decision-makers are not expected to be omniscient. But there is a skills gap with where many decision makers currently are and where they would need to be. And while we cannot expect that they think all relevant possible feedback loops through simultaneously and in their entirety, the attempt to do so is good practice for any individual who seeks to understand smart environmental decision-making. The idea of interconnectedness in the model challenges the subject to include a wider range of factors into their task-related decision-making. Adaptations may be small at first, but they can open up space for alternative ideas – change follows attention. Learning how to place our attention on bigger and more complex dimensions can train us, step by step, to think more complex in general. Complex thinking allows for more complex solutions- seeing the relationship between objects and patterns rather than just the objects and patterns themselves. It is a process, a tedious one perhaps, but a useful one. After all, we have to think sustainability in multidimensional ways: a sustainability climate strategy that doesn’t also include a sustainable economic strategy, for example, cannot function, and vice versa. It would not be sustainably viable.

Insights, and action founded on systems thinking, practical experience, diversity and feedback loops of and between decisions can serve to create climate, economic and social value at the intersection of functional problems and development of well-being, security, human rights, and economic resilience. Such action protects liberal values and shows how through those values, when harmonised and understood via the effect of feedback loops from the sphere economy, action can be accelerated toward an equitable, just, inclusive, fair, and authentic net-zero world. For example it enhances both the visibility and the need for collaboration to build upon the essential values of liberty, equality, and community where opportunity is for all. It can help to develop talents, foster diversity and nurture creativity sustained by a strong market economy that offers real choices to many. 

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