SI Series 10: The Complex Social Problem of Climate Change

One of the largest complex social problems of our time, is climate change. It’s a ‘social’ problem, because it’s human designed social structures that are the cause (IPCC, 2014). Complex social problems that cause climate change are interdisciplinary, involving facets that are addressed across fields and domains. They are dynamic in nature, often multi-defined, difficult to analyse, predict or handle, and have a large control over parts of society (DeTombe, 2001). Different levels of governments need to be involved in complex social problems, including non-governmental organisations as well as the for-profit and private sector in solution-oriented processes for change.

Considering that the societal aspect of climate change (the cause) is not distinct from the environmental effect (impact on biophysical systems), climate change may be perceived as joint social-environmental systems[1] (social systems as they relate to biophysical environmental systems such as ecology and meteorology). Thus, how we deal with climate change must also be seen through this lens; societal design and organisation along with environmental resource management needs to be approached in a cohesive manner, where environmental resource management is intricately and reciprocally cross-organised with social systems management. This suggests that although environmental resource management “can draw on the information gained from sectoral expertise, it needs to adopt a systems approach that accounts for different sectors, as well as the ecological and social dimensions of ecosystems, in an integrated way” (Biggs et al., 2010, p. 2). Social-environmental systems need an adaptive and collaborative approach which interlinks and has multiple scales. Seeing as many biophysical environmental systems interface with social systems, and the human interaction in both are already managed by policies developed in a societal context, we need to significantly change our perspective of the relationship between them in order to be effective in creating deep environmental and social harmony, sustainability and reduction to the cause of climate change. Appropriate stakeholders, such as local indigenous communities, social justice advocates, environmental think thanks, small business communities, among others across fields and domains, need to be consulted. Due to the uncertainty in complex systems, a participatory approach in decision-making is essential (Biggs et al., 2010).

Systems thinking is necessary, which can be defined as thinking that seeks to “develop a more holistic view of relationships within and between systems and to strive to link knowledge and theory more closely with the realities of everyday life” (Roome, 2013, p. 303). It promotes innovation in knowledge creation, worldview modification, and a new paradigm for development based on change. The classic sociologist Schumpter (1942) suggests in his works that the process of creative destruction is a necessary element of innovative change, which implies that all systems in their natural development continuously destroy the old one, and in doing so or because of, continually create a new one. He argued that “environmental problems inherently calls for innovation, as most of them are caused by the outdated applications of old, polluting and inefficient technology” (McEwen, 2013, p. 269).

A system innovation then, is one that uses creativity to implement ideas in greatly changing the prevailing social-environmental system, as well as the interrelated sub-problems that are usually associated with it. Such system innovations usually are comprised of the accrual of other innovations within separate domains, together prompting the emergence of systems change. However, system innovations are not optimizations, which typically retrofit or upgrade existing systems in incremental changes to the dominant norm. System optimization as a result often has immediate, but not long-lasting effects. System innovation is novel, and as a result of the necessity to implement change within associated sub-systems tends to take time (Fig. 1).

system innovation

Figure 1. Improvements in environmental efficiency for different types of system change. Taken from Andrew & Klein (2010, p. 67).

An example of a system innovation seeking to reduce environmental impact is the integrated mobility within transportation modes in Calgary. Calgary’s environmental footprint has been noted as one of the highest in the world (Environmental and Safety Management, 2011). New bike lanes are being integrated in a traditionally auto-centrically designed urban layout and a new street-level light rail transit (LRT) system is being introduced. In this example changes are being implemented in technology (LRT), in infrastructure (urban design of bike lanes, road changes, and LRT lines) as well as in social organisation (bike lane education and awareness programs). Environmental footprint reduction can only occur with the integration of all components.

If we’re going to impact climate change we need to alter our human designed social structures, through social innovation, and not just technological (or even ecological) innovations. This is not just an ‘out there’ change to social structures that governments implement through policy, but also through internal social structures in terms of belief systems, habitual behaviour, values and judgement.

– Mike Unrau


Andrew, C. & Klein, J. L. (2010). Social innovation: What it is and why is it important to understand it better (Report prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation). Collection Études théoriques, no ET1003. Retrieved from

Biggs, R.; Westley, F. & Carpenter, S. R. (2010). Navigating the back loop: fostering social innovation and transformation in ecosystem management. Ecology and Society, 15(2): 9. Retrieved from

DeTombe, D. J. (2001). Compram, a method for handling complex social problems. European Journal of Operational Research, 128, 266-281.

Environmental and Safety Management, The City of Calgary (2011). 2010 state of the environment report: 4th edition. Retrieved from

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2014). Climate change 2014: Synthesis report, summary for policymakers. Contribution of working groups I, II and III to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved from

McEwen, T. (2013). Ecopreneurship as a solution to environmental problems: Implications for college level entrepreneurship education. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, 3(5), 264-288.

Roome, N. J. (2013). Sustainable development: Social innovation at the interface of business, society and ecology. In T. Osburg & R. Schmidepter (Eds.), Social innovation: Solutions for a sustainable future (pp. 299-308). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer Heidelberg.

Schumpeter, J. (1942). Capitalism, socialism and democracy. New York: Harper

Westley, F. (2013). Social innovation and resilience: How one enhances the other. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 11(3), 6-8. Retrieved from


[1] A similar notion to ‘social-ecological systems’ as described by Westley (2013).

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