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Why is Knowledge Management Key?

Climate change can officially be characterized as “too big to follow.” Dozens of websites send out great climate-related news, many of them through daily email blasts. Hundreds of climate blogs spread various climate perspectives, each hoping to present “the” key insight that would help solve climate change if only everyone would listen. Several new climate books appear every month. Numerous reports and journal publications appear every week, and dozens of climate stories circulate through our Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn networks every day. We’re engulfed by a cacophony of “climate noise.” As John Naisbitt puts it:

What if anyone working on or worried about climate change could take advantage of today’s collective knowledge about the nature of the climate change problem, and how to solve it? In other words, as expressed in the slide above, what if anyone could “know what we [collectively] know” about tackling climate change by taking advantage of the ideas being “worn shiny” by the work of so many experts? 

Can knowledge management really help advance climate goals? Can it get past the siloing of climate conversations, and the perception that we’re all just “too busy” to do things differently? In discussing the Climate Web with a leading sustainability expert, his response was: “I already know everything I need to know; why would I need knowledge management?” That response in and of itself helps explain why we are where we are today on climate change, where no one can possibly know all we need to know.  

In 2015 the Climate Knowledge Brokers Manifesto noted: 

“Human beings are facing up to an unprecedented challenge with climate change; one that impacts on the most basic systems we have created for our survival – agriculture, water and energy use – as well as the places in which we live and our quality of life. Our decision making is likely to become increasingly climate constrained.”

Unfortunately, climate change knowledge management is a lot more challenging than “run of the mill” knowledge management. To begin with, what even constitutes climate knowledge today? It’s far more than just climate science. It’s carbon pricing, scenario planning, climate litigation, low-carbon futures, national security, disruptive technologies, physical and policy tipping points, climate ethics, public beliefs, public policy, climate economics, and the social cost of carbon — to name just a few that come immediately to mind.

Then there is the very practical problem, even as we recognize the need for better informed climate change decision-making and emphasize the importance of knowledge networks that very few people have any incentive to promote knowledge management. The vast majority of professionals involved with climate change issues, and who are knowledgeable enough themselves to potentially contribute to climate knowledge management, are incentivized to produce information, not manage information into actionable knowledge. Academics, journalists, and others are in effect charged with adding to the cacophony of climate noise, not managing it. 

But perhaps the biggest challenge, and one rarely acknowledged, is what Margaret Heffernan discusses in her 2011 book “Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril,” noting that even good information doesn’t necessarily lead us to see what’s right in front of us. When it comes to climate change, her prognosis is bleak indeed:

The reality is, that even as we bemoan climate information overload, we also actively hide behind it. In the face of a daily tsunami of climate information, it’s very easy to let in only “comfortable” information that tends to confirm our beliefs, our thinking, and our actions. Focusing on this sliver of the total information panorama takes less time, requires less thinking and information processing, and helps stoke whatever fires that keep us motivated. It’s a perfectly natural human response to the challenge.

It’s also a real problem for informed climate decision-making. Overwhelming levels of climate noise impede climate progress because it becomes so difficult to separate the signal from the noise. We can’t decipher what’s really important, what’s working and what’s not, and what opportunities for climate progress are most viable at any given moment. Indeed, in the face of so much information, we’re less inclined to even try. One result is that we can each feel better about whatever we’re doing to address climate change, even as we recognize intellectually that we’re collectively failing to significantly shift the course of climate change from business as usual forecasts.

Looking forward, the 2015 Climate Knowledge Brokers Manifesto notes:

“Many more people will need to make use of climate knowledge in the future to support them in making their decisions. We understand that these users of climate knowledge require access to high quality information that is tailored to their specific circumstances. This includes a synthesis of relevant climate information, contextualised with an understanding of their sector and locality.”

The Climatographers do not see the goal of knowledge management when it comes to climate change as being to answer all the questions that exist. Instead, it allows you to navigate a huge amount of curated information across hundreds of climate topics, digging as deeply as you want into individual topics, as part of the process of arriving actionable knowledge that helps you.  

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