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It Is Just a Lack of Political Will

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 4:09 PM GMT on June 04, 2016

It Is Just a Lack of Political Will

Political Will. I feel a little like John Oliver, I now need a picture of a politician named Will. Don’t seem to make it past Mr. Clinton.

Political Will. I often hear the statement that climate change could be solved, easily perhaps, if we only had political will. The statement, sometimes, comes from scientists. Usually, I think the statement is in the spirit of - the science and technology, the hard work, are in place, and it is only a matter of political will, the easy work, to act on that knowledge. Other times it seems a statement on a lack of courage, strength, moral character, or leadership.

My experience, political will, or better, when solving complex problems, political, operational, social, and emotional barriers are far more difficult to overcome than scientific and technical barriers. Take even a small problem, for example, a team building a new way to represent clouds in a climate model. This would be a piece of software. Politically, we might have different agencies and program managers funding the scientists and software engineers building the software. They have interest in their work being used and recognized. Operationally, the new cloud software has to fit in with a lot of other pieces of software and produce a better product, such as a forecast. Also, it has to run on the computer in a certain amount of time. Socially, we have to consider how organizations and individuals work together such that they are vested in the success of the product. Emotionally, some scientists identify with the old algorithm, some scientists identify with the new; there are winners and losers, good and bad feelings.

As soon as there are multiple groups of organizations and individuals, there is a need to balance interests and priorities. It is rarely a case when there is a scientific development that is so compelling that there is an easy decision. I am an advocate of evidence-based decision meeting, but evidence comes from many different sources; evidence can be full of contradictions.

Political will, leadership – it is not easy. A couple of weeks ago I heard a talk by David Levinson the Program Leader at the US Forest Service, National Stream and Aquatic Ecology Center. He was talking about the ongoing recovery from the floods in Colorado in 2013. As roads and rivers are rebuilt, there is a desire to build in resilience to climate change. Some want to give priorities to ecosystem restoration. Others want to harden the roadbeds. Others are concerned about managing water, drought-flood, for cities, or agriculture, or industry. Then there are those thinking about a warming climate and how to manage the temperature of the water for spawning fish. There is the mounting evidence of more extreme precipitation events. There are dam haters and dam lovers. Even restricting consideration to a narrow range of issues, all of the constituencies have science on their sides. Any solution reached is a balance of well-founded priorities. The biggest barriers to finding solutions are not science, technology, methods, or practice; the barriers are political, operational, social, and emotional. To find solutions depends on leadership – political will.

Compared to the problem of completely changing our world’s energy system, managing a small Colorado river’s watershed is, perhaps, trivial. One can imagine, in the case of the river in Colorado, getting together all of the parties. There might be local and regional mandates and regulation that compel the parties to get together. Though each federal, state, county, and city might have different needs and rules, it is possible to imagine those tensions being bound together in some sort of manageable group. Regional mandates and political possibility, perhaps, contribute to the emergence of political will.

Looking into the writings of those who write about political will, it is often invoked in its absence; that is, political will is missing, hence something important is not occurring. But what is political will?

Partly because it is freely available, I reference a World Bank publication, Governance Reform Under Real-World Conditions: Citizens, Stakeholders, and Voice. This is a document that compiles studies of successes and failures in development and government reform, and provides information that might be in the category of how can we bring about needed changes more quickly. Part II of the document is, Securing Political Will. Based on my, admittedly naïve knowledge, Lori Ann Post is a name that I keep running across. Professor Post is the lead author of Chapter 7: Using Public Will to Create Political Will.

Post, in this and other works, strives to define political will, and maintains that methods and practices to secure political will exist. From the chapter referenced above, “Securing political will is a complicated and challenging endeavor that involves securing public will, but one that is possible if enacted correctly through media gatekeepers, segments of the population, and politicians. Political leaders want to secure public will to solve problems and control situations.”

One aspect of Post’s work that I find especially interesting is the discussion of exactly what is political will. Seemingly political will is a term most often used by interest and advocacy groups to call out failures of leaders to make the changes that those groups want to occur. It is like the groups invoke a lack of political will (courage? arrogance?) to trump all other interests in favor of their issue. More rationally perhaps, Post states, “political will can be thought of as support from political leaders that results in policy change.”

Post and many other authors in the World Bank document describe a process of change and reform for societal benefit. What becomes obvious is the need for sustained work of building support and respecting the positions that the different parties have in the outcomes of any policy change. The amount of time that is required for such changes to occur is long, and our goal should be how to organize and manage in a way that accelerates change. It is not, therefore, that we need to find a magical nugget of political will, a champion, courage, but rather we need to understand what is needed for political will to evolve to the point that change can occur.


Here is a set of relevant readings where political will is in play:

Wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world's energy, eliminating all fossil fuels. Here's how

Vox: Here’s what it would take for the US to run on 100% renewable energy

Whose Will Constitutes ‘Political Will?’

Political Will: What is it? How is it measured?

Climate Change Politics Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.