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To win against climate change we need to up our Climate Chess game – a lot!



In trying to address climate change we’re engaged (knowingly or unknowingly) in the ultimate global board game: Climate Chess. Lots of players, lots of pieces, lots of strategies, all engaged in largely independent efforts to accelerate (Team Climate Urgency) or decelerate (Team Climate No-Urgency) the transition to a low-carbon society and everything that goes along with such a transition. 

Each new analysis concludes that we are not winning the game based on the Climate Chess 1.0 playbook. There is forward movement on the board — but nothing to suggest that we’ll win the game in time to avoid immensely damaging levels of climate change and ocean acidification.

The “wicked problem” nature of climate change is well understood and has been extremely well documented:

  • Climate change results from an economic externality of unprecedented global magnitude.
  • Climate change stems from a “tragedy of the commons” in which no single entity is responsible.
  • The relative contribution of different countries and regions to the climate problem is shifting.
  • Our biological “risk brains” have not sufficiently evolved to address a problem like climate change; when it comes to perceiving risk we’re still "looking for lions in the Serengeti."
  • Most of us actually benefit from the fossil fuel status quo, creating rampant “cognitive dissonance” in efforts to change it.


To deal with this kind of wicked problem, we need to move to a Climate Chess 2.0 playbook. That means systematically studying the players, the board pieces, and the strategies being pursued. It means exploring how different pieces and strategies can act synergistically. It means constantly looking for and quickly reacting to opportunities for forward movement of important pieces. It means thinking both strategically and tactically to accomplish a low-carbon transition before ruinous levels of climate change. It means changing how we’re playing the game, and moving to a Climate Chess 2.0 playbook! 

What actions do you propose?

The maxim that “generals are always best prepared to fight the last war” applies equally well to climate change. Efforts over the last 30 years to address climate change have largely followed the same playbook as efforts to address prior environmental issues, from rivers on fire (leading to the Clean Water Act) to the ozone hole (leading to the Montreal Protocol). But climate change is a different kind of “wicked problem.” Climate Chess is a useful metaphor because it intuitively calls up notions of multiple players, pieces, rules, and strategies, which is how we need to think about the "ultimate wicked problem." 

The current status quo is not for lack of trying to change course. An incredible diversity of individuals, non-governmental organizations, companies, and policy-makers are pursuing initiatives they hope will accelerate a low-carbon transition, including:

  • Internal corporate carbon pricing experiments
  • Promoting public scientific literacy
  • Teaching scientists to communicate with the public
  • Encouraging personal behavior change
  • Developing and deploying new technologies
  • Local, state, and national policy advocacy
  • Research into the cognitive psychology of climate risk perception
  • Building a social climate change movement
  • Investor activism including fossil fuel divestment
  • Continued scientific research into climate change
  • Climate change story-telling, from climate poetry to climate fiction
  • Political campaign finance reform
  • Corporate risk disclosure and reporting


Indeed, there are all kinds of disciplinary "roadmaps" for how we can solve the climate change problem, many suggesting relatively simple solutions:  "All we have to do is . . . . ."  Engineers have one, foresters, economists, and international relations have others. But one thing we should have learned from the last 30 years of climate change mitigation efforts is that the problem is more complex than that, and we will not be successful based simply on the efforts of policy analysts, political scientists, engineers and technology developers, economists, or cognitive psychologists, no matter how convincing their individual roadmaps.

The Climate Chess 1.0 playbook is based on Adam Smith’s principle of the “invisible hand,” suggesting that somehow all of the diverse efforts to address climate change will miraculously coordinate to create a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. Over the long-term this is probably a viable strategy in that transitioning to a low-carbon system is inevitable. The problem is that climate change isn't waiting for Adam Smith's hand, and by the time the Climate Chess 1.0 playbook has a chance to succeed we will likely have committed to 3,4, 5, or even 6 degrees Centigrade of climate change, and everything that will come with it.  

Even though we are all playing Climate Chess 1.0, most people involved in the game don’t know what pieces are on the board, how many times their piece might be replicated on the board, or who’s working on other pieces. In isolation, each piece in today’s Climate Chess 1.0 game faces insuperable odds in reaching “checkmate.” It’s easy to call for “better cooperation” among the pieces; but that is much harder than it looks. Different pieces draw upon areas of disciplinary expertise, with different rules and vocabularies, and with little natural communication between them. To make matters worse, each individual piece is overwhelmed by virtually infinite information specific to its discipline. In practical terms, the individual chess pieces on today’s Climate Chess game board are simply not getting together to write a new (and winning) Climate Chess 2.0 playbook, no matter how frustrated they all are with Climate Chess 1.0 outcomes.

Action #1: Understand and Track the Chess Board

What if a core set of chess players could effectively track:

  • The key players on each side of the board?
  • The chess pieces in play, and those that are missing?
  • The strengths and weaknesses of each piece?
  • What barriers and successes individual pieces are encountering?
  • What players and pieces been most successful on the board;
  • How those successes be most effectively scaled, expanded, replicated, leveraged?
  • Where real breakthroughs possible if adequately supported?


These are big "what if" questions, and they are complicated by the reality of Sharon Salzberg’s comment: “Life is like an ever shifting kaleidoscope; A slight change, and all patterns alter.” She wasn’t intentionally referring to Climate Chess, but the metaphor fits. As pieces move around the Climate Chess game board, “all patterns alter.” But to take advantage of that fact, Team Climate Urgency has to be watching for and tracking the changes, and be positioned to take quick advantage of them. That requires a focused Climate Chess 2.0 knowledge management system.

The Climate Chess 2.0 knowledge system is well underway as part of the Climate Web project. You can explore Team Climate Urgency and Team Climate No-Urgency.  You can explore many of Team Urgency's players, their motivations (there are many), and the pieces in play.   (Note: you can explore a great deal in the Climate Web but to do so you may want to take advantage of the help videos and the Training Brain that can quickly bring you up to speed on the software platform). The Climate Web already demonstrates how Climate Chess 2.0 players can be supported in playing Climate Chess 2.0, but that has not been the primary objective of developing the Climate Web to date, and more work will be required to generate the full Climate Chess 2.0 playbook.   

Action #2:  Assemble the Team and Resources

Identifying, evaluating, and acting upon key chessboard opportunities requires a knowledge management system focused on the chessboard as described above. It also requires the right team of people focused on advancing the objectives of Climate Chess 2.0, namely accelerating the transition to a low-carbon system. It is not necessary to have a large team; even 5 people could form the core group of cross-disciplinary expertise and networks to demonstrate the potential of Climate Chess 2.0. Those 5 people can leverage much larger “expert networks” as needed to evaluate and act upon opportunities to identify and act upon opportunities appearing on the chess board. Over time, this team would benefit from additional personnel to be able to extend its capabilities into more disciplines and geographic areas.

Financial resources are also critical to successfully playing Climate Chess 2.0. The Climate Chess team needs to be able to respond to opportunities as they appear, and many opportunities may offer only short windows to act most effectively. Climate Chess 2.0 could be demonstrated with modest resources, initially in the millions of dollars, but over time much larger resources would need to be allocated to really demonstrate an impact on outcomes. In many cases, these funds could leverage other funds and not have to carry the full weight of acting upon the identified opportunity on the chessboard.  Monitoring and learning from moves previously made would also be critical to the long-term success of the team. 

The work of Team Climate Urgency would be most effective if carried out largely behind the scenes in order to avoid deployment of a similar effort by Team Climate No-Urgency.  That said, it is arguably true that an effort much like what is described here is already underway with Team Climate No-Urgency, and that that helps explain why progress on the goal of a low-carbon transition has been so slow in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and concern.  

Action #3:   Deploy the Resources

It is impossible to know in advance exactly what opportunities will arise at a given time that would most effectively advance the objectives of Climate Chess 2.0. Available opportunities will constantly shift in the face of political, economic, and social changes. Carefully targeted interventions in the right place and at the right time will maximize the impact of available resources. Such interventions could include, for example, science literacy programs or school-board elections in a key region, technology demonstration efforts for a new breakthrough technology, or supporting new best practice risk disclosure requirements. With the right core team, resources can be much more quickly and effectively deployed than is generally possible today in the Climate Chess 1.0 environment.  

Who will take these actions?

Climate Chess will make it possible for many climate change proposals and ideas to be acted upon more rapidly, at greater scale, and (hopefully) with greater success than we see happening today. To specifically identify intended chess moves in advance runs counter to the whole idea of Climate Chess 2.0 as reacting to an always shifting game board, on which the opportunities for successful moves are also shifting.

Where will these actions be taken?

The locations of chess moves could be anywhere. However, demonstrating Climate Chess 2.0 would likely be most effective if initially geographically limited, e.g. to the United States. Expansion of the geographic scope would be accomplished as soon as practical given team size and capabilities. 

How will these actions have a high impact in addressing climate change?

Climate Chess 2.0 represents a radical strategic departure from most current efforts to address climate change, and specifically projecting emissions reduction impacts is not possible. The whole idea behind Climate Chess 2.0 is to get away from focusing only on individual actions taken in isolation of the rest of the game board. Instead, we need to think about addressing climate change as a complex system in its own right. Outcomes in complex systems are notoriously hard to predict, but ignoring the fact that you are operating in a complex system (which is what many mitigation efforts do today) doesn’t make the outcomes any more predictable.

What are other key benefits?

Climate Chess 2.0 specifically focuses on addressing climate change. There could be many co-benefits, however, from any individual initiatives the Climate Chess team pursues. There also would be co-benefits associated with demonstrating an improved model for addressing climate change.

What are the proposal’s costs?

Developing and maintaining the Climate Chess team requires a minimum annual budget of $500,000 to fund five core positions, cover necessary administrative costs, and cover minimal travel and other expensive. A $1 million dollar annual budget would increase team effectiveness, particularly in terms of being able to leverage outside expertise to help advance Climate Chess 2.0 objectives. A $10 million initial “chess fund” would allow the chess team to rapidly respond to a range of key Climate Chess 2.0 opportunities and demonstrate the model in the near term. Over time a much larger fund would be needed to significantly shift outcomes on the game board. 

Time line

Month 1-3  Sell the concept and raise an adequate “chess fund” for demonstration purposes

Month 3-6  Assemble the core members of Team Climate Urgency.

Month 3-6  Expand the Climate Web’s knowledge tracking system to help identify and support opportunities on the chessboard

Month 6-18 Initial demonstration and evaluation of Team Climate Urgency’s performance and impact 

Years 2-10  Prove the model toward more successfully addressing climate change with an expanded Team Climate Urgency and Climate Chess 2.0 fund. 

Related proposals

The “Climate Change Actionable Knowledge” Climate CoLab proposal relates to this proposal. To most effectively play Climate Chess, one needs a knowledge management system through which to track players and pieces on the chess board. The Climate Web offers the framework of such a system. Expanding the Climate Web as proposed in the related proposal would advance the objectives of this Climate Chess proposal. The proposals are related, but not mutually exclusive; using the Climate Web to play Climate Chess 2.0 is a specific application of the Climate Web, and requires its own focus. 

New Climate Magazine - different medium, but similar goals as those built into Climate Chess 2.0 

New Climate Magazine: Learning to live on a changing planet


The literature on societal difficulties and problems facing efforts to address climate change is immense, as is the literature on the need for strategic efforts to develop new technologies, better communication strategies, incentivize behavior change, and more. These literatures are too large to really explore here, although you can link to several of them in the Climate Web below (in the Climate Web hovering your mouse over the thumbnails that may exist to the left of thoughts will cause them to pop up to full size). 

Climate Communication How-To Literature

Behavior Change Literature

Knowledge Management Deep Dive

Note that the Climate Web has a comprehensive Index through which you can enter, as well as Help Videos and a Hands-On Training Brain to bring you up to speed.