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It’s Time To Start Red Teaming Climate Change

Dec 08, 2021

I know that political observers are calling the UN’s COP26 climate summit a success, at least judged by the modest yardstick of the progress made by the world’s governments in recent years. However, while substantial progress was made in Glasgow, it was not nearly enough to slow the pace of global warming to the level scientists say is necessary to stop catastrophic climate change. That’s why, as I listened to the news this week, I was reminded of a speech Winston Churchill gave to the House of Commons in May 1935:

When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the Sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.

Churchill was speaking, of course, about the need for Britain to rearm in the face of the growing fascist threat, but every single word he said is as true now in the face of this challenge as it was then in the face of that one.

When I started working on my book Red Teaming seven years ago this month, it was to combat this want of foresight, this lack of clear thinking, this confusion of counsel that is as common in business as it is in government. The decision-support red teaming methodology I described in that book was created by the military and intelligence agencies to cope with an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous operating environment and the sort of wicked problems that yields.

There is no more wicked problem than climate change.

Around the globe, water sources are drying up, storms are getting fiercer and more destructive, coastal areas are flooding, and wildfires are burning with unprecedented intensity and spread. The means of addressing these problems are well understood: reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and halting the destruction of rainforests.

Those steps are as clear and unambiguous as producing planes, tanks, and guns was back in the 1930s.

Yet, doing these things is hard. It requires a level of political will that most nations are unable, or at least unwilling, to muster. It requires companies to adjust their business models and consumers to alter their behavior. When compared to asking a people who had lost more than a million sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands in a great war just a few years before to rearm and prepare for another one, that might not seem like such a daunting task. Sadly, in our softer age, it is.

The problem, then, is not what to do about climate change, but how to do it.

I believe red teaming can help. The contrarian and critical thinking techniques it employs can help policymakers not only uncover the weaknesses in their current strategies, but also develop new outside-the-box options to consider. Other red teaming tools can help political leaders understand how different constituencies are likely to react to these options and tailor them to proactively address potential objections and increase the likelihood that they will be accepted, if not embraced. And the liberating structures offered by red teaming can encourage the diversity of thought that is so clearly lacking in this arena today.

Governments have been using red teaming for years to wage war and counter terrorist threats. It is time for them to start red teaming climate change as well.

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