Climate Chess is not a board game you can buy on Amazon; it represents a strategy for coordinating the efforts of climate advocates, and for scaling individual actions into collective outcomes.

Serious discussion of human-caused global warming as a societal risk dates back to at least 1957. Even industry recognized the need for change, with Exxon’s Director of Research noting in 1980 that a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewables would likely be necessary. So when climate scientist James Hansen testified before Congress in 1988 that climate change had arrived, you might have thought that coordinated action against global warming would quickly be forthcoming. It wasn’t.

30 years of mitigation

Fast forward to 2021. As shown in the slide above, CO2 emissions have risen dramatically over the last 30 years, and the average global temperature has already increased by more than 1o Centigrade. That may not sound like much, but consider that each 1 degree of change in the earth’s average temperature has historically been associated with 60 feet of global sea level change.

So what happened? Why didn’t we “solve” global warming the same way the global community acted nationally and internationally with regard to acid rain and the ozone hole? Hundreds of international meetings have been held. Global decision-makers agreed to avoid “dangerous” climate change, and a plethora of policies and measures have been passed at national, regional, and local levels. Meanwhile, efforts continue to mobilize voluntary action by the world’s business community, investor community, and even individual citizens.

Make no mistake, climate change was never going to be easy. It’s a “wicked problem, and the human brain isn’t good at tackling wicked problems.


Humans just haven’t had the time to evolve the new skills needed to effectively perceive and respond to wicked problems. So it has always been clear that climate change was going to be a much tougher nut to crack than acid rain or the ozone hole.

So where should we go from here? Continue down the same paths we’ve pursued for the last 30 years?


Climate Chess - An Alternative Approach

When major fossil fuel industry players launched the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) in 1989, it rapidly turned into a leading voice for questioning climate science and for seeking to delay climate policies. The GCC signaled the start of Climate Chess, with Team No-Urgency seeking to interfere with the goals of Team Urgency with respect to tackling climate change.

Team No-Urgency has dominated the climate chessboard for the last 30 years. In part because Team No-Urgency has the much easier objective of defending the status quo, while Team Urgency’s objective is systemic change.

But it’s also arguably the case that Team Urgency has simply never played up to its potential, and has simply been out-matched by Team No-Urgency. Here are some examples:

  • First, as expert communicator Randy Olson has noted, there has never been a cohesive “climate message” to unite Team Urgency. All kinds of messages have been tried.

    • Climate change is an emergency!
    • Climate change is the biggest opportunity of all time!
    • It’s up to government to tackle climate change!
    • It’s up to business to tackle climate change!
    • It’s up to individuals to tackle climate change!
      Confused yet?
  • Second, hundreds of “climate silos” operate largely independently in trying to tackle climate change, even competing with each other for attention and resources, rather than pulling together and effectively collaborating as Team Urgency.

  • Third, business support for Team Urgency has been largely missing in action. As U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse noted as recently as 2020, “there is no company that shows up in Congress on climate, except maybe Patagonia.”      

  • Last but not least, 100 million individuals in the United States alone identify as alarmed or concerned about climate change, but have virtually NO idea how to effectively support the objectives of Team Urgency.

What if Team Urgency had come together in a coordinated and strategic way more than 30 years ago when Team No-Urgency got its start. What if Team Urgency, even today, could figure out how to leverage the resources and capabilities of the 100 million Americans alarmed or concerned about climate change? How different might the future end up being, as compared to the 2.5o to 4o of average global temperature change being forecast today.

The Climate Web and Climate Chess

The Climate Web is a climate change knowledge solution that can help “Team Urgency” play better Climate Chess, based on the work of thousands of individuals over the last 30 years. The Climate Web is open access and easy to learn, but it can be somewhat intimidating to new users. You can click on the links at right to dig deeper into the structure and capabilities of the Climate Web.

Our Climate Chess Climate Site extracts information from the Climate Web into a more typical website format for easier reference. You can click on the links to the top right of this page, for example, to work your way through the contents of this Climate Site. The bullets below summarize the point of each page.

  • It’s a Wicked Problem - explores why climate change has proven so hard to tackle.

  • Individual vs. Collective Action - digs into the longest-standing argument when it comes to how to tackle climate change.

  • Climate Chess - A Better Metaphor - compares the idea of Climate Chess to an alternative metaphor for tackling climate change, a 1,000,000 piece Jigsaw Puzzle.

  • Just Two Teams? - given the number of constituencies involved, how can we frame climate change as a two-team game?

  • Team "Climate No Urgency" - introduces Team No-Urgency, which has been winning the game of Climate Chess for decades.

  • Team "Climate Urgency" - introduces the idea of Team Urgency, even though it’s not clear it really exists today.

  • A Team Urgency Nerve Center - what’s needed to make Team Urgency up its game??

  • A Winning Climate Chess Strategy - how could millions of individuals be guided to undertake actions that would have result in successful Climate Chess outcomes

The Genesis of Climate Chess

The Climatographers first used the term Climate Chess in 2015, but the idea goes farther back than that:

  • In 2013, one of the best climate publications of that year was Jonathan Rowson’s A New Agenda on Climate Change. As it happens Jonathan Rowson is also a Chess Grand-Master, and the association of chess and climate change has always stuck with the Climatographers.

  • In 2008, Australian cartoonist Neil Matterson penned a great cartoon depicting a 1,000,000 piece climate change jigsaw puzzle (you’ll see it on a later page). We loved the idea and used it extensively, but could never quite come to terms with how you’re supposed to put together a jigsaw puzzle when you don’t know what the final “picture” is supposed to look like. In fact, that was the genesis of the name “Climatographer,” combining climate change and cartography, and referring to the fact that efforts to tackle climate change are complicated by the absence of a map showing the way forward.

  • In the 1983 movie War Games, a military supercomputer named Joshua realizes that, like tic-tac-toe, nuclear war is unwinnable. We think Joshua would have come to the same conclusion if it had been simulating the impacts of climate change. We love the idea that “the only winning move is not to play.” At which point Joshua loses interest and asks his programmer (Professor Falken): “How about a nice game of chess?” Again, the association between wicked problems and chess has always stuck with us.

  • Going back even further is the Climatographer’s interest in science fiction, including in particular Catherine Asaro's Skolian Empire series. In the series, the more numerous and evil Eubians are trying to wipe out the Skolians. The only thing preventing that outcome is the “psiberweb,” a galactic communications net powered by the minds of the Skolian royal family. The psiberweb allows Skolian forces to communicate instantly across space, giving the Skolians a real-time picture of everything going, while the Traders are limited to slower communications methods. That “bigger picture” understanding allows the Skolians to keep the Eubians at bay, notwithstanding their vastly superior numbers. The Climatographers have envisioned the Climate Web as a climate change “psiberweb,” allowing Team Urgency to more effectively compete with the more numerous and more powerful Team No-Urgency in playing Climate Chess.

As with all our climate LEGO kits, you can dig a lot deeper into the topic in the Climate Web.

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