Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Pentagon, global warming, and the problem with reporting on gaming and scenario-based planning

A leaked report from the Pentagon on the subject of global warming has caused a stir recently. The article in the Guardian/Observer is headlined:

Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us

· Secret report warns of rioting and nuclear war
· Britain will be 'Siberian' in less than 20 years
· Threat to the world is greater than terrorism


Pretty scary sounding stuff. And coming from the Pentagon? That seems to give it even more credibility. But this incident is a pretty good example of a real problem that can affect gaming and other scenario-based forms of strategic planning. From the text of the article:

Climate change 'should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern', say the authors, Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network.

An imminent scenario of catastrophic climate change is 'plausible and would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately', they conclude. As early as next year widespread flooding by a rise in sea levels will create major upheaval for millions.

I haven't read the report itself. It does not appear to be available beyond the snippets contained in press coverage. But several points about the above quote should stand out, and have been completely lost in the coverage. First, Peter Schwartz is best known for his work on scenario-based planning, as I mentioned here when discussing his book, The Art of the Long View. I don't know anything about Doug Randall, but I believe the Global Business Network where he works was started by Schwartz after he left Royal Dutch/Shell. That, and the language in the next paragraph about the "imminent scenario of catastrophic climate change" suggest that the report itself was written as a form of scenario-based planning document, probably along similar lines to the sort of thing found in Schwartz's book.

If that is the case, the press is getting the story very wrong. A scenario, in this process, is a tool for considering possible futures and open planners' eyes to potential shifts away from their main-line analysis, not for predicting specific events. By considering multiple plausible scenarios, the planning organization can work to be prepared for any one of them, and can get a better understanding of how certain actions that seem desirable in one scenario might prove problematic in another. These scenarios are researched and detailed, but are not scientific documents or predictions, and it is wrong to present them as such. They are, in the words of the book's introduction, "designed (one hopes) to bring forward surprises and unexpected leaps of understanding." They are also generally presented in groups, so that the planning organization can look across different plausible futures.

So, what does that mean for this report? It sounds like the events picked up on by the Guardian/Observer were part of one particular scenario within a broader document. Certainly, the point of the report might have been that there needs to be some serious consideration given to the potential for disasters like the ones in the scenario, but that's a far cry from saying that these specific things will happen. Things like them could happen, and it behooves any huge organization engaged in long-term planning (such as the Pentagon) to consider what the actions they take today would look like in a variety of futures, including one in which climate change effects dramatic shifts on world security concerns. That seems like a reasonable statement. But that's not the story the press told in this case.

This highlights a concern that could arise in the context of gaming out possible futures, or in other efforts to use scenario-based planning. It can be important to consider the extreme case, and looking for radical discontinuities and unexpected shifts is difficult work, so a process involving scenario-based planning could produce plenty of dire-sounding projections that might be reported as forecasts rather than what they really are: parts of a larger project of strategic planning. This lack of context is a problem, because it might inhibit the use of these helpful planning tools for fear of leaks or bad press. It's important for the Pentagon and the rest of the national security community to be open to multiple possibilities about the future, and this is an effort that should be encouraged. This is not to say that I think there's a simple fix here; it's natural for the press to jump on things that seem controversial or explosive, but it might be just that kind of controversial scenario that is necessary to promote a better understanding of the deep uncertainty that surrounds the future. This seems like a genuine problem for this kind of planning effort.

1 comment:

Constanze said...

Hi Tim,

interesting, thanks for digging tis out! I think I have found the link to the full report: http://www.grist.org/pdf/AbruptClimateChange2003.pdf,
and you are quite right in your analysis: "We have interviewed leading climate change scientists, conducted additional research, and reviewed several iterations of the scenario with these experts. The scientists support this project, but caution that the scenario depicted is extreme in two fundamental ways. First, they suggest the occurrences we outline would most likely happen in a few regions, rather than on globally. Second, they say the magnitude of the event may be considerably smaller." Plus, the report is actually from 2003 (!), so you really wonder how a quality newspaper can come up with such a shaky story...