April 8, 2019

Climate Resiliency Strategy and Tactics

Joel Nodelman

About the Author

Joel is an engineer and risk management specialist with over forty years of professional practice. He is committed to helping his clients achieve climate resiliency and sustainability.

Climate resiliency strategy and tactics are different things, but both are necessary.

We must apply both rational strategies and pragmatic tactics to set the course to climate resiliency.

Vision without action is a daydream. Action with without vision is a nightmare.

– Japanese Proverb – 

Over forty years ago, when I first met my wife and business partner Joan, we would play Scrabble to while away the hours. This was before we could afford TV. My strategy was to maximize my score by playing big words as much as possible. I always lost! Joan played a more tactical game. She played tiny words, and then added, and added, and added onto them. In that way, she turned the single point tiles into multiple scores. She always won!

I had a strategy; she had a strategy supported by solid in-game tactics. I found it frustrating that she won so often with these “chicken” words. Her response: “If you don’t play to win, don’t play.” She understood that good tactics, supporting an ultimate strategy, was a better approach.  I took me a long time to learn this lesson, but I learned. Now, we are much more competitive, and I am much less frustrated. 

Climate Resiliency Strategy and Tactics are Different

We often confuse the terms strategy and tactics, but they are different. Strategy defines long-term goals and determines our destination. Conversely, tactics are more concrete, smaller actions, over a shorter timeframe. They involve specifics and focus on how we get things done. Joan knew how to support her aim of getting the highest Scrabble score by using smaller words along the way. 

Tactics are the road that lead to our ultimate aim. Strategy is a long-term aim. Thus, tactics are individual steps on the path along the way. Tactics are more short term.   

We aim for resiliency as the ultimate strategic destination for our climate work. As such, we define resiliency and confirm what we want to achieve in the longer term. Climate resiliency tactics are the actions we take day-to-day, week-to-week, and year-to-year that support our strategic vision. These are the steps we take to impel us towards our resiliency goals. 

Too Much Focus on Climate Resiliency Strategy 

Why is this subtlety important? As in Scrabble, by placing too much focus on strategy without tactics, we will miss the target. 

We can obsess on our destination and not on getting there. While objectives are important, we must think about the smaller steps that move us in that direction. Thus, when we don’t weigh the shorter term options, we may make decisions that alter our direction. We may jump on short-term tactics that create barriers to achieving our strategy.

Many years ago, I attended a sustainable buildings conference. The keynote speaker was a very motivational, and exciting orator. He urged us to accept his vision of a green city with no suburbs, no cars, no smog, and on and on. In fact, all we needed to do to achieve this goal was to set it as our mission. He urged us to march with him into the new, greener and more sustainable future. It was exciting, but not realistic.

In the cold light of day I wondered how he planned to deal with all the “little” issues along the way. For example, those folks that live in suburbs and rely on transportation systems to earn a living and feed their families. How would he propose to manage the socio-economic upheaval that such dramatic changes would entail? No thought to that! Just ignore the details and we will get somewhere special!

We Need a Plan

Well, that was over thirty years ago.  While we have made progress towards a greener society, we have not arrived at the destination that speaker promised. There was a flaw in the plan. In fact, there was no plan! By not contemplating the tactics of how to achieve the strategic goal there was no clear direction forward. Strategy without planning is like a road trip without a map. You may well end up somewhere you didn’t expect.

In our climate work, we are clear about where we need to arrive, a much less carbon-intense society. However, how do we get there? Ah, there’s the rub. The change will require a concerted effort involving many smaller steps, and compromises, along the way. As such, we must address these steps and include them in our planning. We must really PLAN, and not merely state a goal. 

And Then – Too Much Focus on Climate Resiliency Tactics

The flip side is also true. Thus, when we focus on tactics without strategy, we can go in many directions not arriving anywhere. Tactics are the little steps along the path towards a goal. However, the goal, much like a compass, sets the direction the path follows. Otherwise, every little obstacle along the way can change our course, leading us places we did not expect. There are good surprises.  But, most of the time, unexpected outcomes create problems.

When we take actions, we should always consider how those steps align with our strategic direction. Do the actions even move us in the right direction? Often, in the rough and tumble of daily professional practice, folks offer solutions that really don’t align with our plans. They may seem great, and their proponents, convincing and even charismatic. But, they may not offer workable solutions at the right time. Sorting this out takes time, patience and an unwavering eye on the target.  

In climate resiliency work, we often confront this confusion.

Regularly, when I am criticized for my focus on climate resiliency, folks challenge the small steps. They argue that:

Making smaller changes, such as increasing our energy efficiency, or using more renewable energy, does not fix the problem. So, we shouldn’t do anything at all if we can’t just fix it. And, climate change isn’t real, right?

“These arguments confound the difference between our climate resiliency strategies and the multiple tactics used to achieve our goals. The argument goes, “If the smaller steps don’t take you immediately to your destination, then don’t do them.”

Just as in any other journey, if we don’t move our feet, we go nowhere. The old Chinese proverb states: “A journey of a 1000 miles starts with a single step.”

Arguments about Climate Resiliency Strategy and Tactics


We can find it easy to get tied up in arguments about tactics, when the strategy is actually the issue at hand. Conversely, we can get into endless debates about strategies and not take a single step. If we want to take concrete action toward climate resiliency, we need to discuss both.  

We should be clear that a debate about solar power, for example, is not a debate about our ultimate resiliency goals. There are many small steps along the path. We can debate what those steps are, and how they fit into the overall plan. But, the ultimate aim remains the same. It is not uncommon for folks, impacted by the smaller steps, attack the ultimate aim to win the day on the smaller actions. We must address their concerns. But, those answers should integrate into the plan and continue to propel us along the path.  Recognize that their concern is not about climate resiliency. Most likely, the effect that a smaller tactical change on their way of life worries them. Address the impact and don’t get tied up in a debate about the goal.

Climate Resiliency and Tactics Must Dovetail

Climate resiliency requires both a good strategy and solid tactics. In this light, we focus on climate change risk assessment and adaptation.  Adapting to climate change does not solve the challenge. However, solving the problem will take time. In the interim, we still must run our cities, live our lives and, remain safe and secure. We must do this in the face of the weirder and more extreme weather.

We need to buy the time needed to make the broader socio-economic changes required. This will be difficult. The ultimate strategy requires many smaller steps. Climate resiliency is a goal. Success entails smaller steps. Each step contributes to the strategy. Moving on one piece while ignoring the rest undermines our chances of success.

Climate Resiliency Strategy and Tactics
Tactics Support a Winning Strategy

For me, this is not an academic exercise. Peoples lives, livelihoods, and wellbeing are at stake. Keeping our eye on the target and taking well thought out smaller tactical steps is the way to eventual success. Just as Joan’s tactical approach to supporting her Scrabble strategy helped her win the game, we need both.

We need a good climate resiliency strategy and solid tactics. Also, we need to build them into a plan, work the plan, and make course adjustments along the way.

Call to Action

You are not alone. We can help. Seek the advice of climate risk and resiliency experts. Do not be afraid to engage in the debate. We all have something valuable to offer.

We provide ongoing commentary on these issues. Feel free to contact us, we are always happy to discuss your climate, risk and resiliency.

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