Climate change: the board game

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Considering how little the world’s climate negotiators have accomplished in the last two decades, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’ve been playing a game. A dangerous game of gambling with the lives of billions and the future of generations to come.

As COP21, the 21st annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), gets going in Paris we’re once again promised real action in the form of an internationally binding and effective agreement to throttle back carbon emissions and reign in global warming, but with nothing concrete to show for endless hours of talk shops we’d be fools to expect any actual results this time around.

So, I’ve got a suggestion for the COP21 delegates: why don’t you play an actual game about climate change – one where the stakes aren’t so high and which you can start again with a new strategy if things don’t quite work out. Specifically, what I’ve got in mind is the appropriately named board game CO2, designed by Vital Lacerda.

It’s not as crazy an idea as you might think. There are a surprising number of parallels between CO2, the board game, and what the delegates have been so unsuccessfully grappling with:

1. CO2, the board game, is complex, just like the real thing. In it, between one and five players represent innovative companies that propose, install and construct a variety of carbon-reducing projects, from solar electricity plants to recycling facilities and afforestation schemes, across the globe. Their efforts are countered by the construction of dirty coal, gas and oil fuelled power plants as the world’s energy needs increase and the atmospheric CO2 concentration rises.

If your idea of board games is Monopoly and Clue, you’ll need to think again. Unlike global climate negotiations, the world of tabletop gaming has experienced an unprecedented blossoming in the last 10 or 15 years. Cardboard aficionados refer to games like CO2 as medium to fairly heavy Euro-style strategy games that will present a considerable challenge even to experienced analog gamers.

2. Beating the game takes dedication – players will do well to read the rules carefully once or twice and perhaps watch a how-to-play video before getting started. Nobody said saving the world would be a doddle.

3. Playing CO2 takes time. The game plays itself out over several decades starting in the 1970s. That translates to around two hours of playing time per game. Actual climate negotiators have been talking hot air for years without much discernible progress.

4. Scientists who develop greener technologies, foster expertise and share their knowledge with others play as crucial a role in the game as they do in reality.

5. Because the game is so complicated, finding optimal solutions isn’t always easy. In gamer lingo, it can at times be plagued by ‘analysis paralysis’, or AP, as participants take their time pondering which of several available actions to take next.

6. The game is competitive – the player with the highest score wins – but as atmospheric CO2 levels skyrocket, it’s often the game that comes out on top and everyone loses. As the rule booklet has it: “Don’t bother to count the points: You need to find a new planet to inhabit”. Cooperation is as important in the game as it is in the actual world.

Of course CO2, the board game, isn’t a realistic simulation of global warming – even supercomputers struggle with that – but it does a good job of focusing one’s mind on the challenges that we’re facing in fighting it. So perhaps at COP21 in Paris, when delegates are once again faced with terminal AP, they’d do well to retire to a quiet side-room or their hotel suite for a session of CO2. Who knows, they might just emerge with a clearer vision and the enthusiasm required to turn that vision into reality.

In the game, unlike the real world, as the rule booklet has it, “If you destroy the planet on your first go, please don’t be discouraged. Finding the solution to a global problem does not normally happen on the first try. CO2 gives you a reset button, so you can go back and try again”.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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