PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

How I learned to stop worrying and love climate change and geo-politics

The following item was written for PAXsims by Darren Green. After a career as a project manager at IBM and Toshiba Labs in the UK, Darren changed track to focus on using games for corporate team-building and more recently, in education. He runs training and educational sessions in the UK through his own business, Crisis Games (http://crisis-games.co.uk/) and is currently hosting an academic project to investigate how well games can communicate issues in climate change.


Why are nation-states finding it so difficult to keep the commitments they signed up to in the Paris Agreement in 2015? What can games/simulations tell us about these difficulties? The problem of climate change has been framed as an example the tragedy of the commons which is made all the more difficult because it has a time horizon that does not fit easily with electoral cycles. It is a problem that involves complex social payoffs situated decades into the future. A large-scale role-play simulation looks like it would be a good tool to provide at least some insight into this.

Watch the Skies[1] is a popular megagame that examines how the geo-politics of the modern world are transformed by the arrival of aliens. As a first approach it might be a good basis for looking at how nations (fail to) address climate change. I tried unplugging the aliens from Watch the Skies[2] and plugging in a climate model (I used the C-Roads model from Climate Interactive’s World Climate Simulation, which is freely available and has been designed as a learning resource for use in role play activities).

The next issue that emerged was that the game needed a sufficiently detailed model of economic activity and CO2 emissions to interface with the parameters of the climate model. At this point it became clear that designing a complete new rule set (rather than adapting Watch the Skies) would be the easiest route. This conclusion was further reinforced by the goal of building a game that could be used in a public engagement setting. Megagames generally require 30 or more players attending the game for 6-7 hours – requirements that don’t mesh well with public engagement opportunities. A game that was playable in around 3 hours and accommodates 10-30 players would be suitable as a side-event at conferences, or in public spaces such as libraries or as an activity to be held in schools or colleges.

After running a few promising play test sessions in 2019, the next year was spent converting the game to online play as pandemic restrictions took hold. While there were many difficulties in making this transition, an online version of the game had some clear advantages. Firstly, it presented an opportunity to run follow-on sessions. It is much easier to start a session where the previous session ended – the game state is maintained digitally, because you don’t need to take down and pack away the game. Playing a follow-on session is a nice way of simulating a change in government administrations. If the players return to take on the same roles in that they held in the previous session then they represent an administration that has held on to power through re-election. If new players take over the roles then that simulates a change of administration.

Secondly, the game left a digital ‘paper trail’ so that the turns could be reconstructed. I have been fascinated with the narrative that tabletop or role-play simulations (wargames and megagames) generate. I have often scribbled copious notes while playing a game (this was before cameras were ubiquitous). However, even with a good set of notes or plentiful photos of counters on hex maps, the full story of the game often proves elusive, and with megagames there are so many different narratives and interactions happening that it is impossible for one person to follow everything. With online versions, reconstructing the narrative becomes much easier; with spreadsheets used to conduct resource allocation, (providing a record of where resources went and their effects) and a record of communication between players left by text messaging it was possible to put together a fairly detailed narrative of the game.

ABOVE: An example of text messaging in the game using a Discord server.

So, I present below a ‘future history’ of the world from 2024 to 2030 based on two game sessions played in November 2020. If you are expecting a dry discussion of various environmental targets then you’ll have to look elsewhere. The game treated the nations in the game as fully-realised states that were able to pursue political agendas through economic or military means and the players took full advantage of this!

Some of the events may seem extraordinary (but I hope, still within the realms of believability); players were briefed with a short summary of national doctrine and key agendas, but they were given some leeway to break from this if they wished to. Also, in common with Matrix games and the megagame format, players were allowed to respond to situations with improvised plans if the rules did not address a strategy or tactic they wanted to employ. Facilitators carefully adjudicated these plans to determine a realistic outcome – a task which the facilitators in the game (Stefan Salva Cruz, Patrick Rose and Glenn Russell) performed outstandingly.

So, we begin the game with the climate change model predicting a mean annual global temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. Six nations were played in the game: USA, EU, Russia, China, India and Brazil. There were also three global corporations played (Trans Global, Interprime and Neotech) and a team of players took on the role of the United Nations. If a detailed game write-up is not for you, skip to the end where there is a brief summary of outcomes and concluding remarks.

ABOVE: The climate model at the start of the game

2024

  • US companies responded enthusiastically to US government tax incentives encouraging investment in Mexico, Venezuela and Columbia.
  • Brazilian oil companies finalised a deal to exploit oil and gas reserves in and around the Black Sea.
  • Trans Global corporation rolled out the first of its next-generation solar arrays to be built just outside the Russian city of Sochi. Forecasts suggest that when fully operational it will supply over 80% of the city’s power requirements.

2025

  • The world’s largest commercial carbon capture plant started operation outside Detroit. The plant is run by an industry consortium backed by the US government.
  • Paramilitary terrorist attacks against US military bases and corporate buildings across Japan left hundreds dead and many more injured. The US government withdrew all non-essential staff from Japan and advised US citizens to leave. The attacks were conducted by a Japanese nationalist group known as Rising Sun. This group was previously little known to authorities. It is thought to have links with North Korea and credible reports state that the military hardware used in the attacks came from Brazil. The Japanese Prime Minister called a state of emergency and ordered Japanese Defence Force units to patrol the streets.
  • The forest fire season in California was one of the worst on record. The President ordered federal authorities to address the situation early and provided federal funding. FEMA was able to co-ordinate local, state and federal resources to minimise risks to citizens and property damage.
  • Wild fires in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy plagued the EU throughout the summer. Local authorities were able to keep on top of the situation through the use of specialised drones which mapped the progress of the fires in real time.
  • Interprime announced a contract with the Russian government to establish a smart power grid which will intelligently route power to where it is needed. This is predicted to provide 10-20% efficiency savings. Construction of the grid will start near Moscow’s northern suburbs, where Trans Global plan to install another of their advanced solar arrays.
  • The Brazilian economy suffered severe setbacks. Credit agencies rated Brazilian government and commercial debt as sub-prime. After weeks of riots on the streets of Brazilian cities and unable to attract international investment, the Brazilian President was forced to declare a state of emergency.

2026

  • The US President announced that Congress had approved funding for two further carbon reduction schemes. Firstly, the nation’s aging nuclear power stations would be upgraded to use next-generation reactors provided by Trans Global. Secondly, after the success of the carbon capture plant at Detroit, new plants would be opening outside Atlanta, Portland and Sacramento.
  • The French President and German Chancellor announced a programme of EU-sponsored joint stock ventures with firms in North and South Korea. The scheme is intended to encourage further progress on Korean re-unification, applying the experience gained from the successful re-unification of Germany in the 1990s.
  • Pakistan revealed the deployment of an armoured brigade fielding Neotech’s autonomous combat vehicles. These vehicles can be driven remotely and can also switch to a fully autonomous mode in which the onboard computer will make kill decisions without human intervention. The vehicles were manufactured at the Neotech plant outside Sao Paulo in Brazil and were supplied on the basis of ongoing Brazilian defence contracts.
  • The Indian Prime Minister reacted to Pakistan’s military deployment by declaring a state of emergency and ordering an the Parachute Regiment and Gurkha Rifles to the border. The UN reminded the world of the dangers of conflict between these two nuclear-armed nations and called for de-escalation. When asked for comment, the Brazilian President’s Office said that they expected to receive a large order for Neotech’s autonomous combat vehicles from India shortly.
  • Japan was devastated by the worst typhoons in living memory. Aid was swiftly provided by the international community under leadership of the US. The death toll was finally tallied at several thousand.
  • A series of international climate summits hosted by China ended with world leaders announcing a world-wide tax on the use of fossil fuels burned for vehicle fuel or commercial power generation. The stock of major petrochemical companies dropped sharply.
  • China stunned the global community by bringing in emergency laws to restrict all commercial activities linked with foreign exports or investments. Veteran China-watchers had warned about this as internal divisions in the Chinese Communist Party had emerged at the last Party Congress. It appears the hard-line nationalist stance advocated by the Premier with the backing of the General Secretary has won the day. Chinese companies with export contracts or linked with significant foreign investment have been told they will need to apply for special licenses in order to continue their business.
  • Japanese companies with links to China were in desperate efforts to try and reposition themselves. China’s new stance on exports, combined with the domestic Japanese terror threat and higher than expected typhoon damage claims has meant that analysts regard the huge Japanese government debt as no-longer sustainable.
  • Markets turned favourably towards Russia’s economy, which appears to have successfully pivoted away from dependence on gas and oil exports towards a high-tech, green future. 

2027

  • The Saudi air force conducted air strikes on Yemen’s coastal cities. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran very quickly ramped up and small scale border conflicts threatened to break out across the region. Violent unrest was reported in cities throughout the Middle East.
  • Social media was flooded with memes drawn from the 1980s film ‘Robocop’ as Brazilian military officials and Neotech executives showed off the paramilitary version of the autonomous combat vehicles that have been deployed in India and Pakistan. Neotech announced that orders for these vehicles have already been received from South African police departments and Chinese government security forces.
  • The US President announced that he had signed an order to decommission 25% of US coal and gas-fired power stations. These power stations, situated mainly along the east coast of the USA are some of the oldest plants and significantly contribute to the USA’s carbon emissions.
  • China maintained a nationwide state of emergency. The government announced that emergency measures were needed to deal with the series of storms which were predicted to hit China this year. Analysts suggested that emergency measures were more likely being kept in place to handle potential civil unrest as the Chinese economy endures a huge downturn due to plummeting exports.
  • The Russian President opened a section of smart highway running parallel to the M11 from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Neotech robotic vehicles will run along the roads, powered by electricity provided by Trans Global arrays and intelligently channelled by Interprime power networking to where it is needed.
  • Trans Global corporation announced that on the back of its successful re-commissioning of US reactors, it has been invited by the Russian government to conduct a feasibility study to assess whether reactors used in its submarine and icebreaker fleets can be re-purposed for domestic power generation.
  • The Chinese Premier opened a Trans Global solar array outside of Shanghai. Trans Global shares surged on the news that its solar arrays had been successfully deployed in a second nation.
  • The Brazilian President once again declared a state of emergency after a series of riots in Brazilian cities. Police and military units were seen patrolling the streets along with Neotech’s autonomous vehicles. A film crew claimed to have recorded the first purposeful killing of a human by artificial intelligence.
  • The Russian President said that trials of its new space plane (built by Trans Global) were successful and would allow it to take cargo to low earth orbit at a fraction of the cost of traditional rocket delivery.  The President announced that in partnership with Trans Global, Russia would focus on landing cosmonauts on the moon as the first step to establishing a base there. Trans Global shares were down 30% at one point as investors dumped the stock, worried about the corporation being involved in such a risky and expensive venture.
  • The United Nations Security Council authorised the deployment peacekeeping forces along various contested border regions in the Middle-east. The US would provide the majority of the forces but France, Germany and Russia would provide contingents for deployment in areas which were too sensitive for the deployment of US personnel. 
  • The IPCC released a report showing average global temperature rise by 2100 is predicted to be 2.6 degrees. While progress in addressing climate change was praised, it was pointed out that a temperature rise of 2.6 degrees would lead to a 90cm sea level rise by 2100. This would threaten the existence of low lying cities such as New York and London, as well as entire nations such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh.
  • Australia endured one of the worst droughts on record as it entered the height of the summer.

2028

  • In response to Russia’s announcement of a space programme to land a cosmonaut on the moon, the US President announced that the Artemis mission to return US astronauts to the moon would be restarted. Artemis was originally scheduled for blast off in 2024, but had been postponed and eventually put on hold due to funding difficulties.
  • UN aid camps were set up in Oman to take in refugees from Yemen, where the short war has left widespread property destruction and displaced thousands.
  • A new government was elected in India on a platform of combating corruption.
  • A new Chinese Premier and General Secretary of the Communist Party were appointed, suggesting the isolationist stance of China may be softening.
  • The outgoing UN Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General received the Nobel Peace Prize for their extremely quick reaction to tensions in the Middle East. The prize committee suggested that their action prevented further widespread conflagrations in the area.
  • Trans Global landed a survey rover on the moon to gather geological data with a view to assessing the location as a site for a manned base.
  • A UN sponsored peace conference between Pakistan and India continued throughout the year. One of the reasons for the talks taking so long was that the Indian representatives were plagued by accusations of corruption in the Indian press and were continually being replaced by the Prime Minister due to his zero-tolerance policy on corruption.
  • Trans Global announced that it would be making a revolutionary solar-powered stove available in India. It would be cheap enough for villagers to afford and supply eco-friendly heating in areas where power is unreliable.

2029

  • Interprime announced plans for smart power grids in Brazil, Poland, Hungary, north-eastern USA and northern India. Construction work had already begun in Brazil and India and was scheduled to begin next year in the other locations.
  • Trans Global’s line of solar powered jewelry has become the sensation of fashion shows around the globe. The corporation reported that budget versions of the jewelry would be available for consumers later this year. Trans Global’s shares reached an all-time high.
  • A Category 5 storm hit the Philippines. The USA, China and India all pledged aid, but it was slow to arrive and was too little to address the effects of the widespread destruction in the wake of the storm. Analysts predicted that the Philippines’ fragile economy will be severely challenged due to the level of destruction.
  • China’s credit rating was upgraded to AA as it emerged from a state of emergency. Its economy recovered from the huge drop in exports to the west and benefitted from a revitalised domestic and regional economy. The Chinese government has also signed into law requirements on business to use of low-carbon power sources.
  • NASA announced that the launch of the Artemis manned mission to the moon would be pushed back to 2032 due to funding being held back by Congress. There was no mention of the Russian plan to land a cosmonaut on the moon and experts predicted that any such mission is at least a decade away.
  • UN peacekeepers supplied by the USA took up position on the Indian-Pakistan border.
  • The Russian President announced the opening of the city of Neo Kaliningrad. Although only a small portion of the city centre has been constructed, the ‘smart city’ will interface directly with the technologies supplied by Trans Global, Neotech and Interprime to reduce the environmental footprint of its inhabitants.

2030 

  • Russia announced the establishment of a second smart city: Neo Novosibirsk. The President explained in a long and detailed press session that the city would welcome climate refugees. There were rumours that the Russian General Staff had attempted to persuade the President against any invitation of refugees to Russia, warning that it would be difficult to maintain the integrity of the Russian huge land border. Shortly after the President’s speech, some of the General Staff were reported to be on secondment at remote military bases in Siberia.
  • Neotech assisted India in setting up a network of drones to monitor flooding risks and anti-flood measures in anticipation of a heavy monsoon season.
  • China allowed its currency to float freely and the markets took to it enthusiastically. Many institutions holding dollars reduced their exposure to the US currency and bought the Yuan. The US economy faltered as the dollar collapsed and a huge inflationary shock hit home. Credit rating agencies upgraded China to AAA, and downgraded the US to AA.
  • There was a military coup in Latvia as senior army generals took control of the civilian government, accusing it of losing sight of the ‘Russian threat’. Latvian citizens were called up and there were reports of tanks and artillery heading to the Russian border.
  • China announced that all of its coal-fired power plants would be closed down in the next two decades and no new permits for coal-fired power plants would be issued. China is now widely seen as the global leader in decarbonising its economy.
  • War broke out after a decade of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia appeared to be using Brazilian-made weapons and armoured vehicles.
  • The US President declared a state of emergency as rioting broke out in cities along the East coast and in the Mid-west. Falling living standards were seen to be the main driver of the unrest with US inflation running at more than 10%. Order gradually returned after several weeks of the National Guard patrolling the streets of major cities.

ABOVE: The climate model at the end of the game

Conclusion

While the game broadly accomplished its goals, there are a couple of areas of the design that need reviewing. Firstly, player feedback indicated that the briefing materials and mechanics should focus more on addressing climate change. While players appreciated the broad scope of actions available to them and the realistic pressure of balancing economics and political agendas against climate change mitigation, they felt that the climate challenges needed to be presented to players much more clearly to facilitate negotiations about them.

Secondly, while the C-ROADS climate model is scientifically based and peer reviewed, the interface between the model and the game is arbitrary. The amount of resources that a nation must spend to achieve a certain change in the model parameters has been adjusted over a number of play tests to broadly reflect expected real-world effects. The same is true of the effects of various sustainable technologies that the corporations in the game can roll out. This is very much more an exercise in empirical testing and game design rather than a scientific exercise and the numbers and game mechanics used must be reviewed to ensure that they broadly match what is observed in the real world. 

I believe the game narrative presents a credible version of future events. The predicted global temperature rise remaining stubbornly above 2 degrees for the duration of the 2020s is sadly all too believable. Although there were many economic and political distractions for the players, it should still be noted that reducing the predicted temperature rise by 0.5 degrees in 7 years is no mean feat!

One pattern that emerged was that the nations in general focussed on how they could reduce their own carbon emissions rather than looking at the big picture. This resulted in China and Russia making huge progress in switching to sustainable power but their CO2 emissions were then  ‘exported’ to other regions of the world (South-east Asia, Korea and Eastern Europe) where cheaper (fossil fuelled) power was still available. So while China and Russia’s reduction of CO2 emissions in the game look praiseworthy if viewed in isolation, overall global emissions remained stubbornly high.

Special mentions should be given to the USA team which took a globalist perspective and was instrumental in solving many of the issues that cropped up, only be crushed in the final turns by China’s push for economic dominance; to the EU team, who realised that using their economic power to support other developed and developing nations to transition to sustainable power generated much bigger reductions of CO2 emissions than if they devoted all of their resources to their own carbon-reduction schemes; to the India team who put India on a firm footing to sustainable development and were winning their war on corruption; and to Brazil team who explored many interesting (and somewhat disruptive) ways to extract themselves from Brazil’s many difficulties.

With grateful thanks to all the players and facilitators.

Darren Green, Crisis Games

[I am currently working on a new version of the game that addresses much of the player feedback from the game described above and preparing it for face-to-face play when that becomes possible. If you would like to be involved in testing/playing the new version please email me at: crisisgames.info@gmail.com]


[1] See https://www.stonepaperscissors.co.uk/games-download/watch-the-skies

[2] In fact, I first ran a version of Watch the Skies where the aliens were intent on persuading nations to adapt to sustainable technology and cleaning up excess CO2. Of course, it was extremely difficult for the nations to figure out whether the alien technology was helping with climate change or terraforming the Earth ready for alien overlords to take residence. It was entertaining, but probably had too many complicating factors to try and realistically examine the geo-politics of climate change.

One response to “How I learned to stop worrying and love climate change and geo-politics

  1. Ema Ecton 21/06/2021 at 1:06 am

    Very nice blog.🤑 🤠 2021-06-21 01h 05min

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