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Earth scientists Jean Bergeron of the University of Sherbrooke; Lauren Garofalo of the University of California, Berkeley; and Lev Horodyskyj of Arizona State University participate in a climate negotiation game in late 2014.

Earth scientists Jean Bergeron of the University of Sherbrooke; Lauren Garofalo of the University of California, Berkeley; and Lev Horodyskyj of Arizona State University participate in a climate negotiation game in late 2014.

Kerry Klein

It’s only a game, but even earth scientists struggle to defeat global warming

“Welcome, delegates,” the U. N. official boomed to the international negotiators gathered to find a way to prevent catastrophic global warming. The delegates whispered and scribbled on pie charts as she spoke. One popped open an orange cream soda.

“What is the planet,” the woman concluded, “that you will leave to our collective future?”

It’s a question those in the room contemplate daily. But on this day, they knew the burden of decision didn’t really rest on their shoulders—because neither the U.N. official nor the negotiation was real.

It was World Climate, a game that simulates international climate negotiations. The U.N. official was biogeochemist Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of the Climate Change Initiative at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. And she addressed not diplomats, but earth scientists, gathered late last year in San Francisco for a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

The game, created in 2010 by the nonprofit Climate Interactive and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology System Dynamics Group, is to U.N. climate negotiations what Model UN is to the real thing: a chance for outsiders to get a glimpse of what it takes to hammer out a consensus on a thorny international issue. And the players’ collective goal is straightforward: Commit enough resources to prevent dangerous global warming by the year 2100. The benchmark is to prevent Earth from warming more than 2°C above preindustrial levels, or about 1.2°C. higher than today—the same as the goal set by the United Nations’ climate agency.

Game on

That the participants weren’t policymakers, dealing in real human lives with real money, should have made the exercise easier. But, like the corporate executives and high school students who have played the game in the past, even a few dozen climate researchers, grad students, and teachers had difficulty grappling with the choices required to manage human-induced climate change.

As in real-life climate talks, delegates had a menu of options for setting country-specific commitments for the good of the globe. They could pledge to reduce carbon emissions, reforest, or contribute to a global climate fund. They broke off into team huddles, deploying delegates to negotiate with other regions, and presented their pledges to the room. And they had only 3 hours to reach the U.N. target.

The simulation “is a huge oversimplification,” Rooney-Varga says. “But there are some analogies.”

Unlike at U.N. meetings, World Climate players have access to a real-time climate model. Thanks to C-ROADS, a Climate Interactive model that graphs temperature change based on carbon emissions and other variables, participants can see the projected consequences of their pledges with the click of a mouse.

No easy way out

Even with the help of C-ROADS, however, the scientists at AGU never reached their 2° target. After the first huddle, the forecast by 2100 was 4° of warming—only marginally lower than the business-as-usual scenarios in which societies do nothing to change the current course of emissions. A few hours later, they had shaved the increase down to 2.5°—still half a degree too high.

“I think we’re too much scientists,” joked one participant. But the problem wasn’t a lack of negotiating skills; it was simply that the steps required to change our climate future are difficult.

According to C-ROADS, the biggest carbon emitters—China, the United States, and India—would need to begin decreasing emissions within the next 15 years and then continue bringing them down steadily. Around the same time, every country in the world would need to stop demolishing forests and plant new trees as quickly as possible.

Alex de Sherbinin, a geographer with the Center for International Earth Science Information Network in Palisades, New York, had an idea: “What if we tell people to stop breathing?”

Snack food diplomacy

Understanding the extremes of climate change is only one objective of World Climate. The other is experiential. “What was exciting about bringing this to AGU was an opportunity for the scientists to experience the social dynamics” of diplomacy, said Rooney-Varga, who has moderated the game dozens of times around the globe. “That’s something where scientists have just as much to learn as politicians.”

The scientists learned quickly—particularly that negotiating involves more than money and promises. When U.S. delegate de Sherbinin bribed a league of developing nations with soda in exchange for fast-tracking emissions reductions, the other delegate, University of California, Berkeley, atmospheric chemistry graduate student Lauren Garofalo, accepted the goodies. But Garofalo also demanded that the United States begin decreasing its emissions by 2020. De Sherbinin balked. “It would cause an economic Armageddon for our country,” he said. “How can we do that?”

U.S. inaction, Garofalo responded, would “cause a real Armageddon for our countries.”

And just like that, the conversation could flip-flop from playful to poignant. Delegates from island nations paid neighbors veggies and dip to someday welcome refugees displaced by rising seas. And when developing countries asked for money, the United States offered birth control—and cookies.

“We would like to thank the U.S. for … that effort of good will,” Garofalo declared during a pledge, “but we do expect more than cookies in the future.”

Better than most, environmental scientists understand the potential consequences of a changing climate. But here, without the world watching, laughing became the easiest way to cope with the worst-case scenario.

It’s complicated

What does it mean when even environmental scientists can’t step up enough to set back climate change? After the game, Rooney-Varga gathered the group to debrief.

“I’m crapping my pants,” said Lev Horodyskyj, an astrobiologist at Arizona State University, Tempe. “It wasn’t obvious until we did this exercise just how strong the change needs to be and I don’t think anyone on the planet has the political will to do it.”

To others, fear was tempered by optimism about the shared experience.

“The joy was that … everyone was trying to get to a goal,” said Elena Sparrow, a microbiologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “People were really willing to try to make the changes that were needed.”

Colorado educator Mike Zawaski hoped games like this can galvanize the United States and other powerful countries to act. “Wouldn’t it be better to just be a leader in the beginning?” he asked. “It seems like we could leverage so much on this national pride idea.”

In the end, the goal of the game is not to terrify, but to inspire, organizers said. Mitigating climate change is an enormous task, but it’s not impossible; and it won’t be resolved without teamwork. “The key insights are that you need everybody to act,” Rooney-Varga said. “It’s all in.”