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Climate climbs on board

October 14, 2005 By Nicola Jones This article courtesy of Nature News.

Cool game gives lessons on a warming world.

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Keep Cool: Gambling with the Climate!

The temperature is rising fast, hurricanes have wiped out the US economy, and the OPEC countries are going bankrupt. Just when things look as if they cannot get any worse, disease strikes Libya's livestock. But then world leaders pull together a research fund for clean technologies in the developing world, prompting the US president (a woman, for once) to sigh and say: "We're really turning things around here".

Sound like a news report from 2050? It's actually a scenario that emerged when six science reporters got together to play an eerily prescient board game called Keep Cool: Gambling with the Climate! It kept us entertained for hours, even as the climate collapsed and nations went bankrupt around us.

The game's developers, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, hope it will successfully communicate the risks of climate change. Keep Cool could also help researchers to probe how various forces interact to produce different futures, claims Klaus Eisenack, a computer modeller and one of the designers.

Talking it over

Even the process of making the game was a useful exercise, as Eisenack and his co-developer Gerhard Petschel-Held brought together politicians, economists and climate scientists to work out the rules. "It was a great way to get them to interact," says Eisenack.

Hopefully people will be induced to ask questions and find things out.
Klaus Eisenack
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany
The team raised €20,000 (US$24,000) to put out the first edition last year. "It was like a small research project," he says. The first 1,500 copies sold out, but a second, improved edition is available.

Partners at the German environment ministry and a handful of other sponsors, including the Potsdam-based European Climate Forum, have supported the project. The latter has become a great fan of such educational games and is promoting two more: a German-language computer game and a board game called Winds of Change.

Power games

The rules of Keep Cool are similar to those of the board game Risk. Six regional entities, from the former Soviet Union to the 'Tiger countries' of Asia, compete to build power stations. A dirty station is cheaper than a clean one, but it makes the temperature climb. As the world warms, natural disasters increase in likelihood and severity, driving players to buy protection against them.

The aim is to fulfil one's economic and political goals, which might involve appeasing environmentalists with a certain number of clean power plants or getting a minimum number of stations on the board.

But if players are too ruthless, the climate spins out of control. Investing in dirty industry hits home with remarkable force as monsoons fail, permafrost melts, and global biodiversity dives, each disaster costing the players more money as the world warms. "The numbers aren't realistic. But the principles are," says Eisenack.

Subtle stuff

A few wild cards make for a more challenging game: on each turn, for example, the Soviet Union can ask anyone for money. This reflects the fact that its nuclear weapons give it a political advantage disproportionate to its economic clout, but nowhere is that explicitly stated. Nor do the rules say that the reason global temperature drops slightly after each turn is that carbon dioxide is being sucked up by the ocean.

"We decided not to spell everything out," Eisenack explains. "Hopefully people will be induced to ask questions and find things out."

The team hopes that players' experiences could even help researchers and policy-makers to think about how various incentives cause different catastrophes. In our game, the developing world intentionally drove the climate to destruction to hold the rest of the world to ransom. Is this realistic? "We haven't investigated that. But it's worth thinking about," Eisenack replies.

If you feel like contributing to the world's understanding of climate catastrophes, or have simply exhausted the appeal of Risk, you can order a copy of Keep Cool by email. I, for one, wholeheartedly recommend it.


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