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by Larry

August, 2008

NPR's Climate Connections - The Climate Game

For outside the box global news on solutions to the challenge of climate change, check out National Public Radio's "Climate Connections." Here are more than 55 (and counting, since the series continues) intriguing reports which one can either read or hear.

As an example, NPR focused on a special puzzle, aptly named "The Climate Game," developed by a couple Princeton University professors, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow. The Climate Game is becoming more and more popular and useful in making folks aware of both major problems in limiting carbon emissions and the available ways to deal with them.

The game is fairly simple in principle. Several people get together to play. Each is given a differently labeled wedge, representing an equal portion (in the game, an equal part of the large incline on a chart-like board) of carbon dioxide plus methane pollution, the main climate changing emissions that experts project ahead for the coming half-century. Working together, the players must mix and match the roles of the wedges (nuclear, energy reduction, solar, wind, etc.) to come up with a collective solution, as if they were themselves able to make the policies being proposed, ones that hopefully would keep carbon emissions from going up over the next 50 years.

The scale of the challenge may actually be greater than that. Many scientists insist we must not only stop the rise of overall carbon emissions but bring them back down to some safer past level, 1990's for instance, to avoid catastrophic climate changes that would make the environment far more difficult to survive for future populations. Yet, for such a seemingly simple guide, the game is quite good at demonstrating the complexities involved, participants have said.

While it might appear at first no big deal to just keep emissions no higher than they are now or even, at some point in the next five decades, to take them back down to the present level and then keep them there, the momentum and acceleration of huge forces already in place will be working against achieving this target. To name two, population is expected to continue to rise, as is development, each of which independently would result in massively increased carbon emissions. If nothing were done to curtail the demand and the rest of the world's burgeoning population were to acquire as wasteful a standard of living as we in the U.S. enjoy, we would need six earths! At the same time, thanks to the cutting down of rainforests (so that carbon now stored in living trees will go into the atmosphere after the trees die and rot) and the thawing of former permafrost areas, extra methane is being released into the atmosphere at a faster rate than environmentalists had earlier expected.

One thing game players quickly have learned is that there are NO easy answers. Another is that, whatever apparent individual solution is put forward, none of the options, geothermal energy, conservation, hybrid autos, better public transportation, bio-fuels, etc., will be enough by itself. Some people hate the idea of more nuclear plants, for instance, but it appears if we do not use nuclear and every other main option available, we just would not achieve the target outcome soon enough. It looks as though, to survive with any real quality into the 22nd Century, humanity will have to come up with a tough and comprehensive international energy plan and stick with it. To accomplish this, there will probably have to be not just voluntary controls and reductions but the imposition of strict new standards. The implications of success vs. partial success vs. failure are so vast and the likely political controversies at every step so intense, that this may turn out to be a challenge equal to or greater than that mankind faced in the combined hot and cold wars of the 20th Century.

Although the extent of climate change danger is not yet well understood by many, worldwide a number of different types of groups have now played The Climate Game, young school children, policy makers, corporate executives, scientists, and others, and, time after time, they have been shocked at how tough it is to come up with agreed upon solutions to the game.

Meanwhile, time passes. As there are delays, the eventual choices - once finally made - get harder and harder. And not only is it rough coming up with a solution. Then there are all sorts of competitions, between those who are to make the needed sacrifices, and difficulties with the implementation of the chosen remedies. At the national level alone, undeveloped countries feel it is unfair that they should give up the prospect of higher standards of living, such as we in the developed world have indulged in for the past several decades, but we in the more advanced nations often feel it is unfair for us to carry the reform burden while they in places like China and India are busy polluting the atmosphere in record new amounts.

As in the old Chinese curse, we "live in interesting times." The good news, though, is that, one way or another, a comprehensive solution WILL be found. And waiting for nature to make it for us does not seem a viable option.

Our situation is like that in the classic science fiction scenario. The aliens, suspected of hostile intent, are coming. They will be here in so many more years, 50, for example. How will we prepare for this in the time that remains? Have we enough Winston Churchill sorts around to raise the alarm in ways that people take notice, buckle down, and do the job before it is too late? Can we come together as a species, do what needs to be done, and so save the planet?

Subsequent generations will rate us on how soundly we have managed it. No doubt a lot of our final grade will depend on how well we all learn to play The Climate Game.

Main Source: Climate Game Gives Real Options to Save World. Nell Greenfieldboyce on NPR Climate Connections - Solutions (Morning Edition); June 25, 2007.

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