Bulletins

How I saved the virtual world from catastrophic climate change

It's harder than it looks!

Five wind turbines are on the horizon. The foreground is rolling green hills.

This could the future.

Appolinary Kalashnikova/Unsplash

The Financial Times is offering climate nerds their dream: A chance to get the world to net zero. In game form, that is.


The outlet dropped the aptly named “The Climate Game” for Earth Week (yeah, it's not just a day anymore). If you have not played the game yet, go forth and do that now if you want because there are spoilers to come below.

The game challenges you to get the world to net zero between now and 2050 in order to avert the worst effects of global warming. It addresses many major sectors, from electricity to buildings, and transport to industry. I must confess that while I kept the planet’s warming to 1.48 degrees Celsius in my first attempt (a victory of sorts!), I did not manage to hit the net zero goal until round two.

At the risk of sounding defensive — something my sister would say is typical of my approach to losing — I have a couple of theories about my loss. The first: I would argue that the game gives more weight to public opinion than our current approach to policymaking does.

For instance, when I came to the question of how to get public opinion on my side in light of some voters’ concerns about electricity bills soaring, I answered “just ignore them, they’re wrong.” We've got a planet to save here, people! This bout of cynicism was apparently not the right move, as the game is built on the premise that getting the public on board is crucial.

Which … yes, I agree. However, countless polls show the public is increasingly invested in climate action. In telling them to deal with it, I figured that if a majority was in favor of doing something about climate change and only “some voters” resisted aggressive climate action in this imaginary world, why should that slow us down?

According to Pippa, my visiting friend who I prodded to play it, the game responded with similar alarm to her decision to announce that all protein in diets must now come from insects. And my attempt to go bold with a $1,000 per ton price on carbon also caused public outcry in the Financial Times' imaginary world. But I kept warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, saving countless fictional lives in the process. Does it matter that a small constituency got mad?

The section on transportation focused almost entirely on electric vehicles, which also mucked up my first attempt. Initially, I didn’t invest enough in decarbonizing vehicles because I wrongly assumed I could wait for an opportunity to invest in public transportation. While electrifying cars is great, getting more people walking or riding bikes or using buses is a less glamorous but no less crucial piece of the climate-saving puzzle.

Don't get me wrong, though. I love this game. And I actually think it's a good thing that different people can have different approaches to solving the climate crisis. A confluence of approaches is what we need!

I like that the game forces the player to skirt investments or decisions that will be a waste of effort (quantified in the game, though let’s hope effort is more easily plumbed in the real world). Pippa was rightfully skeptical of an option to invest in drone technology for reforestation, while I should have invested in sustainable aviation fuel. (It simply slipped my mind. Sorry, virtual world!)

Games like this can also make dense reports like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change one that recently came out much more accessible. Pippa played three times (and successfully reached net zero in her second attempt), which more than even the most climate-interested person can say about reading the IPCC.

The Financial Times released a cheat sheet, ostensibly for the game but also — let’s be honest — one that could be converted into a checklist for policymakers. But playing is a lot more fun. Someone get this on every member of Congress' iPad ASAP.

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Bulletins