20 min read
The World’s Future is in our hands
How can we use the social simulation to address the biggest problem facing us today?
The world is running out of time and carbon budgets
When the International Panel on Climate Change released its report in October 2018 about necessary actions to limit or reverse the impact of our behavior on the environment, it also gave us a timeline to do so: 12 years. In 12 years, if we continue to produce carbon dioxide at the same pace we have been, we will have “spent” our entire carbon budget and the global average temperature will rise by 1.5-2۫°C. From a climate perspective, this is significant enough. In the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, though, a 1.5°C rise in temperature has far-reaching consequences.
Although 1.5°C may not sound like a lot, the speed at which the temperature has risen is the main cause for concern. The faster we spend our carbon budget, the less time we have to adapt to the new, hotter reality. It’s less time to save coastal cities from being flooded by rising ocean and sea waters, less time to adapt existing infrastructure for more frequent and severe weather, and less time to adapt our agriculture to grow in hotter, drier conditions. These direct impacts have peripheral impacts, too. More droughts and less adaptable crops mean more hunger and more poverty. Human displacement from flooded cities leads to more inequality and worse health and well-being. Rising temperatures affect life on land and life on water – wiping out fragile ecosystems and biodiversity. More poverty, more inequality, lower-quality life on land and underwater – without action, we will regress on achieving a number of Sustainable Development Goals.
Why are we inactive?
“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations is on the horizon.” said Sir David Attenborough at the UN climate change summit in Poland. This is only one of many public calls for action that has been repeatedly occurring in media over the last decades. And yet, since the Paris agreement in 2015 that obliged world leaders to keep the global temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, no major shifts have occurred in our production and consumption trends. Why? Does humanity consciously choose to follow a path to self-destruction?
The answer to the question is not easy, as the battle over climate change is a battle between knowledge and practice, good will and money, science and politics. Singularly, they are a challenge; together, these challenges compound. Let’s have a closer look at some examples.
Knowledge does not mean understanding
As early as the 1960s, the first computer models of the world’s climate supported the idea that the growth of greenhouse gases would contribute to warming. In 1988, James Hansen, the former NASA scientist, testified before Congress on anthropogenic climate change, raising public awareness of global warming, and advocating action to avoid its negative impacts.
We know the threats; we have possessed the necessary knowledge for at least 30 years, yet we somehow cannot render it into practice. What we do is present and address climate change and related impacts on the Sustainable Development Goal as something linear and gradual. It’s as if they were a box of chocolates from which we could pick one with no consequences. Let’s address the world’s atmosphere today! Or eradicate poverty!
Of course, real-world systems never work like that. They are more like a Jenga tower – each building block depends on another, together creating a highly complex and fragile structure. Moving one block only seems easy, and any false move can trigger a violent reaction that affects the whole tower.
Want a more real-life example? Think about the ocean. Covering around 70% of the Earth’s surface, it plays a crucial role in controlling the climate and the oxygen we breathe. Without a healthy ocean, we don’t have a healthy planet. Yet, over the past hundred years, the average surface temperature of the seas has risen by about 0.9°C (1.6°F), damaging many fish habitats and causing fish species to move to cooler waters. As a result, warming oceans are affecting fish stocks in some areas, reducing catches and thus directly influencing people who rely on fishing as their main source of income or food. Ocean warming also impacts human health as pathogens spread more easily in warmer waters. This isn’t even mentioning its effects on the weather and the possibility of more severe and frequent extreme phenomena, such as hurricanes, increased rainfall or floods.
Change requires trade-offs
The ocean is only one of many life support systems that humanity depends on. There are other, no less complex ones, including soils, ice, the pattern of winds and currents, pollinators, and biological diversity. They are all interconnected, and if one fails, who knows what will happen to our Jenga tower?
The Sustainable Development Goals offer a way to address these interlinked systems and balance social well-being, economic prosperity and environmental protection. Crucial to their pursuit is, however, our collective effort to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. No matter what politicians say, this won’t happen without necessary trade-offs, as some of the best solutions may have negative impacts on certain segments of society, based on where they live and how they make a living. Afforestation and bioenergy, for example, may compete with agriculture and food production. The example of the yellow jacket movement protests in France shows how policy aimed at lowering national dependence on fossil fuels may negatively affect the middle class and trigger social unrest on an unpredicted scale.
The choices to be made are not easy, as the short-term gains have to be weighed against long-term, yet often uncertain and initially costly, change. Will politicians be able to make the trade-offs? Will the general public be able to accept them?
Short-term gains are a particular problem, as it is common knowledge that in countries all over the world, politics and business are intertwined. Business influences what policies are made; policy influences the way business is done. Such dependencies may thwart rational decision-making as the short-term interests of business oligarchs often stand in opposition to the long-term well-being of society. This also explains why quitting coal is so difficult despite our possessing the knowledge and the technology to do so.
Black gold, although the most polluting of fossil fuels, is still the cheapest, is still underground and still offers an easy path to a lucrative business. Large companies, often subsidized by powerful governments are thus in a rush to expand their markets before coal is taken over by increasingly affordable renewables. Such an attitude, referred to as the “predatory delay” by the environmental writer Alex Steffen is reflected in the decisions of many world leaders. Donald Trump has announced to withdraw the USA – a country that is historically responsible for the most emissions in the world – from the Paris agreement. In Brazil, the newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, is ready to sacrifice the Amazon rainforest to agribusiness. Most recently, the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, defended the country’s reliance on coal, stating at the UN climate change summit in Katowice that: “The use of one’s own natural resources, in Poland’s case on coal, and basing energy security on them is not in conflict with the climate protection and with progress in climate protection.“
Way to overcome the impasse
How to bridge this enormous gap between science and policy? How to help the general public, policymakers and businesses understand both the urgency and the complexity of the situation, and get on board with taking direct action?
The World’s Future simulation has been created to address this challenge. In this experience, participants become country leaders and collaboratively steer the fictional world from now till around 2030. As players make virtual decisions on their country’s energy mix, R&D expenditures, environmental policy, and socio-economic growth, they get a very realistic feel of what may happen if we don’t take climate change seriously.
“We intentionally chose the name for the simulation to move players from the sphere of abstraction and make them feel real responsibility for what may become our world’s future,” explains Michalina Kułakowska, one of the game designers. However they use their power will soon materialize, either in the form of simulated catastrophe or – quite the contrary – an innovative idea that may enhance a successful transformation.”
The simulation, based on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, may be played in person or online, in both cases actively engaging players in revealing the interconnections between the global goals. With the “big picture” displayed, the most pressing challenges of our time become more tangible, easier to embrace and address:
“It really helps to better understand the complexity of the ‘real world’, why changes are so slow, why solutions are not put into place, why international cooperation is so complicated.”
Participant of The World’s Future session, October 2018, Switzerland (FiBL)
What awaits players? Temptations, short-term gains and personal interests may come into play. There may be disappointment and frustration over negative repercussions of what seemed like a silver bullet. Tough negotiations and difficult compromises can be compensated with a groundbreaking solution:
“The game translates a lot of knowledge and, in this particular case, threats into quite lively experiences. These last much longer in the minds of the players than the same information in the form of books.”
– Participant of The World’s Future session, October 2018, Wuppertal Institute