Climate War Game – Takeaways

Over breakfast this morning (day three), I heard from several participants that the war game was “too easy” – that is, negotiators were too free to agree to aggressive commitments which their real-world constituents or bosses wouldn’t support. That wasn’t my observation in the China team room, and in closing statements it seemed that teams were taking their roles very seriously indeed. It’s not quite the Zimbardo Prison Experiment but it’s very real in some ways.

The following are some of the more poignant comments from players, with a little editorial license on my part. Hopefully I have attributions and the general drift correct; please comment if I don’t. (Actually, please comment either way!). I’ve colored a few points that I regard as particularly critical.

It was a little surprising that teams didn’t resist the underlying scenario of the game, which includes an aggressive 80% reduction from 2005 emissions by 2050. This may have been a recognition of the critical need, pointed out by Sharon Burke, to look past what is politically feasible and keep the real goal in sight (i.e. emissions that will achieve stable climate).

Eileen Claussen (Pew Climate) delivered a nice summary of realistic and unrealistic elements:

The Scenario

  • Realistic: the science (including what became known as the angry red chart); countries not on track to meet Copenhagen commitments; that the UN Secretary General had called an emergency negotiation
  • Unrealistic: the US delegation’s apparent blank check from congress; the charge to define climate refugees (because it is unlikely that vulnerable countries will have the power to put the topic on the agenda)


  • India: unrealistic to imagine that they would agree to a 30% cut from 2005 (though our calculations indicated that even deeper cuts would likely be needed, even with emissions allocated on a per capita equity basis)
  • EU: uncharacteristic of their delegation not to begin with an aggressive target
  • US: too supportive of the UN (congress must have abdicated its oversight responsibilities)
  • China: surprising that they didn’t have a clear view on their target or alternative policies at the outset (from my observation of China team proceedings, it was simply hard to arrive at any consensus within a diverse group in a short time)



  • limited interaction with the rest of the world, represented by the Control team. (Later participants observed that large energy exporters (OPEC et al.) would be important. Russia would be a particularly critical player with respect to EU policy, as an exporter, a major geopolitical player, and a perceived beneficiary of climate change.)
  • some teams’ open disagreement in the public eye (again probably a function of lack of time to reach internal agreement)
  • the editing of final proposal text in 1.5 hours (in reality it would take days of wrangling over fine points)

Sherri Goodman, CNA, reflected on the game in the US national security context,

  • It was great to see traditional stovepipes mixing, and valuable to have the opportunity to take on new roles and see alternate perspectives by playing on a country team. (I find this critical for both models and games. Around 1988 Dennis Meadows and I ran an AIDS management exercise at WHO, which at the time was doubling its staff every year. I think the single most important contribution of the computer-based resource allocation game was getting medical and behavioral functions in the same room to talk. As an added twist, we made them switch sides and advocate approaches they typically competed with.)
  • The complexity and intractability of the negotiation illustrates how tough the climate problem is, even when real impacts are already evident.
  • It was striking that there were no challenges to the reality of the science and the notion that climate poses a security threat. Not long ago climate was seen in Washington as primarily an environmental problem, and rather uncertain at that.

I found her concluding remark particularly powerful: In the 1930s, Holocaust victims could not envision the future that led to their demise. We are lucky to have a hint at the future through science, and can act together. It won’t be easy, but change never is. We each now have an additional responsibility to act.

A synthesis of participant comments, in no particular order:

  • It would be extremely useful to take a deeper look at he science of regional vulnerability. (I’d add that there are profound uncertainties to be resolved.)
  • Technology transfer may be important for adaptation, not just mitigation. For example, future US innovations for addressing Western water shortages could prove useful in India.
  • Money may prove a useful lubricant with many applications, if mechanisms can be established for using it (e.g. making aid contingent on action). The involvement of the financial sector will be important.
  • A good characterization of the cost of mitigation is needed to support country commitments. (This could take the form of supply curves characterizing the cost per ton of carbon avoided at various levels. Curves are available from many models and studies, but I’d argue that they’re only helpful for near term reductions, up to perhaps 25%. After that big scientific uncertainties set in. I hope to tackle this topic in a future post.)
  • In the game scenario, technological progress was conservative, and the political situation was favorable. That led to a well-structured negotiation on a difficult techno-economic landscape. Reality might be the opposite: rapid technological progress in an intractable, politically fragmented world. (Later the game was characterized as tension between the angry red chart and technology options that seemed unsuited to the scale of the task; China might have been more easily brought along with better technical options).
  • Similarly, Bill Young pointed out an 800 pound gorilla in the corner: negotiations proceeded as if business-as-usual economic growth and availability of abundant resources could be taken for granted. In reality, we might need a lot of mitigation $ at a time when we have many other security threats competing for limited resources.
  • The G66 agenda of the 60s and 70s involved massive transfer of wealth to developing nations. It never came to fruition, but might need to be reopened.
  • Don’t let the perfect (future technology) stand in the way of the good (immediate measures). Managing the carbon demand side (e.g., energy efficiency) is the real near-term mitigation opportunity, and needs stronger leadership.
  • Agriculture is a disaster now, with 680M people calorie deprived today.
  • Science is imperfect and will remain so. Course correction is how we deal with the future.
  • On a pessimistic note, some wondered whether any real progress would be made without a severe crisis to drive it. We need massive research on air capture and geoengineering.
  • On the optimistic side, a China team player noted that this game marked a historic transition in thinking, and predicted that China would engage proactively and take on tough goals.
  • At some point, the cultural dimensions (e.g., religion) of creating an environmental civilization must be addressed.

It was widely observed that mitigation came to dominate the agenda, in spite of explicit efforts to make adaptation, vulnerability and security issues prominent. Several reasons were advanced for the imbalance:

  • We didn’t have teams representing the most vulnerable nations
  • The group, weighted towards Americans and Europeans, wasn’t as diverse as a real negotiation
  • Vulnerability of the developed world is underappreciated
  • Talking about mitigation in 2015 was familiar; thinking about adaptation in 2015 was hard. More communication of the science of what might happen is needed.
  • There is a framework for addressing mitigation, but none for dealing with adaptation. Much of adaptation is fragmented, local, and within-country, and thus difficult for international institutions to take on.

CNAS promises another war game emphasizing adaptation in Africa and other vulnerable nations with limited resources. I hope I’m there to see it!

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