Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Climate Challenge, or How I Learned to Start Pandering and Love the Pork

I played the Climate Challenge game recently after discovering it on the Games for Change website and found it to be a provocative look at the politics and policy solutions related to global warming. While the gameplay has a few blind spots (mainly the lack of good feedback on economic performance) and gets a bit repetitive, Climate Challenge communicates and encourages reflection on some important and perennial political lessons.

The gist is that you "play as the President of Europe from 2000 to 2100 [!?], and attempt to reduce your carbon emissions while maintaining vital national services and remaining popular with the electorate." This is tougher than it seems. There are five variables you must monitor—finances, energy, food, water, and emissions—and five policy areas with which to affect these variables—national, trade, agriculture & industry, local, and household. You are evaluated at the end of your public service on indicators of environment, wealth, and popularity.

For my first attempt I figured why not go for broke with an aggressive Green platform: I ended up getting booted out of office after four rounds. My approval rating fell through the floor when I neglected the food supply and the water infrastructure in favor of fuel taxes and rapid expansion of renewable energy, and my administration was punished by climate-induced floods and heat waves that further compounded my popularity problems. Game Over. Chalk it up to the game's learning curve.

Periodically during Climate Challenge, Europe must engage in environmental diplomacy with the other blocs: North America, South America, Africa, South Asia, Pacifica, and North Asia. The negotiation stage is minimal and it's not clear what's at stake, but you have the option to subsidize green development in each region. Presumably these gestures rally the negotiators to your side. But what is your side? While emissions targets give you something to aim for, they also make your job harder.

On my second pass I tried to be a more sensitive leader while still negotiating in good faith for emissions reductions on the international stage. Fortunately the game is loaded with great policy choices with which to meet these goals—energy innovation and efficiency, transportation and green building regulations, and investments in basic research.

I found that one way to keep my rating high was to focus on subsidizing things people wanted, like home solar, and to steer clear of things they didn't, such as carbon taxes—promote, don't restrict—which seems to adhere to what Roger Pielke calls his "iron law" of climate politics.

Climate Challenge also offers some tempting public programs of uncertain value (within the game environment): launch a space program, host the Olympics, send foreign aid. These tend to hemorrhage money, energy, and emissions, but the voters like them.

I played a final round with an exaggerated pro-business approach, funding things like nuclear projects and carbon capture, yet even then I somehow managed to throw the economy into hyperinflation by 2100 and allow criminals to stalk the streets. Clearly the game needs better feedback on the socioeconomic front, as my approval rating ran high throughout.

While the gameplay is just a bunch of clicking, the real action happens on the conceptual level, and there are some nice contextual touches that teach the reality of nimbyism, resource limitations, and political trade-offs. For example, after each election you get a newspaper report on how your policies have been received. My favorite one said: "The most popular policy was 'Spin your policies.'" A few dollars spent on savvy PR can go a long way.

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