Climate Crisis on the Board

Expedition: Climate Game
Project Name: Keep Cool

One map, six players, plenty of black and green factories and the climate crisis in the background. Who can reach their economic and political goals first and win without triggering a climate collapse? With 'Keep Cool', researchers have developed a game about climate change – and are informing us how it can be stopped.

Even in the first round, disaster strikes: 'Drought in India' says the card that has just been drawn, and it could get expensive. But whether this disaster actually hits or not is first determined with a roll of the dice. The player rolls a four – and with it spares the emerging nations from the drought. Only rolling a one, two or three would have held off the monsoon, thus causing a drought to dry up the crops in the fields. As they game goes on, this will change.

Keep Cool in Action; Foto: Falk Weiß

Lucky again, the game keeps going. It's the USA and Partners' turn, and they receive income for each one of their factories. There are five black factories on the board, real cesspits, using fossil fuels and producing lots of greenhouse gasses. There are two black carbon chips per factory – the game's currency. They are neatly stacked on the 'carbometer' and are taken from there. But careful: there are only so many chips on this pile. The fewer chips sitting on the 'carbometer', the warmer the earth gets. There are also two chips for the green factory, the only one on the board using renewable energy – this time from the climate-neutral pile. At the end of their turn the USA builds another factory – a black one, because it's cheaper than a green one.

A Game with Scientific Foundations

"It began coincidentally in a pub," remembers mathematician and resource economist Klaus Eisenack. "At the time, the early 2000s, I was new at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and I was sitting with a colleague." While chatting, the two climate researchers realised: we both love board games. But that's not all: both of them had been playing around with the idea of approaching the topic of climate change in a playful way and developing a board game addressing scientific, political and economic aspects. "We wanted to create a new approach to the topic, away from ignorance on the one side and fear on the other," says Klaus Eisenack. "But also without pointing the finger."

No sooner said than done: in 2004, the original pub idea resulted in the climate game 'Keep Cool'. The world map on the board is split up into different territories. Three to six players take groups of countries like the emerging nations, Europe or the OPEC, and - confronted with climate change - have to proceed while pursuing a secret political agenda. Can the global community stop climate change? Are economic interests more important than protecting the climate? And how will the global partners negotiate with each other to achieve their respective political and economic goals? "There are different conditions for each player, which correspond to the real-world circumstances," explains Klaus Eisenack about the game's concept. This means that the black factories are cheaper in the emerging nations than in the industrialised ones, and the emerging nations begin the game with fewer factories as well. To make investing in green factories worthwhile, the global community must first invest in the development of new technologies. Scientifically correct and reflected in the game is also the fact that the costs to mitigate the effects of climate will increase rapidly in the future.

Adapt or Perish

Round after round, the players try to generate as much income as they can and build factories. The carbon budget on the 'carbometer' decreases alarmingly. By now the earth's climate has warmed from blue, past yellow, to orange, and with it the chance of climate catastrophes and natural hazards increases. 'Desertification in the Amazon', 'Failing Crops in the USA', 'Landslide in Venezuela' or 'Heatwave in Southern Europe' are now disasters that will not strike only when the dice lands on one, two or three. If the 'carbometer' shows orange, only throwing a six can avert the disasters. Additionally, the effects of climate change have gotten more expensive: instead of taking two carbon chips for 'Bushfires in Australia', now players must take seven.

More and more red protection stones are now popping up on the board. They cost money but reduce the resulting costs from the natural disasters. In the next round, the emerging nations are hit again: a malaria epidemic costs four carbon chips, which exceeds the player's remaining budget. Luckily, he has already invested in a red protection stone and can use it to halve the costs.
"This actually mirrors the current discourse," explains Klaus Eisenack. "The earlier people invest in protecting against the effects of climate change, the longer they can profit from it." The climate debate is essentially about two concepts to counter global warming: with 'Mitigation', experts are referring to all measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and as such stop global warming. 'Adaptation' outlines all measures that buffer against the effects of climate change that we are already seeing – flood management measures, for example, or agricultural irrigation systems. While there has been intense debate since the 90s about how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the discussion about adaptation is just getting started. "It's been neglected for a long time," confirms Klaus Eisenack. "For example, Germany only began developing an adaptation strategy in 2008."

Free Riders and Climate Sceptics

The climate keeps getting warmer, the available carbon budget on the 'carbometer' is sinking rapidly and has now reached the red zone – the highest level. The USA and Partners try to turn things around, because, when the carbon chips run out, everyone loses. The black factories remaining on the territories of the USA and Partners are demolished, and innovations for green factories are invested in to reduce the price of climate-friendly factories. All the other players benefit from this too, because the price of green technology sinks globally. Despite a request from the USA, Europe does not invest in these technologies - could oil lobbyists there be pulling strings in the background and pursuing the goal of building as many black factories as possible? Or is Europe a free rider, profiting at the expense of the others?

"The Free Rider Problem is a very central problem – not only in the game, but also in real climate politics," explains Klaus Eisenack. When the costs of climate action are unevenly distributed, it not only leads to injustice, but means many stakeholders and governments are not motivated to contribute to climate action at all. "The game can also rile people up," says the researcher, laughing. In the end, Europe wins – it reached its goals faster than the others. "In the game, the mechanisms are clear, but you can also influence and change the course of things," explains Klaus Eisenack. "The way it turns out in the end is in the players' hands." In 'Keep Cool', it is not necessarily the player who does the most for the climate who wins, but the player who reaches their goals first. Whether there is disaster relief for poorer countries, shared profits or joint investments is all negotiable. There are also 'bad guys' who sabotage the green factories or try to make maximum profit from dirty technologies. "We included the real problems of climate change in such a way that they are reproduced in a simplified form by the players," explains Klaus Eisenack. Knowledge of such mechanisms can be conveyed and deepened in moderated games at schools, NGOs or advanced training seminars.

Playing for Change

Surprisingly, the game seems to have more of a lasting effect on the players who take on a climate-damaging role. The researchers confirmed this in a study of over 200 school children. They asked young people between 13 and 16 years old about their attitudes towards climate change before and after the game. They also observed the students' behaviour during the game. The belief that it was their responsibility to counteract climate change increased in all the young people. At the same time, they also became more optimistic about effective international climate politics in the future. This was particularly evident, however, among the students who played a climate-damaging role in the game and built lots of black factories.

Klaus Eisenack; Photo: Falk Weiß

Meanwhile, Klaus Eisenack and his team have been thinking about updating the game, which is already in its fourth edition. "The circumstances are different today than they were in 1990, which was the foundation for the game's concept," he stresses. "Emerging nations like India or China have become stronger, and the 'carbometer' should be emptier to begin with." The researcher also has another game idea at the back of his mind. "We want to develop a game about water management in Berlin and Brandenburg as part of a large research project." The game should bring people together who possess very different kinds of expertise. With the help of the game, researchers, experts in flood management, water suppliers, conservationists or residents will be able to jointly develop new ideas for managing droughts, heavy rain or decreasing groundwater levels. Because "games can connect, and be a driver of social change," Klaus Eisenack is convinced.


Keep Cool is available as a board game and can be played online as well.

  • Auf dem Campus Nord; Foto: Falk Weiß
  • Auf dem Campus Nord; Foto: Falk Weiß
  • Auf dem Campus Nord; Foto: Falk Weiß

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