In The Field

Climate war game: The future is here, and it’s not pretty

I’ve just arrived at the Newseum, where one of the first “war games” to tackle the subject of global warming will play out over the two and a half days. About 45 participants from around the world have converged in Washington, D.C., for the exercise, organized by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). It began with cocktails and dinner last night, along with a discussion about global warming policy and the purpose of such “scenario planning” exercises. Take home lesson? The future tends to be a surprising place.

Peter Schwartz, co-founder and chairman of the Global Business Network, discussed how a map showing California as an island persisted for more than a century and a half, and how IBM once projected cumulative home-computer sales at 240,000 units, peaking in 1983. As smart and capable people, Schwartz told his audience, “you are highly susceptible to self-deception.”

Today the participants woke up in the year 2015, and the outlook on global warming is significantly worse than it was just seven years earlier. The international community has negotiated and ratified a follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol requiring an 80 percent cut in emissions by mid-century, but it’s already apparent that more needs to be done. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment, released in 2014, suggested that the climate is heating up faster than anticipated. Droughts, heavy rains, floods and other extreme weather events are on the rise. Some 250,000 refugees from Bangladesh are camped out on the border of India, two years after their country was ravaged by a typhoon.

In an effort to avert potential international conflicts, the United Nations Secretary General is calling for increased cooperation regarding resource shortages, disaster relief, climate-induced migration and the reduction of greenhouse gases. Four teams representing China, India, Europe and the United States – each of which has been given basic information about its basic economic and political conditions – are now charged with negotiating a new agreement dealing with both adaptation and greenhouse gas emissions.

CNAS is coming at this issue as a national security think-tank, although it has partnered with several high-profile organizations focused on business, science and environmental policy. Senior fellow Sharon Burke says the idea is to bring the kind of long-term strategic planning regularly conducted by the military to bear on climate change. “Granted it’s just a game, and reality is often different," she says, "but it forces people to test their assumptions.”

Schwartz says the key to a war game, like theatre, is suspension of disbelief. It feels a bit like a grown-up version of Dungeons and Dragons to me, but I’m willing to give it a try. The game begins at 10 a.m. this morning after a talk by IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri, via satellite from India. I’ll be posting regular updates on the progress during the next couple of days.


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