How to game the system

'Chevron CEO faces life imprisonment for ecocide'. A fictional headline from the future.

Survive the Century
When it comes to climate, stories are just as important as science.

We make sense of our past, present and future by telling each other stories.

Climate scientists are often pushed to the front of the climate movement. They were among the first to raise the alarm about what’s in store if we don’t slow down climate breakdown.

Their cutting-edge predictions - ice melt, species extinctions, extreme drought and wildfires - are the best way to communicate what’s really at stake, so the theory goes.

But sometimes, the sophisticated computer models climate scientists create are an insufficient guide.

The creators of the Survive The Century game will be speaking at a Fridays For Future MAPA Zoom event at 1pm UTC on Sunday, 25 July 2021. You can join the event by clicking on this link

Powerful

The possible climate futures that await us will be a big, complex mess of political and social forces interacting with environmental change. That's hard to model.

Of course, we still need excellent scientific models to help us understand what the future of the planet might look like. But we also need other tools.

This is where fiction comes in. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of climate fiction, or ‘cli-fi’ - a sub-genre of speculative fiction that tells the stories of what might be to come as our climate changes beyond recognition.

We’ve experimented with the power of fiction in a new choose-your-own-adventure game, Survive The Century, that helps players vividly imagine a range of climate futures lying ahead.

The game puts you in the position of a powerful newspaper editor, making daily choices about the way you interpret the events of the next few decades.

Sci-fi

Do you call school strikers heroes or hooligans? As the climate crisis displaces millions of people, do you back corporate visas, harsh refugee camps, or resettlement in richer countries?

Those choices affect the reality of what happens next: if you select options that kow-tow to fossil fuel businesses, you see the global temperature tracker rising faster in the corner of your screen.

And next to it, the conflict tracker begins to turn a deep red when you start running headlines that back reckless or authoritarian political leaders.

The game confronts the reality that all of us wield a certain kind of power - one that deals in stories, not the scientific method. And it brings to life the fact that the stories we tell to ourselves and others have very real consequences for the future.

The headlines in the game have been written by sci-fi writers from Finland, India, Qatar and South Africa.

Temperature

They help us imagine what might come to be: “Versace premiers ‘cooling suits’ at Paris Fashion Week allowing fashionistas to go outside in the tropics”; “Japan becomes first country to be powered entirely by hydrogen”; “Rebel climate hacking causes droughts, crop failures across Northern Hemisphere”.

We make sense of our past, present and future by telling each other stories.

But when the future of the planet is already so extraordinary, why turn to fiction?

First, it’s how humans work. We make sense of our past, present and future by telling each other stories: narratives with a beginning and end, and with something important at stake.

That fills an emotional gap - engaging heart as well as head - that no amount of research evidence can. Stories allow us to feel ourselves in the future, not just think ourselves there.

Next, fiction can deal with complexity. The future consequences of climate change tend to be imagined around keeping global heating below certain temperature increase targets: 2°C, 3°C, 4°C.

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Freedom

Science can give us some sense of the climate consequences of each - but too often, that means that we imagine a binary future where a 1.5°C rise is safe and everything else is hell.

But it’s not that simple, and that’s where fiction comes in. The game allows players to create a world with a stable climate that’s even more unjust as the one we live in now - or a fair world that’s unlivably hot.

One stream takes us down an ultra-capitalist route, where corporate visas control climate-driven migration and dictate global policy, and businesses exploit the fact that they own climate-ready technology.

Such a future might end up being good in temperature terms, but raise challenges in terms of global equity.

Another illustrates a future where a Global Climate Council becomes an authoritarian government, keeping warming to 1.5°C but crushing freedom in the process.

International

Other choices build a healthier version of the world at that same temperature: where citizens are protected, democracy flourishes, and governments work together.

It reminds us that there’s not a single good future and a single bad one: instead, there’s an infinite number of complex futures, and only we can control which we get. Our game helps players understand that we can shape our future, not just witness it.

For many, that feeling of power over climate change has been lost in recent years.

As climate activists saw inaction stall progress, many stopped hedging. They developed clear and unequivocal messages: if we don’t stop climate change right now, there is no future for us on this planet.

It got people to understand the scale of the threat. But it also made some people believe there’s nothing they can do: this is the future of the planet and big international climate change meetings, they thought, something bigger than me, and where’s the point in trying to change that?

Adventure

Fiction - and especially a choose-your-own-adventure style - puts control in the hands of the reader.

It reminds them that the important decisions are the ones that lie ahead of us, not behind us. In fact, the first question starts today: what headline would you write for a piece about Covid recovery?

To take action on climate change, we have to know what science says is likely to happen.

But we must also know what it might be like to feel the heat of an unprecedented bushfire on our skin, the spike of fear when multiple crops fail, or the relief of breathing cleaner air in greener cities, halting sea ice loss in the Arctic, and the joys of living in more equitable societies.

Facts keep us realistic. But to really believe them, we have to be willing to deal in fiction.

These Authors

Dr Christopher Trisos and associate professor Dr Simon Nicholson are climate scientists. Sam Beckbessinger is a best-selling fiction writer. They have launched Survive the Century: a climate fiction story of choice and consequences, a new interactive online game. 

The creators of the Survive The Century game will be speaking at a Fridays for Future MAPA Zoom event at 1pm UTC on Sunday, 25 July 2021. You can join the event by clicking on this link

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The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here