Every six months or so, I load up a game called Fate of the World and try to save the planet.
Fate of the World came out in 2011, a piece of edutainment that boasts “real science based on the research of Prof. Myles Allen of Oxford University.” It grabbed a few headlines in gaming press and then disappeared. Because it is fricking hard.
The game begins in the year 2020. After several high-profile storms, the world creates the Global Environmental Organization, a sort of eco-United Nations tasked with fighting climate change and energy scarcity. The member nations give the GEO money, which you, the player, spend on programs and subsidies to push humanity toward a brighter future.
Red Redemption designed Fate of the World to teach its players. Here’s what I’ve learned: the future is full of horror, or at least it is if anyone like me is allowed to dictate global energy policy.
Here’s what the game looks like.
You buy GEO “agents” for each region of the world. The agents are slots where you can spend money on cards representing energy, social, or environmental policies – everything from funding law enforcement to a global cap and trade agreement. My goal in this game is to survive 100 years, to 2120, with less than three degrees Celsius of global warming.
You face all kinds of unintended consequences in this game. For example: you can subsidize a push to switch a nation to electric cars. Sounds good, right? Except those cars still need power. And if you’re China or India and most of your power comes from coal-fired plants, then you’re actually creating more pollution, because coal burns dirtier than gasoline.
Steam tells me I’ve logged 78 hours into this game since 2011. A game can take a couple hours to finish, depending on the scenario you choose. I would figure I’ve turned 40 planet Earths into storm-wracked billiard balls. I fare little better this time.
Let me show you how I broke the world.
2020: Obviously, my plan has to start with taxing the developed world back into the Stone Age. I levy the Tobin tax in North America, Europe, Russia, Japan, and Oceania. Any time people in these regions change one currency to another, the Tobin Tax skims money off the top and gives it to me. I bleed support in these countries, but I smirk and chug from a goblet full of bankers’ tears. North America and Europe get electric cars. Their energy sources are clean-ish, compared to other nations. I dump money into protecting the Amazon rain forest, technology research in America and Japan, and security forces to stabilize North and South Africa and the Middle East.
In short, here’s my plan: I must cut emissions in China, whose entrenched factories and coal-fired plants belch out more pollution than anywhere else on the planet. I must ease the human suffering in India, which suffers from overpopulation, a lack of education, and a coal industry just as dug-in as China’s. It will take decades to wean them from coal.
In the meantime, North America will ramp up oil and natural gas production. South America will crank out biofuels. The oil can’t last forever, so I’m going to try to cut the demand for energy and embrace natural gas until technology advances enough that wide-scale renewable energy production is a real possibility. I figure this will happen around mid-century.
2030: So far, so good. India and China hate the one-child policies I’ve enacted, but I need to keep their populations down. I switch China to a vegetarian diet to save resources. America’s old foe Russia is still a tottering, aggressive kleptocracy, but one in every five citizens is too sick to work. Russia gets a dose of subsidized health care initiatives and security forces.
The Tobin taxes go down like lead balloons. America, Europe and Japan are just shy of withdrawing all support. I can no longer levy the tax against Russia, because it’s too unstable. I stop taxing them and start extorting Oceania for money. After decades of eco-awareness campaigns, they don’t mind opening their wallets as much as more consumerist nations. I will tax the crap out of Australia for the next 20 years.
2050: I think I got this. The life expectancy of your average Indian citizen hangs tight at 59 years. That sounds grim, except that by 2050 the entire subcontinent chokes under a shroud of smog from the coal plants that are taking too long to transition to basically anything else.
By this point, the English-speaking world regards me with wary distrust. China loves me. They’ve weaned themselves from coal to nuclear power, and new fourth-generation reactors make the uranium last much longer.
The Middle East are total bros now. With education and health care subsidies, protection against storms and drought, and by investing in advanced drilling techniques, the Middle East couldn’t be happier or healthier.
I think I got this.
2055: Everything has gone horribly wrong.
Here’s the basic problem with ditching coal as an energy source: something else must take its place. Earth needs oil and natural gas, and its nations don’t extract enough of those fossil fuels to satisfy the extra demand as the giants India and China turn away from coal.
Massive energy shortages wrack the industrial and agricultural industries. All the natural gas and oil goes to energy production, with precious little left for factories and farms. Most of the world struggles to grow food or manufacture goods.
No energy means no jobs that require energy. It means no food. India’s average lifespan drops to 43 years. About 32 million Indians starve to death.
But hey, uh… at least emissions are down, as all those factories and power plants fall silent! Am I right?
It’s clear I must act fast. I’ve set up a global headquarters in Europe. That means I can play policy cards in Europe that affect the whole world. Cards like this:
With this decree, I ban the world from using conventional oil as a power source. That means the oil goes straight to transportation, agriculture and industry instead of burning in power plants to keep the lights on. I imagine I’ll face power shortages, but at least the agriculture and industrial sectors will come back to life.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Well fine! I didn’t need you anyway! Who needs American energy tech research or American support or America’s vast wealth? Not the GEO, buster! Let’s see if my oil ban worked.
It… hmm. Latin America and Japan all have 33 percent unemployment. China faces 41 percent unemployment. That’s 400 million people in China with no jobs. In 2014, America’s population sits at 314 million. Imagine packing a third more people into our country. Now imagine none of them – no one – has a job.
China, the game tells me, is “displeased.”
My funding, a function of my member nations’ gross domestic product, drops like a stone. What little remains goes into funding job-sharing programs across the globe so the world economy doesn’t collapse. I’ve cut emissions but I’m already at 2.2 degrees of global warming above pre-industrial levels. I need a plan.
2070: OK, here’s my plan. We’ve researched the ready use of sulfate aerosol geoengineering. With this, I can spray an acidic mixture into the upper atmosphere, where it forms into droplets that reflect the sun’s light away from the Earth. Less light and heat reaching our planet means less global warming. Apparently, this is a thing.
It will also worsen drought and do nothing good to our weather patterns and oceans when the acid mixture rains back down on the ground. But I’ve just got to make it to 2120! I’ll let the people of 2121 worry about the side effects.
Consumerist regions love sulfate aerosols, because it’s a quick and “easy” solution to climate change. More eco-friendly regions hate it. Russia loves it.
2080: North America gets over its two-decade tantrum and rejoins the GEO initiative, just in time for sea turtles to go extinct:
Fate of the World likes to remind you of what’s at stake. As weather and climate patterns change, they exact a toll on our wildlife. I haven’t yet finished a play-through without murdering sea turtles, or black rhinos, or lions, or something.
America’s in outright anarchy, so I declare martial law. Every town and city in the continent becomes Ferguson, Missouri. Every school gets an MRAP and a rack of grenade launchers.
I tell the Americans to start spraying the skies with acid. They love it.
2085: India and China walk out on me. I have no idea how to create enough energy for the entire world. I have the tech to make a real push for renewable energy, but installing it will be the work of decades. For a five-year turn, solar panels are bandages on a sucking chest wound.
2090: To my horror, I notice “emergency famine relief” is now a card I can play in North America. The Russians quietly research clathrate extraction. Methane clathrates are deposits of gas trapped in ice or under the sediment of the ocean’s floor. Tapping into them gives Russia a source of natural gas that’s probably safe.
2095: IT WASN’T SAFE AT ALL
Russia delves too greedily and too deep. They unleash a geyser of methane into the atmosphere, aggravating the greenhouse effect. You can issue a global ban on clathrate extraction to prevent exactly this thing from happening.
But I forgot, so now we have to deal with a tub fart on a geological scale. It’s clear to me that the solution to accidentally putting crap into the sky is to put crap into the sky on purpose. More sulfate aerosols!
2100: Japan reopens its doors. My iTunes library cycles over to “The Spirit of Man,” a song from the War of the Worlds musical. It is actually a thing.
“People loved you and trusted you, came to you for help,” a woman sings.
I check the global news ticker. 102 million die, some in a war, most from disease and starvation in India.
“Didn’t I warn them this would happen?” a man sings back.
Let’s check in on America.
2105: China and India come back. Another 95 million people die on my watch. Nathaniel, the deranged pastor in the musical, still sings about the corrupt world. I check to see how India has fared without me. It has turned into the Krogan homeworld.
“Forget about goodness and mercy,” Nathaniel sings. “They’re gone.”
Just to spite me, Europe starts drilling for clathrate gas. They trigger a second apocalyptic blast of methane in five years. The global temperature increase knocks on 3.0. Hold it together, guys. Please hold it together.
2110: A THIRD CLATHRATE ERUPTION? YOU ARE JOKING. YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS. I CAN’T EVEN. I AM UNABLE TO CAN.
We research and distribute quantum computers. The grim handful of humans left on Earth who have jobs and electricity experience massive gains in productivity.
2120: I… won?
I won! Hope is still intact! For a certain, tragic definition of “hope!”
Here are some fun facts about Earth in 2120, after a century of my benevolent rule.
-North America’s gross domestic product fell from $180 billion in 2020 to $75 billion.
-The Middle East, China and Europe are rolling in the dough, because they’re sitting on mounds of fossil fuels and uranium.
-Life in North America consists of queueing to receive your emergency famine rations before going to Smile Camp to recite the Pledge of Excruciation to the cloned brain of Joe Arpaio. Jackbooted confessor-judges administer beatings with truncheons. The Simpsons is still on television.
-I’ve turned the subcontinent of India into hell on Earth. The average adult lifespan is still 43 years, but only because that’s the hard-coded limit the game sets. It could not have anticipated I would so miserably mismanage a country. In 2020, India’s GDP per capita was $3,000. A century later, it’s closer to $400 per person.
-Sixty-six percent of China is unemployed.
Do you see that smug fricking dolphin? He’s laughing, because he does not need electricity and a job to prosper. Or maybe he’s screaming because decades of sulfate aerosols have turned the ocean into pure acid.
I’ll do better next time, I promise. I’ll crank out more natural gas to soften the mid-century crash. I’ll tax with a lighter touch. Maybe I can get through a century without turning India into a charnel house.
Fate of the World came out in 2011. A year later, when some of my friends would worry about the prophecied end of the world – remember, that was a thing – I would say, “Do you even know about clathrates?” Doomsday prophecies don’t scare me. Only three things scare me now: heights, the ghost of Bloody Mary, and clathrate eruptions.
So… thanks for that. I’ll let you know if I ever save the world. But don’t hold your breath.