Opinion: Model Climate Negotiation Game

10 November 2017

In October, Léa from Young Friends of the Earth Scotland joined a simulation of the UN climate talks – and found that even when it's just a game, the system is rigged against the Global South.

At the beginning of October, I took part in a Model Climate Negotiation game designed by the MIT in Norway. People from countries around the world took part, including India, Fiji, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Zambia, Syria, Norway, Ethiopia just to name a few. The game simulated the annual discussions at the UN climate talks – or the Conference of the Parties (COP). This happened just weeks before COP23 kicked off in Bonn, where governments from around the world are meeting to discuss how to implement the Paris climate deal agreed at COP21.

Ever since we did this climate negotiation 'game' I have been feeling ill-at-ease, frustrated and even angry when I recall the experience.

The participants were split into different groups, representing different blocs of countries with similar positions at the UN climate talks: the USA, the EU, "Other developed countries", China, India, and "Other developing countries"(ranging from the Middle-East to the Pacific Islands...). Other participants represented the other actors: the fossil fuel lobby, climate activists and journalists.

Throughout the day, we needed to reach an agreement by providing different numbers: the year when we stop emitting CO2, the percentages of the effort we would make on afforestation and deforestation, the money the groups will put in or ask from a green fund (to help countries do an environmental transition). A piece of software processed the numbers and indicated the number of degrees of warmth our agreement meant the world would be heading to. By the end of the day, we needed to stay under 2° of warming, or we lost the game...

I feel that something wrong came out of this day, due to a mixture of the activity that missed the point of why COPs are important, and the conversation we had after with the teachers.

I would like to explain first why I think this activity missed the entire point. First of all... it turns climate negotiation into a game, a mystery game, where due to random and shallow numbers you are supposed to reach a 2° agreement. 2° of warming is still extremely dangerous: it means the displacement and murder of billions of species, and the disappearance of islands hosting communities and precious ecosystems.

The game did not challenging the 2° question, when even countries during COP21 demanded an agreement limiting global warming to 1.5°. Acknowledging that keeping warming below 1.5° is essenatial, even if it is increasingly difficult to achieve, would at least have recognised the right to life and shown global support for these communities on the front line.


"Climate change is a political and social issue. Thinking that the solution will come within the same framework that got us into this murdering mess does not make any sense!"


In the end, the activity left us disempowered and thinking that COPs are useless. And they are not.

Yes, if we look at these events from a top to bottom framing, then yes, COPs are pointless. These accords are not binding on a state level; they are just public promises. 

If we would have focused more on how much civil society and environmental activists got from it (and not 2 people assigned as activists and that were barely heard during the game...), we would have realised how important these accords are.

And it made the job easier for activists. In Western countries at least, all we need to do is demand the government to respect the Paris Agreement and be ambitious about it. It is not easier, but at least it gave civil society a much-needed leverage to call out the governments on their actions.

But the point that is really, REALLY pissing me off, is the conversation that took place after and the reaction from the teachers, which clearly showed a strong privilege bias.

Where to start... first, OVERPOPULATION. They mentioned overpopulation as one of the causes of climate change is a problem. Overpopulation is not a cause of the problem, it is a consequence of the system we are living in. And within the system we are living in – neo-liberalism, capitalism, and patriarchy – it is a problem. The Earth can sustain us, if we challenge and reinvent ways of distributing wealth and resources. For example, Agroecology heals the soil, recreating sustainable and resilient ecosystems, and produces a larger and more diverse amount of food than what our current intensive, industrial system is doing.

Overpopulation is a problem only if we think GDP/economic growth is indefinite. In our current system, we need people to spend money to reach a comfortable lifestyle that western countries have been selling for less than a century. For them to do this and access it, they need a job to earn money. And there lies the catch. Our planet cannot produce meaningful, useful, non-destructive jobs for 7 billion people.

And if we were to redesign our economies, where money is not the pillar holding everything together, then finding a full-time job for everyone would not be important and we could focus on building resilient communities with free access to natural resources (food, water, renewable energies) etc. based on solidarity, help and other means of exchange (giving time in exchange for something else, skill-sharing etc.).

Countries should and must have the right and access to decent and meaningful lives. And this does not mean the one promoted by neo-liberalism, which is cutting ourselves from our roots and destroying our very home. To achieve this, every (northern and southern) country needs to rethink and promote new ways of living to transition toward a fairer world.

In practice, this means that countries in the Global South should transition away from the capitalist framing to gain access to the better life that is direly needed. With the impacts of climate change making this transition harder and harder every day, this process needs to begin urgently. Meanwhile, countries in the global North need to transition away from energy intensive lifestyles, where individuals are visualised as consumers where only their wallets have a right to vote.

There is a need to move away from the brainwashing of eco-consumerism and start openly challenging the systems. Buying organic food is valid but we need to demand short supply chains for the food we eat. People in the Global North should move away from the idea that the world is their oyster and that having exotic fruits and vegetables from far-flung corners of the Earth all year round is completely fine. We need to rediscover our own lands and what nature has to offer where we are, without stealing other regions' resources.

Governments are thinking in term of shallow ecology and it is up to all of us to demands systems grounded in deep ecology, i.e. addressing, and solving the roots of the problems –not their consequences.

Major changes need to happen from all of us, to ask for and to apply systematic change.


"There is a need to move away from the brainwashing of eco-consumerism and start openly challenging the systems" 


And this leads me to what one of the teachers said which made me feel like I was going to faint.

He said that the most important change will only happen if China and India, and other "developing" countries make the most effort. That it does not really matter what happens in the Global North, because if China would stop emitting CO2 earlier than the group in our game said, then we would have won the game, no matter what United States would do...

This is discharging historical responsibility and practical reality onto countries. While these countries have a share of responsibility, it is not as great as the one the teacher seemed to assume. Every country must do its fair share!

Who colonised and implemented polluting factories so that they could steal cheap resources, oppressed individuals, in order to have strong growth? Where did the industrial revolution start? And where do individuals have the most polluting lifestyles?

It seems absurd that China and India appear as a threat because billions of people want to gain access to this dream lifestyle, which the United States and Western Europe are working so hard to reach and promote.

I was shocked that a teacher would discharge the responsibility of finding solutions to regulate a global problem like climate change onto a handful of people, which are in a vulnerable position. For example, it is easy for Norway to fund its own ecological transition, when it keeps selling fossil fuels to other countries.

Climate change is a political and social issue. Thinking that the solution will come within the same framework that got us into this murdering mess does not make any sense!

Discharging the rich countries' responsibility, because, "hey these countries in the Global South are the ones causing the overpopulation issue", and to say it in front of an international group like us, and where we all have our own cultural perceptions and understanding of climate change (from people who never heard of it, to committed climate activists) is just disrespectful and irresponsible.


This is of course my interpretation and view on the topic, knowing that I come from a very privileged background as well. But after exchanging and reading on the topic, I know that a fairer transition is happening and that it goes beyond government action. Every day communities around the world are reinventing agriculture, education, democracy, and economy toward fairer and resilient models. Networks like ours where we support and teach others is a part of this movement. COPs are an important meeting place for civil society around the world, where they can meet and have a space to voice their problems and promote their solutions. It is also a moment where we can show global support toward vulnerable countries facing a bigger power that couldn't care less about our lives.





What I have said is of course open to be challenged, questioned, and criticised.