Bats, Bees, and Better Consumption: Catching Up with Climate Jam Participants

Left: Game play from Todd Little’s BeeCycle, Upper Right: Michael Ren’s Night Flyer, Lower Right: Chelsea Brtis’ Local Goods

EarthGames was thrilled to work alongside the rest of the Games For Our Future team and IndieCade this past April to put on the Climate Game Jam in honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Game jams are hackathon style events, often taking place over several days, with ‘jammers’ working next to nonstop at the venue, before eventually submitting their final game. However, this was the first entirely online game jam EarthGames has worked on, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

Despite some uncertainty and last-minute changes, the online Climate Jam proved to be a huge success, with international game submissions from as far away as Ecuador, England, and more! To hear more about the process of a game jam, and what inspired the game designers to keep working on their games even after the Climate Jam was finished, EarthGames caught up with three jammers, Chelsea Brtis, Todd Little, and Michael Ren. 

The Climate Jam attracted a broad range of participants across the globe, from first time jammers to veteran participants, all connected on their passion for games and the environment. Chelsea Brtis received her Master of Fine Arts with a focus in game studies and explained that during her time at the University of Texas-Dallas, “I had one professor who really drilled in why we were there and the role of video games beyond just entertainment. During this time, I reflected on my childhood and the time I spent in nature which inspired much of the work I did, exploring how the environment is represented in games”. From there, Brtis focused on designing games that focused on global environmental problems. Despite Brtis having a background in game design and environmental games, this happened to be her first game jam, and her game Local Goods won the jam’s Most Adventurous award. 

Similar to Brtis, Todd Little also pulled on his own background as both a UX Design Engineer at FairWorlds and his undergraduate experience in the natural sciences for the Climate Jam. At FairWorlds, Little works on creating VR and AR experiences for clients such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “The experiences range from the invisible threat of methane with the Methane CH4LLENGE, to the plight of the Monarch Butterfly and its loss of habitat with the Monarch Effect”, Little explained. However, his path to game development wasn’t necessarily conventional. “On a personal level, I’ve had a life-long passion for imaginative play. In college, one of my roommates was a computer science major and opened my eyes to indie game development. After college, I didn’t know what to do with my natural sciences major, so I started teaching myself how to code”. Little also explained that participating in previous solo game jams like Ludum Dare, helped him develop his skills as “the time constraint really forced me to pick up skills and techniques quickly”.

Michael Ren is also a longtime game jammer and an Asian-American indie game developer currently living in Shanghai, but originally from New York City. He has been working in the video games industry for approximately six years and has worked in AAA games at Ubisoft and mobile games at Perfect World Entertainment. Ren explained that “Game Jams are an awesome outlet for creativity and I’ve been doing them ever since college. Even today, I enjoy doing a game jam once or twice a year to test my own abilities”.  Similar to the sentiment shared by Little, Ren emphasized the value in the fast-paced nature of jams. “The short amount of time really pushes you to think about what you can make, the scope of it, and it’s a great way to learn new skills. I’d highly recommend anyone who wants to make video games try to participate in a game jam!” 

Despite the participants’ diverse backgrounds and experience with game jams, they all shared similar sentiments when explaining what drew them to this year’s Climate Jam. Brtis explained, “I was interested in the Climate Jam because of the opportunity to work with others and see games with the shared environmental experience. Reflection of the environment in games is not always emphasized, so I wanted to participate in an event addressing that”. Little shared that his own passion for the environment led him to the jam just as it had last year, “I’m passionate about climate change activism, but usually I don’t feel like I can make a difference, so this felt like a great opportunity. I also participated in last year’s Climate Jam with an AR experience called Seed Our Future”.

Ren shared that his passion for social impact projects and the environment led him to the Climate Jam, but is also a consistent theme in much of the work he does in his free time. “My games have ranged from air pollution in Hazy Days: A Breathing Simulator, to complex racial issues in Yellowface: A game about being Asian in America.” Ren shared that this year’s jam themes of Adapt, Engage, and Protect were especially inspiring to work with. 

These themes guided all the jammers as they created a diverse set of games focusing on a plethora of topics from wildfire, climate politics, deforestation, and more. These themes influenced jammers in many different ways as they drew on their own inspirations, often based in their individualized experience with the environment and environmental issues. Brtis took a direct, personal approach with her submission, that is accessible yet poignant to many players, as her game explores individual consumption choices and environmental impacts. “For Local Goods, I wanted to show how humans effect the environment in a simple way that mimics what happens in reality. I wanted to highlight the production cycle of our individual choices that we may often feel detached from on a day to day basis.” Brtis has a hope that “players will have a reflection of how their own consumption is impacting the environment, and how to make smarter choices and be more mindful”. 

Little’s BeeCycle, also came from personal interests, despite being a completely different topic: the importance of bees. “I had two big influences: My dad and the VR game Fujii. He’s a master gardener and climate change activist, so naturally I consulted with him on this project. He and my mom actually helped out on the initial research. The family home has a wonderful garden in the back. My dad had just ordered mason bees so we wanted to understand the benefits of having mason bees in our garden.”

Little’s love for Fujii especially played a strong role in the development process, “Fujii is a magical VR adventure gardening made by Funktronic Labs. If you haven’t played it, it’s very whimsical and delightful. When I first played the game, I wanted to blend both being in a real garden, but also playing the VR game at the same time. I strapped my phone to my Oculus Quest and captured this experience of playing Fujii in our backyard“. This inspired Little to use the family backyard as the setting for BeeCycle. “My hope is that players will have an increased appreciation for mason bees and the natural world. I also hope players consider raising mason bees in their backyard”.

Ren chose to take an approach that focused on current events, specifically the coronavirus outbreak and its connections to environmental topics, for his game Night Flyer. He explained that misinformation and misrepresentation of bats and their potential connection to COVID-19 was the main inspiration for his submission. “This misrepresentation has led to under-informed communities targeting bat populations for extinction and a general fear-mongering towards bats. However, the truth is far more complicated. Human actions in deforestation and illegal wildlife trading is putting us at risk.” Specific to the game itself, Ren was inspired by Game Boy Color games to give his game an old-school feel. “The mechanics are also very simple to play and I was really inspired by a mixture of Vlambeer’s Luftrausers mixed with Dong Nguyen’s Flappy Bird. I wanted to give it an Oregon Trail, edutainment-like vibe, hence targeting the game for kids and adults alike”.  “I wanted to capture the exciting life of a bat by providing players a fun and simple way of exploring their world. Through hooking players in the mechanics and narrative, then the game can begin to educate players on the role of bats in natural ecosystems”. Ren’s main goal was to show deforestation as a serious issue caused by humans, and have players live through it. “By associating the player with deforestation up-close, I hope that its effects, specifically lack of food and protection for animals native to an area, can resonate towards positive change”.

Above: Game play from Ren’s Night Flyer. In Night Flyer, players get to see the world through the life of a bat, and the many challenges they face. Players also learn facts about bats and conservation efforts in the game.

While game jams require jammers to submit a game under very short time limits, many of the jammers were further inspired by the Climate Jam to continue working on their games after the event concluded. Brtis has already done some refinements and expansion on Local Goods for IndieCade after winning the Most Adventurous award, including updating some of the audio and music. She hopes to continue working on the game further, and her goal is to make a mobile version of Local Goods in the future that can be accessible to a broader range of users. 

Similarly, Little has expansions in mind for his submission Bee Cycle stating, “there’s something to the snapping your fingers mechanic to planting seeds. I also want to make it even more immersive like making a much better photogrammetry scan of the backyard, add plant physics, and giving the user an opportunity to change scale to mason bee size, so they can sit atop the Bee House and watch the mason bees at work”.

Above: Game play from Little’s BeeCycle. In BeeCycle, players use VR to learn about the role of mason bees, and the importance of protecting their habitat, through planting wildflowers.

Ren states that he hopes to continue working on the narrative of Night Flyer as well. “There are many future ideas I’m developing right now, specifically looking at the long narrative arc. As the game’s name implies, it’s a Bat’s “Journey” and I hope the journey will be interesting for all players”. Additionally, since his final submission to the Climate Jam, Night Flyer has been localized into four different languages, thanks to helpful bat researchers he connected with through this project. 

After submitting the project, scientists and educators around the world contacted Ren about using the game in their educational outreach programs. From this network, Ren was introduced to the World Bat Twitter Conference in May, where he shared Night Flyer. “The conference was amazingly fascinating and inspiring to watch. I learned so much cool information about bats that it really pushed me to rethink the game’s scope”. Ren also gained valuable connections in the bat community, which proved to be especially meaningful. “I was connecting with people around the world, who reached out either with feedback, suggestions, or just positive comments. For many people in bat research and conservation fields, I feel this game was exactly what they were looking for. I’m really glad to have made something that can be useful to others”.

Beyond the jammers’ own deep dives into their respective game topics, the Climate Jam prompts a broader dialogue on the intersection of games, art, storytelling, and the sciences. While educational games like the Oregon Trail series have been around since the 1970s, educational gaming continues to grow and educate broader groups of people, in an increasingly diverse range of issues, including climate change. Brtis explains that with indie games becoming more mainstream, that she hopes educational games will also follow the same path. “Educational games often have a reputation as being ‘less fun’ or only for people already interested in the topic, but really, it’s not like that. Hopefully educational games can reach more people and make a broader impact in the future”. Tying back to her passion for making games that serve as more than just entertainment, Brtis shared, “I think games can bring awareness to any type of global issue. Games are a great way to educate people but often are overlooked by the public and framed poorly by the media, so I hope this will change moving forward”.  

Similar to Brtis, Ren wants to see educational games reach new audiences as the technology grows. He stated, “as technology improves and people have easier access to digital environments in the palm of their hands, I think the interactive nature of video games will provide a great way for players to experience new emotions. This emotional attachment to playing games can be leveraged to create more immersive educational experiences that help to educate and entertain in new ways we haven’t seen before”. 

Little also would like to see educational games improve their approach, specifically through more open-ended games with multiple creative potential solutions to a problem. Pulling from his experience as a UX Designer Engineer working in VR and AR, he also hopes to see more educational game designers taking advantage of these technologies. 

While this year’s Climate Jam faced some unprecedented challenges, the current state of affairs and complex global challenges we face served as a source of inspiration for jammers as they created games centered on the importance of protecting our planet. As Little shared, “I think in the last few months – we all have been shaken by how fragile our political and economic systems are with climate change looming in the background. We only have one planet, so we should use all the tools we have to protect it. That’s why I think we should be simulating, playing, and designing resilient and adaptive systems using both science and games”. 

To learn more about the work of Brtis, Little, and Ren check them out here:

Chelsea Brtis:

Todd Little:

Michael Ren: 

Rethinking Environmental Education: EarthGames in the Press

For many, education and video games are not things that seem to go hand in hand. Sure, games can have educational aspects or themes, but how could video games possibly be used to teach subjects as complicated as climate change? Yet at the same time, it cannot be denied that gaming connects with people, and effectively captures our interest, with an estimated 2.5 billion gamers worldwide. EarthGames is on a mission to provide the best of both worlds in terms of learning about complex, sometimes near intangible environmental topics in a fun, simple way, through video games. 

Making climate science accessible and engaging is key to addressing the climate crisis, and EarthGames is proud to help contribute to this need. The interdisciplinary work of EarthGames has also caught the eyes of others and is featured in some of these recent press articles. 

EarthGames and Deal: A Green New Election were recently featured in Western Digital as an example of how games can not only raise awareness of climate related topics, but also spur positive social action. 

Additionally, as both a form of interactive art and storytelling, games can prove particularly useful at making complex realities more understandable. The award-winning game, Climate Quest has been featured recently in Science News for Students and Artists and Climate Change, for doing just that: making climate science accessible, interesting, and eye-opening. As explained in both articles, Climate Quest allows players to experience aspects of climate change that perhaps don’t directly affect most of us or seem like distant threats, highlighting the potential video games have to better connect with players.

EarthGames was also featured in Current Affairs to discuss the gamification of education, and how video games can help us to understand climate change in a way that perhaps a textbook falls short. While EarthGames helps to educate on the issue of climate change, many of the games also have an optimistic ending. As explained in the Current Affairs article, facing the challenging realities of the climate crisis means it can take players many times before they succeed. Yet, there is a way to win, helping players retain hope and realize that as daunting as global environmental problems are, they do have solutions.

These are just a few of EarthGames’ recent press appearances, for more check out the Press page!

Bringing Gaming to the Classroom: New EarthGames Teacher’s Guides!

Educational games are far from new, and many of us are probably familiar with playing games like The Oregon Trail in our childhood classrooms. However, educational gaming has changed greatly since the nostalgic days (and misadventures) of clicking through the journey of mid-19th century emigrants on digital ox-drawn covered wagons.  

EarthGames is making it even easier to integrate educational gaming in the classroom, with our free to download climate and ecology centered games and corresponding resources for teachers. We are happy to announce that we now have new Teacher’s Guides for Life of Pika, A Caribou’s Tale, and Infrared Escape

These Teacher’s Guides provide educators with an educational overview, and the Next Generation Science Standards for each game. From experiencing the journey of a caribou facing the odds against climate change, to the mission of an infrared light beam avoiding greenhouse gases as it escapes the atmosphere, students will be exposed to a variety of valuable climate and ecology centered topics in a fun, engaging way!

All of the new EarthGames Teacher’s Guides can be viewed here: 

Additionally, information on all of these games, as well as the other wide variety of climate-centered games EarthGames has to offer can be found on this page

2020 Games for Our Future/IndieCade Climate Jam Recap

From games about bats facing habitat destruction, climate revolutions, wildfire management, and finicky fornicating pandas on the mission to ensure the survival of their species — the 2020 Games for Our Future (GFOF) Game Jam had it all. This year’s event in collaboration with IndieCade, allowed game jammers from across the country (and planet!) to create games focused on the theme of ‘Community, Nature, and Resilience in the Face of Global Crises’, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The event from April 17th – 23rd drew over 150 game jammers who submitted a total of 49 diverse games, all centered around pressing environmental issues, in just 5 short days. 

This was the 3rd Annual GFOF Game Jam, and despite last minute adjustments due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, shifting the event online allowed for many slightly unexpected benefits. The Game Jam had research mentors and speakers virtually participate from across the world, including keynote speaker, Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, and award-winning writer, artist, and Indigenous game designer. 

Dr. LaPensée provided an insightful talk centered around Indigenous ways of knowing, and how we can better address our collective actions for the future. In her talk, Dr. LaPensée described how despite the climate crisis we are all living in, “There is hope. How, then, can we look to those who came before us to help inform our actions right now with hope for the future?”. Through her own involvement in developing games, Dr. LaPensée explains her experience witnessing a rapidly changing climate, and the Indigenous ideology carried throughout the games she creates, such as reciprocity, balance, and traditional ecological knowledge, while retaining optimism for the future. 

Dr. LaPensée’s keynote presentation is available to watch here, along with all of the other great research mentor talks, discussing matters such as the intersection of queergaming and the environment, building emotional connections with the non-human world, and much more. 

With the inspiration and guidance from the event’s research mentors, both beginners and long-time game jammers were able to create a wide variety of games in a fast paced, yet positive, encouraging, and accepting environment. Game jammers across the world produced a GFOF Game Jam record of 49 total submissions, in a broad range of genres including adventure, simulation, strategy games, and more! 

Check out and play the submissions here!

Below are all of the award winners of the Game Jam: 

Additionally, none of this would have been possible without all of the community members involved with GFOF, the IndieCade team, and the dedication of our research mentors: 

  • Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée, Michigan State University
  • Dr. Jennifer Atkinson, University of Washington
  • Dr. Sara Jo Breslow, University of Washington
  • Dr. Elizabeth Chang, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Dr. Edmond Chang, Ohio University
  • Crispin Freeman, anime and video game voice actor
  • Dr. Dargan Frierson, University of Washington
  • Dr. Elif Sürer, Middle East Technical University
  • Graham Zimmerman, alpinist, filmmaker, and climate activist

As well as the event’s other sponsors including: 

Niantic, Riot Forge, Global Game Jam, Seattle Indies, AIE, Indie Game Collective, IGDA Victoria, The University of Texas, and Pacific Science Center 

You’re invited… to Destination Wedding 2070!

Our new project, an interactive improvised storytelling role-playing game called Destination Wedding 2070 kicks off tomorrow!  Join us as we marry family disasters with the climate crisis!  You can play along by blogging as a character, or just follow along with what everyone’s writing on reddit.  Check out the main site for all the details!  This netprov runs from Nov 3-11, 2019.

Destination Wedding 2070 is an attempt to make data about climate change more comprehensible. Although climatologists have strong models of the decades to come, they typically report it via graphs and charts.  DW70 goes beyond visualization by bringing the data to life in data dramatization as participants experience the effects in a speculative future scenario.

Screen-Shot-2019-10-30-at-3.33.32-PM

The data for this data dramatization netprov has been brought to you by EarthGames and was based on simulations from the CanESM5 model under SSP585, a high emissions scenario that represents substantial increases in fossil fuel use in the coming decades.  Climate model data is usually presented in terms of averages, but each simulation creates weather across the globe. The forecasts from each city are adapted from particular Saturdays in 2070. The maps show the model data across the globe for max/min temperature, precipitation and humidity, and city forecasts are taken from the nearest gridbox or from a heuristic downscaling approach.

dehli daytime highWe made forecasts for 5 sublime wedding locations: Issaquah, Washington (near Seattle); Neemrana Fort Palace, India (near Dehli); Mar del Plata, Argentina; The Bund, Shanghai, China and Key Biscayne, (Miami) Florida, USA.  Each site faces a unique climate catastrophe as a backdrop.  

The creators of Destination Wedding 2070 are Samara Hayley Steele, Mark Marino, Rob Wittig, and Dargan Frierson.  Joining us are a team of storytellers, which you can be a part of!  The improvisational narrative of the weddings will head in all kinds of unexpected directions as netprov participants read and respond to each others diary entries using the improv principle of “yes, and…”!

 

 

New article on EarthGames lead designer Andrew McDonald!

Andrew’s on the front page of uwb.edu!!  Read about the great work he did on mosquito/NET this summer in this article by Douglas Esser.

Have you tried out his new version of mosquito/NET yet?  Read about the project here, and download for free for iOS and Android.  The new app is not just about mosquitoes.  It allows you to track sightings of animals, insects, and birds as well, as well as experiencing some fun new gamification methods.

Deal: A Green New Election

It’s almost Election Day, and your ballot initiative is clinging to a narrow lead in the polls. Voters are concerned about effects on jobs and cost of living, and the press is waiting for answers about difficult policy questions. An angry fossil fuel CEO has contacted you with a proposal that sounds an awful lot like a threat. And do I smell smoke??

In honor of this historic day of climate action, we’re proud to release our newest game, Deal: A Green New Election!  It’s available for free for iPhone/iPad and Android (Google Play).  You can play it on your phone on the way to the climate strike!

We here at EarthGames are so inspired by the movement building around the Green New Deal.  In this game, you’re part of a team trying to pass a ballot initiative which will be voted on directly by the the voters in your state.

 

The Green New Deal would mobilize the workforce to build clean energy and resilient infrastructure, while addressing environmental justice and income inequality along the way.  But do you have the passion and skill to get your initiative passed?

Over the 15 week campaign (which can be played through in just 5-10 minutes), you’ll

  • Make decisions about what voters to target and messaging
  • Meet cool characters based on real-world climate activists
  • Respond to difficult interview questions
  • Witness fossil fuel infrastructure disasters
  • Encounter angry CEOs
  • Learn about environmental justice
  • Probably face some pretty harsh opposition
  • And much more…

When making this game, we were inspired by real-life heroes of the Green New Deal, and hope you’re inspired to join their organizations, like the Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, and 350.org.  A list of some of our Green New Deal heroes is on this page  — we hope you’ll listen to their speeches and read their words about the Green New Deal!

IMG_0307IMG_0303

The team who made Deal: A Green New Election includes:

Dargan Frierson
Jasmine Leung
Arman Kazi
Sisir Kadiveti
Rikki Parent
Erik Huang
Judy Twedt
Andrew McDonald

Thanks to all the play testers and climate activists we worked with as well!

The Green New Deal and Climate Politics: Flourish Dev Blog #3

The recent launch of the Green New Deal resolution marks a turning point in the politics of climate change in America.  The plan is stunning in its ambition, putting us on a course towards a low-emissions, climate-resilient future with a massive 10 year mobilization of the nation’s resources.  It also recognizes that such rapid changes would come with large societal costs, if safeguards aren’t put in place.  You might think such an ambitious policy would lack public support, but it’s quite the opposite: polls have shown approval ratings above 80%.

The issue of climate change is more in the public eye in America than ever before.  So with this update, we’ll change direction from describing the climate engine to talk a little about Flourish’s political engine: the equations and data behind public opinion in the game.  The engine is fully predictive: it evolves in time, changing in reaction to player choices, random events, and climate.  It also determines the actions that you’re able to take in your country.  If your constituency doesn’t believe in global warming, they won’t allow you to make bold strides to solving the problem.  We think the engine can help predict reactions to the Green New Deal and other climate policies as well.

The engine is heavily based on a series of studies by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication called “Global Warming’s 6 Americas.”  These studies suggest that Americans can be usefully separated into 6 different groups in terms of their beliefs about climate action.  We summarize characteristics of the 6 groups below.

  • Alarmed: who both accept the scientific consensus about human-caused global warming, and are already taking action to address the problem.
  • Concerned: who accept the scientific consensus but have not yet started taking action themselves.

Note that alarmed and concerned now make up 59% of the country.  Concern about global warming has risen substantially in recent years.   These two categories made up only 43% of the public in 2013.

Six-Americas-2018-Dec.png

  • Cautious: who lean towards accepting the science but don’t think it’s an urgent problem to address.
  • Disengaged: who haven’t thought much about climate change, perhaps because they have bigger problems, because they don’t know about it, or because they don’t think about politics.
  • Doubtful: who often believe that recent climate changes are natural and we’re already doing enough to solve the problem.
  • Dismissive: who believe that climate change is a hoax, and actively try to convince others of their views.

Which of the 6 categories are you?  Although I might wager that if you’re reading this you’re “alarmed,” you can take a 4 question quiz to find out.  Here’s my result:

Alarmed.b2f44521.png

Who wants to be known as Alarmed though??  We’re trying to rebrand this group as “Woke”!

When the first 6 Americas study was released in 2009, I was most struck by how small the dismissive group is.  Their intense interest in promulgating their views means they’re seen disproportionally in public debate, in comment sections of news articles, etc.  But this group simply does not make up much of the public.  Further, research has suggested that the dismissive group are unlikely to ever change their minds.  So dismissives tend not to be worth your time to debate (unless others are listening)!

In Flourish, in every region, whether player- or AI-controlled, we keep track of the fraction of the population that falls into each of the 6 groups.  The initial partitioning into these categories is based on polling data, from the Yale group or extrapolated from international surveys about climate change awareness and threat perception.

In order to calculate the public approval of a given climate action, we keep track of approval rates of each group individually, then add up the totals given the fraction of the population in each group.

Should you be considered that our political engine for the world is based on a set of studies about the US??  We sure are!  We think about conscious biases like these, and the many unconscious biases that must be present in the game on a daily basis.  Our (perhaps meager) justification for 6 Americas as the basis of a worldwide system is that we don’t take the categories too literally in their interpretation.  For instance, while “disengaged” in the US might be associated with those who are not politically engaged, in many countries it would represent people who have immediate concerns that are significantly greater than climate change, e.g., war, hunger, poverty.  Also, it’s just a starting point.  Further complexity can always be built in to correct biases.

Can the Flourish political engine help us understand policies like the Green New Deal and their likelihood of success?  The current high approval rating is doubtlessly due to the fact that it has aspects that appeal to groups who aren’t very concerned with climate, like job guarantees.  Tying climate to economic stimulus makes Green New Deal-style legislation much more likely to have lasting success as compared to initiatives that simply put a price on carbon.

In order for any climate policy to be enacted, however, it has to go through a virtual wringer of opposition from special interests who want it to fail.  These groups are extremely well-funded and powerful, and have been remarkably successful (undefeated?) in the past.  The 2018 Green New Deal-like ballot initiative in Washington state ended up attracting over $31 million in out-of-state oil money to oppose the initiative (over $10 per vote cast!).  Given the huge support rate, the onslaught of opposition attacks from outlets such as Fox News over the last few weeks are not surprising.  Those agents are doing their best to chip away at the 80% who now want a Green New Deal, and are likely succeeding to some extent.

To represent how public opinion responds to attacks like these in a game, we need to think about how public opinion can change.  We use a mathematical technique called Markov chains to describe how the 6 groups evolve in response to events like disinformation campaigns.  This system will be described in the next blog entry.

If you’re feeling “alarmed” and want to support our efforts to build Flourish, you can donate to the EarthGames Support Fund.  Donations right now would go to supporting Andrew McDonald to be a paid undergraduate research assistant on the project.  You can read about Andrew’s prior experiences developing augmented reality games with EarthGames here and here.

Flourish dev blog #2: Global methane emissions

In the last post we wrote about carbon dioxide, the #1 cause of global warming.  But methane, the #2 contributor, is not exactly negligible.  It’s caused 20% of global warming so far.  Each molecule is much more important than CO2: around 30 times as much if considered on a 100 year timescale.

Methane concentrations (as measured in ice cores and direct measurement) have also skyrocketed since preindustrial times:

historicalmethane.png

Compare methane with carbon dioxide, which has risen by 45% since preindustrial times.  Methane reached a 45% larger level than its preindustrial concentration back in the 1920s!  There’s now over 2.5 times the methane in the air than in preindustrial times.  Methane has much smaller concentration than CO2 — 2 ppm vs 400 ppm.

There was some indication recently that concentrations were leveling off, but CH4 is back on the rise since 2006:

recentmethane.png

Natural gas is mostly methane, and so is swamp gas, which is produced in wetlands by tiny microorganisms called methanogens.  Methanogens work well in warm, wet, low-oxygen environments, so wetlands or flooded rice patties are big sources.  So are the bellies of cows, sheep, and goats — and even termites!  Methane is a big reason why beef has such a high carbon footprint.

There’s a lot of methane locked up in permafrost and ice in the Arctic, and there’s also huge amounts of frozen organic material that’s ripe for decomposition by methanogens.  Certain Arctic lakes have methane bubbling to the top, where they can be lit on fire!  There’s concern about these sources releasing or creating more methane as the climate warms, leading to an amplifying feedback that causes even more warming.  Scientists are closely monitoring methane emissions in the Arctic, and worldwide, to identify potential surprises.

However, it’s quite difficult to estimate with precision how much methane comes from different sources.  Estimates from the individual sources on the ground don’t add up to the atmospheric increase/sinks.  Different groups provide their own estimates of the sources, three of which are shown below (GAINS-ECLIPSE5a and EDGARv4.2EXT from the Global Methane Project spreadsheet and CEDS).

recentmethaneemissions.png

Why would methane concentrations have stabilized starting in 2000, and accelerated in 2006, if there were no matching trends in the anthropogenic emissions?  Scientists are still arguing about that one, but it could be that natural wetland sources have changed, that concentration of the hydroxyl radical (the main way methane breaks down) in the atmosphere has changed, or that we haven’t accounted all the sources well enough.

About those anthropogenic sources.  Leaking coal mines, natural gas wells, and pipelines contribute a tremendous amount to methane emissions, and have risen sharply since the early 2000s (data from CEDS):

methanesectors.png

For example, the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Los Angeles began spewing tons of methane (watch infrared video footage here) and other chemicals in October 2015.  Local residents began suffering from headaches, nose bleeds, and other illnesses, and eventually thousands of families were forced to evacuate.  The leak wasn’t capped until February 2016, by which time over 100,000 tons of methane had leaked.

There is little government oversight on these wells, and industry self-regulation is not exactly stellar.  Check out this article for descriptions of some of the utter failures of risk management in the industry.  SoCalGas recently agreed to a $119M settlement, which will go to offsetting methane emissions across the state, a long-term health study of affected residents, and environmental justice-related projects, among other projects.

Imagine 1500 Aliso Canyon blowouts each year.  That’s the best estimate of fugitive methane leakage from coal, oil, and natural gas facilities across the world.  Could we be doing a better job at detecting leaks?  The Environmental Defense Fund plans to launch their own satellite called MethaneSAT for much-needed oversight on fugitive fossil fuel emissions.

Waste
The waste category includes methane released from landfills and water treatment.  Note this source has more than doubled since 1970.  There are ways to mitigate these, e.g., capturing biogas from landfills or installing methane digesters to water treatment facilities.  And we shouldn’t forget (gasp!) creating less waste.

Rice
Rice is typically grown in flooded fields, which create anoxic conditions that methanogens love.  There are well-known methods to reduce these emissions and grow more efficiently at the same time.

Animals
Finally, animal agriculture is another major source of methane, specifically ruminants that have multiple stomachs for digestion.  Cows, goats, and sheep all burp out large amounts of methane in their digestive system.  There simply wouldn’t be nearly as many cattle on the planet if it wasn’t for our appetite for beef.  When combined with the inherent inefficiency of animals as a calorie source (it takes 30 pounds of feed to create 1 pound of beef, per the USDA), the meat industry has an extremely high carbon footprint.

Are we shifting towards less meat intensive diets?  Definitely not — as the world becomes more rich, more and more people are demanding more meat in their diet.  Projections suggest that satisfying the demand for more meat is the main challenge for feeding the world in future decades, not rising populations.

The future doesn’t have to be like these projections though.  That’s why we’re making Flourish.  If you want to support our efforts to build this game, you can donate to the EarthGames Support Fund.  Donations right now would go hiring a paid student research assistant.

Flourish dev blog #1: Global carbon emissions

Hi everyone,

We’ve moved development of Flourish temporarily into python, so I thought it might be a good time to summarize some of the equations and data sources that we’re using, as we code them into the new language.

First topic: data sources for historical carbon emissions, at a global scale.  All the code (Jupyter notebook) and data used to make these figures are available here.

If this is a game about the future, why do we need to know about the past?  First, the player starts from a realistic depiction of the world today.  We need to know the most recent pollution data as accurately as possible because that’s what the player will be setting out to reduce.  Second, trends in pollution can help us understand potential futures.  The direction a particular country or sector is heading is useful information for where it might end up.

Global Carbon Project has fantastic data about CO2 emissions in all countries of the world.  We used Global Carbon Budget 2018 data, which has emissions up until 2017.  Historical data goes back to 1751 for fossil fuels and industry, and 1850 for land use changes.

historicalcarbon.png

Land use change was a bigger contributor to CO2 emissions than fossil fuels up until 1950.  Fossil fuels and industry carbon emissions have quintupled since then; land use emissions are similar.

Breakdown into individual fossil fuels, cement and flaring:

fossilcarbon.png

2017 emissions were 3.98 GtC (coal), 3.45 GtC (oil), 1.97 GtC (gas), 0.4 GtC (cement) and 0.068 GtC (flaring).

There’s a plot on the GCP site that shows the full carbon cycle, along with reservoir sizes, including coal, oil and gas reserves:

essd_2018_fig02a_1.png

There are uncertainties in this data of course, but if you take the numbers at face value, they can be used to estimate the number of years left of each fossil fuel, if emissions were to stay the same as today.  This calculation suggests there is between 110-135 years of coal, 50-80 years of oil, and 195-575 years of gas.  Or calulating with the sum of the three fossil reserves, the minimum estimate of 1005 GtC could sustain 10 GtC/yr emissions for 100 more years, the maximum could sustain current emissions for 200 years.  Ugh…

Airborne fraction is defined as the amount of CO2 that sticks around in the air, instead of going into the ocean or land.  The atmospheric increase is noisy!  Any rate of change is noisy if estimated from imperfect time series data (the time derivative increases variability at short time scales).  Much of the variability is real though; during strong El Nino events, increases in forest fires lead to more carbon released into the atmosphere and a higher airborne fraction.

airborne.png

The large variability of the land sink in particular can be seen in this GCP plot (note that it’s measured in GtCO2 instead of GtC)

s45_Global_Sources_and_Sinks_newcm.png

The game takes all the carbon emissions from across the world, and then uses a carbon cycle model to decide how much goes into the ocean (where it causes acidification…), into the land, or into the atmosphere.  Parameterizing the land sink is more difficult than the ocean component of the carbon cycle model; we’ll discuss both in a future post.

In the next post we’ll move on to methane, then other greenhouse gases including nitrous oxide and halocarbons, and other radiative forcings.  Then we’ll zoom into country- and regional-scale breakdowns.

Want to support the development of Flourish?  You can donate to the EarthGames Support Fund.  Donations right now would go to support a paid undergraduate research assistant.