Want to tackle climate change but don’t know where to start? There’s a game for that

January 27, 2020 by Dr. Juliette Rooney-Varga

Originally posted on the UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative website on January 21, 2020 by Dr. Juliette N. Rooney-Varga, re-posted with permission.

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A new study published in _Simulation and Gaming _describes the Climate Action Simulation: a new game to give people the know-how and a sense of empowerment needed for effective climate action.

Climate change can seem like an overwhelming problem. Its scale is global and its main cause – burning fossil fuels – is intricately woven into our economy. We know that in order to stabilize Earth’s climate and avoid many dangerous impacts, we need a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. According to a recent national poll, nearly 4 in 10 Americans say climate change is a ‘crisis’ and about half believe that action is urgently needed to address it. But while many people want to tackle climate change, they often don’t know how.


The Climate Action Simulation is designed to give participants a better understanding of high-leverage decisions and actions needed to meet climate goals. Developed by the UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative, the MIT Sustainability Initiative, and Climate Interactive the game also gives participants a stronger personal connection to climate action. Many describe having an ‘eye-opening’ experience that left them feeling empowered to make change in the real world. As one participant, an MBA student at MIT, said:

I feel surprisingly excited. All of these problems can be solved so I love to think of the post change world that could be. We have a chance to build a new world.”

Comparison of pre- and post-simulation survey responses showed that participants were more likely to support systemic change and less likely to focus on blaming individual choices for causing climate change. They were also more motivated to take social action, such as discussing climate change with their family, friends, and peers, or taking some form of political action.


Participants in the Climate Action Simulation take on roles of leaders from key sectors in business, government, and civil society who can effect climate solutions. Examples of roles include leaders of major clean technology companies, fossil fuel companies, government representatives from developed and developing countries, industry and commerce organizations, and climate action think tanks and advocates.

Players get short briefing statements about their sector and a set of decisions and actions to choose from. They can put a price on carbon pollution, subsidize or tax any type of energy, invest R&D for new energy and carbon capture technologies, increase energy efficiency, electrify heat and transport, manage land use, and more. Then, they are challenged to build their own plan to save the climate.

But unlike a typical role-play, their decisions are tested using an interactive computer model, En-ROADS, which runs in less than a second on an ordinary web browser. En-ROADS gives players immediate feedback about how their decisions affect the global energy supply, emissions, and climate change. They learn for themselves about how these complex systems respond to interventions—often in unexpected ways. They learn for themselves about which policies and actions are effective and why.

But they can’t reach the goal without coordinating with other players. Therefore, in order to succeed, they also must learn how to talk about climate action and advocate for it.


Students from secondary to graduate school, civic groups, corporate executives, and policymakers have all played the Climate Action Simulation. It can be adapted to groups with as few as six and as many as 120 players. The materials needed to facilitate it are freely available online and so are materials to learn about how the climate and energy systems work using En-ROADS. We learn best by trial and error, but with climate change, we can’t afford to learn by making mistakes in the real world. The simulation gives people a chance to learn by simulated trial and error that is free of costs and risks.

Like a similar game, the World Climate Simulation, the Climate Action Simulation promises to motivate effective science-based action. Giving people a way to build their own simulated strategy may help move us towards real-world success.

Dr. Juliette N. Rooney-Varga is an Associate Professor of environmental science at UMass Lowell and directs the UMass LowellClimate Change Initiative. Recently her work has focused on climate change education, communication, and decision support.