Notes from the Field

Climate Change Games Crystalize Complexities

April 24, 2013

People were standing up and sitting down, intense negotiations were underway, funding decisions were being made, and a lot of commotion was coming from a crowd of over 300 policymakers, scientists, and practitioners from over 40 countries. We are gathered in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for the Seventh Annual International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change (CBA7), and were playing games meant to capture and simplify the multitude of complex factors that go into decision-making for preparing for and responding to climate change impacts, among them: when and how much to invest in disaster preparedness measures while experiencing the cost of damages when disaster strikes.

The conference began with opening remarks by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who called for global and immediate action on climate change, highlighting the extreme vulnerability Bangladesh faces to its impacts: flooding, drought, sea level rise, salinity intrusion, and severe storms. Indeed, Bangladesh is the world’s most vulnerable country to climate change. In response, Bangladesh has become a leader in its experience and efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The government has contributed nearly $350 million of its own funds to its Climate Change Trust Fund, and communities have been adapting to climate change for years, experimenting with what does and doesn’t work. But challenges remain, and current efforts are focused on bridging the gap between government and civil society, and increasing the role of local government.

The theme for this year’s conference addresses the governance of community-based adaptation (CBA) and mainstreaming CBA into national and local planning. But this is easier said than done – in order to achieve holistic governance on climate change, it needs to be incorporated into all aspects of development considerations and decision-making, which can be a daunting and complicated task. Some of the many issues we are discussing include: how is climate change integrated and streamlined into all facets of government development planning, including agriculture, health, infrastructure, environment, and education? How are all people accounted for, including women, children, and vulnerable groups? How can disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation initiatives be coordinated? And importantly, how can adaptation initiatives effectively be monitored and evaluated?

Climate change scenario game developed developed for ACCRA and played with local government officials in Uganda, Mozambique, and Ethiopia. It distills competing factors in decision-making for investments in agriculture, health, infrastructure, energy, and education in light of the impacts from natural disasters. Photo/Lisa Hook

The climate change games, co-developed and co-facilitated by Pablo Suarez from Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, work in practical application with communities, farmers, policy makers, and humanitarian workers trying to adapt to climate change. They use simple materials in a board-game format using dice, beans, and spin-wheels, and are facilitated by trained practitioners who help translate the game dynamics into the real world complexities of climate change decision-making. The games distill complex issues and considerations to support local government decision-makers as they attempt to integrate climate change into their own development planning. They are helping to reframe engrained approaches to development planning to anticipate a range of future scenarios as a result of climate change.

This includes understanding the tradeoffs made in real-world decisions when addressing climate change, for example, the tradeoff between now vs. later and the tradeoff between individual vs. community interests. In the real world, decision making tends to favor a current “now” perspective, but the games help participants inhabit the future, and experience the consequences of inaction. Additionally, individually-focused decisions tend to be made in the short-term to receive the greatest benefits, but over the long-term collective investment increases the likelihood of withstanding shocks.

Here at the CBA7, the games provided a new way for us to interact and learn from one another – beyond the usual power point presentations. This format engages active participation, where everyone is able to ask, challenge, and learn from the process simultaneously. Our team quickly came together to decide when to invest in early warning systems for natural disasters before we rolled our dice, the outcome of which determined the impact from a natural disaster, and the resulting loss of our collective funds. The experience of anticipation, fast decision-making for investments, uncertainty, and loss quickly became very personal and emotionally charged, especially as the stakes were raised and probabilities of natural disasters were increased due to climate change.

In the end, the winning team succeeded by lobbying the game-appointed “local government” official for more “resources,” securing an advantage over other teams. But, this contributed to a valuable bigger-picture lesson: often, the systems meant to provide benefits to and support community-based adaptation do not reach their intended recipients, but are instead allocated for other interests. A lack of transparency and effective governance make accounting for these funds difficult to track, reinforcing the importance of effective, transparent, and participatory governance for valuable climate change resilience. Pablo concluded that “the games are designed to capture the incentives and disincentives in the real world, and the dynamics between immediate satisfaction and protection against potential future threats.” They are changing the nature of these dialogues.

Lisa Hook is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at lhook@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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