Writers on the Range: An invitation to play the climate-change game

Pepper Trail
Writers on the Range

Let’s play a game, the climate-change game that every living thing on Earth has no choice but to play, starting … now.

The game is called Adapt/Move/Die, and the rules are simple. The object of the game is not to die. And the winners, well, the winners get to keep playing the game. 

You may say wait, what about Solve? Isn’t solving the climate crisis an option? Yes, of course, and a worthy goal.

But even if humanity somehow musters the now-lacking resolve to rapidly phase out fossil fuels, greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere are higher than at any time in hundreds of thousands of years. The effects on climate will continue to unfold for centuries.

Adapt/Move/Die used to have another name: Evolution. But Evolution was played without a time clock over centuries or millennia. Adapt/Move/Die is customized for our fast-paced world. Every round is a lightning round, and there are no time-outs. 

Let’s get started! Who’s on Team Adapt? You already know some of them well because they are all around us — pigeons and rats, cockroaches and coyotes, dandelions and thistles. No matter how the climate changes, these adapters will find a way, and a place, to survive.

Under the old evolution rules, most species belonged to Team Adapt. But the pace of the new game has changed everything. 

Just take a look at your local forest. Its trees were once adapted, attuned to the temperature, soil, patterns of rain and snow and natural pests. 

But now, every forest is full of dying trees. A report from the Forest Service estimated that over 36 million — yes, million — trees died in 2022 just in California.

For many plants facing rapid climate change, their only choices are Team Move, or Team Die. It is an unanswered and existential question whether the plants that support the biosphere can move fast enough.

And what of people? As befits our huge numbers and our great cleverness, it is likely that no species on Earth will show such complicated game play. 

Team Adapt will mostly be drawn from the global North, where climate extremes may (repeat, may) be somewhat buffered, and where great economic resources can be brought to bear in the name of adaptation.

Here, we hope, coastal cities can be protected behind seawalls and levees. Infrastructure can be strengthened or moved or repaired. Some emergency assistance will be available for victims of “natural” disasters. 

Tragically, none of these fixes will be available, or be enough, for huge numbers of people. The United Nations estimates that extreme weather caused two million deaths in the past 50 years, but that pales in comparison to what’s coming. 

The World Health Organization predicts that climate change will cause an estimated 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 from disease, starvation and heat stress.

If true, Team Die will claim five million members over that 20-year span. Many of those deaths will come from the poorest countries, where people lack even the resources to join the last team: Team Move.

“Move” will, in fact, be the most disruptive play in the game. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that between 2008 and 2016, an average of 21.5 million people per year were displaced by climate-related events like floods, storms and wildfires.

But again, that is just a mild preview of what could be coming. The same report concludes that 1.2 billion people, or over 10% of the world’s population, could be displaced globally by 2050.

When playing “Move” involves crossing national borders, it often has another name: illegal immigration. From the United States to Europe to Australia, illegal immigration is already considered to be a crisis, and has been a key factor in the rise of right-wing political parties. Given the harsh response to the existing level of illegal immigration, it is frightening to imagine what the future flood of climate refugees could face.

There is only one way to win the game of Adapt/Move/Die. That is to recognize that we all share this critically damaged planet. To succeed, adaptation will require cooperation. To survive, those who must move will require help and compassion. 

We can play the game together and win the right to keep playing­, that is, to live. Or we can enlist in Team Die by choosing isolation and conflict.

Anyone want to roll the dice?

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a conservation biologist who has written widely on evolution and climate change. He lives in Ashland, Oregon.

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