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Introducing PCG: Or, How I'm Spending the Pandemic

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This post originally appeared on Chris DeLuca's blog

A lot has changed in the world since I last posted.

I have been extremely lucky during this pandemic. I am still employed, I can work from home, and I have my wife to shelter with. I do not take these things for granted.

And yet.

While my work life has not changed as drastically, my personal life has. Most of the things I did outside work before the pandemic were in person. Can’t do that right now. So, it gave me some time to work on home-bound projects that I pushed back on the shelf.

To that end, I’m very excited to introduce PCG, or Point and Click Game engine, an adventure game creation utility for the open web.

I did a talk about it three years ago (ouch), so this project has certainly been a long time coming.

PCG is very much in active development, but I think I’ve made encouraging progress, which I’ll explore in detail later.

But first, what am I talking about?

What is an adventure game?

If this is old hat to you, skip ahead to the next section.

For those not familiar, a point and click adventure game is a style of narrative, story-based games where progress is made primarily through puzzle solving, rather than violence or reflexes, something I appreciate more and more as I age.

Day of the Tentacle screenshot

Day of the Tentacle, a classic comedic point and click adventure game.

While their popularity peaked in the early 90s for mainstream gaming cultural, they have thrived in the indie space over the past decade or so.

Mechanically, many games in the genre use a system of verbs to interact with the world. You click a verb from a menu, for example “push”, and then the person or object in the game you want to apply it to, such as “crate”. Perhaps there would be a trap door below the crate, and a new area is unlocked.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis screenshot

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is a game that used a list of verbs.

Another method some games employ is to do away with the specific list of verbs, having pre-determined actions when interacting, or relying on the player manipulating “mini-game” style set pieces, such as a series of levers that must be switched in the right order.

Myst screenshot

Myst did away with set verbs, and instead utilized bespoke mini-puzzles to progress.

Almost all have you collecting various esoteric items, having the player apply those items to people or objects in the game, or combining them with each other.

A relatively simple system, from a game mechanics perspective, but one that hides a lot of depth, story-telling potential, and that particular player satisfaction from figuring out a puzzle.

Why a web-based adventure engine?

Most innovation in the web game space is around the <canvas> element and Web Assembly, which allows developers to “start from scratch” and create entirely custom rendering divorced from any of the preconceptions of the web.

Angry bots screenshot

AngryBots is an example of a web game rendered via web assembly and the canvas tag.

This works well for action games or games with pixel-pushing graphics. However, the goal here is always to emulate a native application, and since games written for the browser cannot by definition ever be native, the best they can be is a close approximation.

While close might be good enough, this always felt like a missed opportunity to me. We spend all these resources trying to get the web to be more like native applications, but hardly any on what new and interesting experiences we can create that are unique to the web. As Marshal McLuhan wrote, an author I’m proud to say I got a few pages into, the medium is the message.

I started thinking about what kind of games would work well inside the traditional web context - aka, HTML, CSS and JavaScript (and SVG) rendered into a DOM tree.

After some thought, I settled on point-and-click adventure games.

My reasons being:

  1. They are not real-time games—Having game play that relies on any kind of precise timing are going to need a more controllable rendering model than the traditional web.
  2. They rely on text/audio—Text is a first class citizen of the web, and new web audio APIs make that aspect possible.
  3. They are narrative-driven—The web is a powerful method of communication, and I’m excited by new methods of leveraging that.
  4. I like them 😄—This is important, because without it I wouldn’t be able to finish a big project like this.

In short, I thought I could re-create many of the different point and click adventure paradigms on the web, while taking full advantage of the things that make the web the web.

Some of the unique things that are attractive about the web are:

  1. It’s universal—Many more people have access to a web browser than those with access to a machine that can play a triple A game.
  2. It’s accessible by default (with a rich API for extensions)—This enables access by those with visual, auditory, motor, or other disabilities. Accessibility is sadly an afterthought in a lot of digital design, and seems entirely absent in the gaming space. Treating accessibility as a first class citizen makes the experience better for everyone.
  3. It’s sharable—An oft taken for granted killer feature of the web is URLs. The power of sharing a permanent link that will work in every browser and can be posted to any platform is one I cannot understate.

Design goals

The ultimate goal of PCG is to foster a open, welcoming, and creative community around making point and click adventure games on the web.

In game engine terms, the goal is to create a flexible, modular, and pluggable system of components that can be combined to create most if not all the point and click varieties mentioned above (and many that were not), as well as opening up the possibility for new and unique games only possible in the web format.

After a lot more thought, writing, re-writing, trial and error, and leveraging embarrassingly earned career experience, I settled on some design principles for PCG.

The thought of even having design principles was something hard earned, but one I strongly believe in: a north star for how you go about making something out of nothing.

  1. Leverage core web tech (HTML/CSS/JS)—Rely on core web technologies and patterns over writing new systems. While new systems may offer benefits, building off existing ones usually means a more familiar, fast, and pleasant player experience.
  2. Player experience over developer experience—While developers are important, the end result that players consume takes precedence over the experience of the developers creating the game. These first two principles are why PCG is built without a framework in vanilla HTML/CSS/JS.
  3. Through documentation—A well documented system is an understood system, and an understood system is a powerful tool.
  4. Newbie friendly—As the web has professionalized, many exciting capabilities have opened up. It has also raised the barrier to entry. Creating something fun and expressive that can be used at a basic level to good results, while still offering a much larger world of possibility for those interested in learning, I think strikes the right balance.
  5. Open source—This is essential to creating a community, which is critical to the success of a tiny project like this. I also believe in it.

Next steps

This is a very high level introduction to the ideas surrounding the PCG project. I plan on writing posts going in-depth on each component of the system as they’re built and as updates are made. These posts will hopefully serve as a living progress report.

While I’ve spent a lot of time on PCG already, it is still in the beginning stages. It is very much a leap of faith.

I can’t predict what kind of community it will attract, if any, or what this project may or may not evolve into.

But I am excited to find out.


You can check out the Github repository or the documentation site for PCG, both very much in progress. If you have any feedback or would like to contribute, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

If you’d like to see what PCG is capable of currently (as much as I cringe to reveal the multitude of missing features) my friend made a tiny, rough demo game, and I made a little demo showcasing the text box component.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end, hope you and yours are safe and healthy, and I’ll catch you on the next adventure.

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bronzehedwick
53 days ago
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A post I wrote on the web based point and click engine I'm making.
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Don't Get Pantsed!

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bronzehedwick
234 days ago
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I wrote a very serious choose your own adventure.

Don't Get Pantsed!
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Ignorance Was Bliss for the Children of the College-Admissions Scandal

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For the second time in just a few months, admissions at America’s elite colleges are under a microscope. In late 2018, the scrutiny was on T. M. Landry, a predominantly black private school in Louisiana that had garnered a national reputation for sending dozens of graduates to the Ivy League and other prestigious institutions. A New York Times report revealed the school as a fraud, faking transcripts and hiding allegations of abuse. The Landry scandal caused tremors in higher education, but damage was limited by the fact that colleges could plausibly claim victimhood—although, I argued at the time, it was difficult not to come away from the debacle with a sense that it called into question core tenets of the American educational meritocracy.

As explosive as the Landry affair was, it is now dwarfed by the bombshell dropped by the Justice Department on Tuesday, when federal lawyers indicted 50 people on racketeering charges for allegedly facilitating or taking part in a nationwide fraud to game admissions at top colleges. The accused include CEOs, wealthy investors, and at least two celebrities. According to the indictment, the conspiracy had been refined over many iterations, and was marketed as a service to the ultra-wealthy. Its creator described it as an innovation, a cost-effective “side door” into top colleges. In practice, it was a system of bribes to accomplices such as testing-center officials, who could help alter SAT and ACT scores, and college coaches in second-tier sports, who could help admit applicants who pretended to be athletes.

The story immediately went into the stratosphere. No one could resist the specter of the rich and famous engaging in lurid criminality to give their kids even more of an advantage. All the major news outlets led with the scandal. Twitter, the hub of the media elite, had a ball, alternating between mockery and fury. A tidal wave of scorn washed over the whole of American discourse. Ask Tom Brady, Lance Armstrong, or Goldman Sachs: The only thing people dislike more than cheaters winning is winners cheating.

[Read: 9 Revealing Moments From the College-Admissions Indictment]

Resenting the dynastically wealthy is practically a national sport, and for the most part, that’s what the admissions scandal has been understood to be about: the perfidy of the 1 percent. Many drew parallels to entirely legal ways the rich can rig college admissions, like pledging donations or enrolling in private prep schools. Implicit in the public contempt is the belief that none of this has anything to do with regular middle-class folk. In fact, some of the angriest responses came from people who attended the very colleges that had been part of the scam. For many, the scandal felt like a sign of the times, showing the divide between the rich, cheating their way to the top, and everyone else, who had climbed up the hard way.

Maybe that’s why an odd twist in Tuesday’s scandal stood out: Many of the students who benefited did not know about the fraud being committed for them. In several instances, their parents endeavored to keep the payoffs and cheating secret, arranging false tests so the children would never know that their scores had been deceitfully obtained. The kids were fakes, and ignorant of that fact.

It’s hard to blame people for mocking these oblivious teenagers, who thought they were walking on their own, but were in fact being carried. But it’s also worth considering how events would have appeared from their perspective. A high ACT score would have seemed like just another stroke of good fortune in a life full of it. The same goes for their acceptance into a selective college. In one tragicomic passage in the indictment, the scheme’s orchestrator describes how his student “clients” would sometimes come to him, surprised by their own high test scores, and suggest that maybe they’d do even better if they took the test again. They mistook the secret forces working on their behalf for their own natural talent. If you can’t see the hidden hand behind your success, what other explanations are there besides luck and ability?

In other words, from the students’ viewpoint, this is about as archetypal an instance of privilege as could be imagined. Advantage, after all, is rarely noticed by the advantaged. People don’t have an easy way to compare their lives with those of others, to see how the same situations might turn out differently if they themselves came from a different background. The first instinct is often to attribute disproportionate success to above-average aptitude, but most successful people know aptitude can’t explain everything that’s gone their way. That’s why, in many cases, privilege looks and feels like an accumulation of good luck, a series of little victories that make everything work okay in the end. In reality, luck and aptitude don’t tell the full story. Instead, wealth or caste or social standing work to load the dice in favor of the fortunate.

Now a confession: I too attended one of the colleges named in Tuesday's indictment. The news set me to wondering, Did I know someone who had bought his or her way into college? How could I tell? For that matter, how would I have known if secret forces had worked on my behalf?

At first, the question seemed ridiculous. I did not grow up fabulously wealthy, and I’m reasonably certain that my parents paid no bribes for me. I can say with total confidence that no one was seeking my athletic prowess, real or imagined.

Then I remembered that my father had also attended my alma mater. I hadn’t thought about that too much when I’d applied, believing that my grades spoke for themselves. No one ever brought it up to me, and I hadn’t really dwelled on it since. It was definitely not a fact that I had ever used to discount my own academic achievements.

[Read: One Way to Stop College-Admissions Insanity: Admit More Students]

But I’m nearly certain that somewhere in the application process, some admissions official, whose face I’d never see, took note that I was a legacy applicant, and moved me up a few spots on the list. Here was something I’d overlooked, a hidden hand behind my own good fortune, silently working to transmit my parents’ economic and social station downward to me. Perhaps less was separating me from the admissions-scandal students than I’d thought.

In this, I’m not alone. How many people who attended a good college, or secured a prestigious job, or otherwise climb one rung after another up the ladder of social and professional standing, can look back and see nothing similar?

While some people do start in remarkably disadvantaged places and rise through society, social mobility is the exception, not the rule. It’s true that most successful peoples’ parents have never paid an illegal fixer to secure them a college seat. But consider: If you attended a high-performing public high school, your parents probably did pay a premium on their house to live in the attendance zone. And what about the countless other, smaller outlays parents can make to help propel their children upward, things like test prep, sports equipment, after-school activities, travel? Even basic necessities like healthy food, medical care, or personal safety come at a financial cost. None of these expenditures are solely the province of the very wealthy, but nor are they guaranteed, and each serves as a little investment in the future, giving children a small leg up on peers who do not receive the same.

Parental wealth is hardly the only form of unearned advantage. Other privileges are even more deeply embedded, transmitted almost as birthright. In America, whiteness ranks highest among these. In education, in the workplace, in the criminal-justice system, white children and teenagers consistently receive hidden benefits that their nonwhite peers do not. How many white teenagers have gotten caught smoking weed or drinking, and were let off with a laugh and a warning? For a child of color—particularly a black child—the exact same episode is more likely to end with an arrest, and a ruined future. Where one person has a good chance of going home feeling lucky, another might leave in a squad car. How many white kids found it easy to get a summer job, while black children with the same applications were turned away? How many white students have been steered toward advanced-level courses, while their black peers were not? These advantages often persist across the income spectrum. For example, even after controlling for socioeconomic status, white students are significantly more likely to be assigned to a gifted-and-talented program than black students.

Legally speaking, none of these things remotely resemble paying off a test administrator. Pragmatically speaking, and from the perspective of the person who benefits? There is a certain symmetry. You have parents spending money to put their children in the place that best guarantees their success. You have many of those children growing up at least partially ignorant of the efforts expended to help them, and the forces working to protect them. Certainly, in both cases, the people who benefit are likely to end up thinking they’ve mostly earned what they’ve received, as a reward for hard work and natural aptitude. And if they got a lucky break or two along the way, well, that’s just life.

The lesson here isn’t to forgive the alleged fraudsters. Rather, it is that in a society stratified from top to bottom by race and wealth, privilege can’t be understood as something held exclusively by the richest 1 percent, or even the richest 10 percent, to the detriment of all others. If they’re propelled to their station by forces out of their sight and beyond their control, so too is everyone else lifted or confined by those same forces. Because of that, there is often no indicting the meritocracy without indicting oneself. One might even begin to wonder whether the real fraud is the idea of merit in the first place—that maybe “deservingness” is a shoddy basis for organizing a society altogether.

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bronzehedwick
477 days ago
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“If they’re propelled to their station by forces out of their sight and beyond their control, so too is everyone else lifted or confined by those same forces. “
Astoria NY
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fxer
477 days ago
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I think it’s pretty dubious all the kids were “completely oblivious” as every news outlet is selling it.

They took tests alone, an option reserved for kids with mental handicaps, and received extra time during the test also reserved for the same group, and thought nothing was up?

Coaches contacting them about scheduling time for their crew and track and field practices since they were a “recruited athlete”, even though they never played the sport, seemed completely normal?

The coverage is really going out of its way to say *no* kid involved ever had the *faintest clue* their application wasn’t 110% honest.
Bend, Oregon
bronzehedwick
477 days ago
Yeah, I'd agree with you on that. I think there is a powerful "self preservation" effect, for lack of a better term, where the mind sidesteps unpleasent truths, but yes, it's insane that "no" kids were aware. It wasn't in this story, but some other one even mentioned that one of the mom's was worried that her kid was suspicious, so there's that.

List: If Conservatives Talked About Other Issues the Way They Talk About Climate Change

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“I’ll be dead by the time I die, so the estate tax isn’t really my problem.”

“Frankly, I have never been there, so who’s to know for sure that there’s a country called ‘Iran.’”

“The opioid epidemic may be killing hundreds of thousands, but it’s un-American to deny Purdue Pharma their right to make millions.”

“How could there be a gun violence problem if nobody’s shooting at me right now?”

“No need to hurricane-proof your house — there are other houses.”

“It is absolutely out of line for a doctor to tell a patient that if they want to live, they have to change their eating and exercise habits.”

“Just because people commit murder doesn’t mean that they can stop committing murder.”

“As a Michigan fan, I refuse to accept the existence of Ohio State.”

“Doctors say that smoking causes cancer, but I think I’ll stick with the lobbyists on this one.”

“What good does a ‘Treaty of Versailles’ do for the United States? Versailles is in France, libtards.”

“Why would an abortion doctor know anything about abortion and doctors?”

“A border wall is too costly to be practical, and telling private property owners what to do with their land is heinous government overreach.”

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bronzehedwick
483 days ago
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Nailed it.
Astoria NY
zippy72
480 days ago
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FourSquare, qv
ChrisDL
483 days ago
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New York
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Laws and Sausages - 1701

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New comic!

Today's News:
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bronzehedwick
500 days ago
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Great illustration of the history of immigration policy in the US, aka how we all got here.

If your family came to the United States in the last 200 years (see what I did there?) you owe it to yourself to understand how it was able to happen.
Astoria NY
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jgbishop
500 days ago
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Fascinating installment (6 pages).
Durham, NC

A letter that I did not send to my dear uncle, who sent me a climate change denial article from a right-wing copypasta content farm

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1523-4 woodblock of a skeleton playing a drum next to a well dressed man and woman

The Lady by Hans Holbein

Dear Uncle,

I guess you sent me this article because you see how worried I am about climate change on twitter and you don’t believe it’s happening. I remember you talking about the emails hacked from the Climate Research Unit at UEA several years ago, but I didn’t realize you were skeptical about the effects of climate change.

I am very sorry to say that climate change is happening. I don’t want to believe it’s true and I don’t want to believe it’s as bad as it is. My whole PhD is premised on the idea that maybe [a really important species] would be able to adapt better than our projections said because of [cool feature of their biology]. (I don’t have the answer yet, but it’s not looking promising.)

I’ve spent the last 15 years learning about biology and ecology and the natural world and participating in the scientific process and working with other scientists. Obviously, I don’t know everything and science isn’t perfect. But most of us are trying our best and aren’t out to trick anyone. I believe climate change is happening and so does nearly every scientist I’ve ever known. We have disagreements about how fast it’s happening and what its exact effects will be and if we can survive it, but we agree that it’s going to be very, very bad.

I’m so convinced climate change is happening that I spend a great deal of time that I should be working on my PhD or that I could be doing things I love like reading novels and dancing instead writing letters to politicians and advocating for policies that would help slow climate change or at least help us adapt. I’m so convinced that I cry about it and am terrified about the world I’ll grow old in. I’m so convinced that I’ve tried to convince my mother to move (and I think you all probably should as well, especially your kids) because the southeast is going to get so much hotter and flood and fire prone during my lifetime that it’s going to severely disrupt the economy and make people very sick.

And I’m not alone. The news doesn’t spend a lot of time talking to scientists about how they feel personally about climate change, but it’s bleak. We give dry presentations and cry together over dinner at how many plants died at our study sites. We talk about fears for our children or choosing not to have them. I’m afraid of what the world is going to be like in 20 years and I’m grieving the ecosystems dying right in front of us.

The article you sent me says that the recent National Climate Assessment is based on cherry picked data and bad models and bad science and that fossil fuels have done a lot of good. It claims that all this noise about climate change is just a ploy to control politics. It isn’t, though an emergency of this scale really should affect politics.

The climate models were right before the internal combustion engine was invented

I know it can seem like everything about climate change is based on these overly complex computer models run by scientists who only care about getting their next grant, but those computer models are just fiddly details.

We knew that using fossil fuels and such could cause global warming from before the US Civil War – more than 150 years before we were able to build the complex global models of climate that we’re now using to figure out exactly how global warming will change regional and local climates.

The earliest calculations of how much carbon dioxide warmed up the planet were done by a Swedish scientist in the 1890s. His predictions weren’t perfect, but they’re not that far off from our current models. And the simple computer models we built in the 70s and 80s predict basically the same global temperature increase as the highly complex ones we have today.

(We keep building more and more complex models with more and more things because we are trying to understand more and more local effects and also feedback cycles – what does it mean for the world to warm 2 or 6 or 10 degrees? When will the ice melt? How will that affect ocean currents? How will the ocean currents full of meltwater affect the speed and sinuousness of the jetstream? Will the southwest get wetter or drier? Will there be more hurricanes or fewer? What could the economic impacts be?)

Perhaps that snippet of scientific history hasn’t convinced you to take climate change seriously. After all, even if we know that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases heat up the planet, maybe we’ve done our math wrong and it’s actually much slower than we think.

But what if the models are wrong and climate change isn’t a big deal?

So, what if the models are wrong about how much and how fast climate change is happening? We need to compare the risk of inaction vs action if we’re right and if we’re wrong.

What is the risk of inaction if we are right about the magnitude and speed of climate change impacts? Well, you could read the fourth NCA to find out! It does not, as the article you sent me put it “sound like something kicked around in a Hollywood brainstorming session for a science fiction thriller.” It is sober and measured and accessible – and ultimately very conservative in its discussion of potential impacts. Here’s a representative snippet from the chapter on climate change impacts occurring and expected in the Southeast

Embedded in these land- and seascapes is a rich cultural history developed over generations by the many communities that call this region home. However, these beaches and bayous, fields and forests, and cities and small towns are all at risk from a changing climate. These risks vary in type and magnitude from place to place, and while some climate change impacts, such as sea level rise and extreme downpours, are being acutely felt now, others, like increasing exposure to dangerously high temperatures—often accompanied by high humidity—and new local diseases, are expected to become more significant in the coming decades.

If our models are right and we don’t do anything, the impacts from climate change will be big and bad this century and downright apocalyptic in the next. The only reason not to act would be if you believe the impacts of trying to slow or stop climate change are worse than the risks from climate change itself.

The biggest things we can to do as a society to slow climate change are:

  • educate girls and make sure women have access to contraceptives and reproductive healthcare, including abortion
  • change the kind of chemicals we use as refrigerants (like in air conditioners) (and switch as many of them as we can to things like ground source heat pumps).
  • switch electricity generation from coal and natural gas to solar and wind as fast as we can, reducing air pollution in the process and creating a bunch of jobs
  • Eat more beans and less red meat while wasting less food – cheaper and healthier!
  • Stop burning tropical forests – most are being burnt to grow soybeans to feed cows, so this is almost a natural outcome of the previous goal
  • Bring back silvopasture farming techniques – supporting small farmers and rural areas and loosening the exploitation by companies like Smithfield.

None of these have costs higher than the ones our models predict climate change will exact, in dollars, in lives, in social and cultural disruption. Most are actually things we’d want to do regardless of climate change. Many negative effects are things that are happening anyway.

Consider what happens

If we don’t act and the models are right, we face a serious existential threat. Over the next centuries, billions of people will die in extreme weather events, wars, and famines, the economy will collapse worldwide, we could lose a great deal of technology and civilization, and could even go extinct. Large parts of the tropics and subtropics will become uninhabitable and billions will be forced to migrate by rising sea levels and increasing temperatures. Immigration by climate refugees will completely overwhelm many countries. Many, many species will go extinct.

If we don’t act and the models are wrong, we gradually decarbonize the economy anyway while demographic, habitat destruction, and agricultural problems continue unabated. The transition to solar and wind will continue, relatively slowly, because technology has advanced already to the point that it’s cheaper than at least coal already. As fossil fuels are gradually depleted and renewable tech continues to improve, the transition will speed up. This will gradually reduce the millions of deaths every year due to air pollution. Depending on the speed of transition, we will have to retrain or support people and communities who used to be dependent on fossil fuel extraction – or consign them to lives of poverty and us all to political unrest. Hundreds of millions more women will have children they weren’t ready to have and lack education and opportunities, holding back their countries’ political and economic development. Industrial agriculture will continue to destroy habitat and small farms and suck resources out of rural areas. The loss of rainforests will cause the loss of many incredible species and result in changes to global weather patterns that could devastate some agricultural regions. Obesity and metabolic diseases will continue to increase, along with associated healthcare costs.

If we act and the models are right, we’re still going to continue to see a lot of climate change impacts because we’ve just waited too long to act, but the effects won’t be so catastrophic. Fewer people will die in extreme weather events or of starvation, and immigration will be less overwhelming because fewer people will have to flee sea level rise and increasingly inhospitable climates. We will save millions of lives every year just from the reduction in air pollution from transitioning to solar and wind. Many jobs will be created in order to rapidly transition to solar and wind and improve energy efficiency in buildings. We will have to retrain or support people and communities who used to be dependent on fossil fuel extraction – or consign them to lives of poverty and us all to political unrest. More people will use affordable heat pumps or safe refrigerants to cool (and heat) their homes than before. Dietary improvements in the west will extend lives and reduce healthcare costs from metabolic disease. Population growth will slow, helping countries in the global south reduce emigration and stabilize their political systems. We will lose rare desert habitat to solar farms and some birds to wind farms, but much less than unmitigated climate change would have caused. Switching so rapidly to renewable energy with today’s technology will mean a lot of mining for rare earth minerals, which will likely cause large areas of environmental destruction in parts of the American west and China – much as uranium mining and coal mining did in the previous century.

If we act and the models are wrong, we will make improvements in agriculture, public health, political stability in tropical and subtropical countries, gender equality, and environmental protection, at the expense of some resource extraction communities. We will deal with the necessary transition away from fossil fuels earlier than we needed to to avoid climate change impacts, possibly with technologies that aren’t as advanced as they would have been had we waited. However, we will save millions of lives every year just from the reduction in air pollution from transitioning to solar and wind. Many jobs will be created in order to rapidly transition to solar and wind and improve energy efficiency in buildings. We will have to retrain or support people and communities who used to be dependent on fossil fuel extraction – or consign them to lives of poverty and us all to political unrest. More people will use affordable heat pumps or safe refrigerants to cool (and heat) their homes than before. Dietary improvements in the west will extend lives and reduce healthcare costs from metabolic disease. Population growth will slow, helping countries in the global south reduce emigration and stabilize their political systems. We will lose rare desert habitat to solar farms and lots of birds to wind farms. Switching so rapidly to renewable energy probably will mean a lot of mining for rare earth minerals, which will cause environmental destruction in parts of the American west and China – much as uranium mining and coal mining did in the previous century. Many species are saved in the rainforests.

You believe that the models are wrong and we we shouldn’t act. You’re afraid that the models are wrong and we will act.

But your fear is actually the very best outcome: the very best situation is if we act to stop climate change and we are wrong about climate change. Acting to stop climate change makes the world better even if climate change doesn’t happen.

(The above assumes, of course, that the models are overpredicting climate change impacts. We are very likely under-predicting the impacts of climate change. Choosing what to do, what to prioritize, if climate change is going to be much worse than we imagine is another discussion.)

I don’t think any of these futures are easy, even the ones where everyone does exactly what I think is politically right and things go perfectly according to plan. We have waited so long to act to stop climate change that we now have to act very fast and no matter what we’ll do, bad things will happen. Fast change is very hard and disruptive. We’re going to face fast change no matter what, but we have a choice, now about what that change looks like. We can choose the change and we can get our collective butts in gear, or we’ll be swept away by changes we didn’t see coming, alone.

What if there were no models?

But perhaps you believe any model of climate change is just wrong. (They are, of course. The only perfect model is the thing itself, but you’re not going to throw out all your maps because they don’t have every pothole in the road on them.)

So then – imagine that we don’t have any of these climate models.

We still know that some gases like carbon dioxide and methane hold more heat than others because anyone can figure that out with some sunshine and bottles filled with different gases on a sunny day and a couple thermometers.

But if no one ever built the kinds of models predicting what adding lots and lots of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere would do, then what should we do if we just don’t know what the result of dumping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will be?

I believe we must act very cautiously. We only have one planet. It is foolish and selfish to take more than the smallest of risks with it.

If we don’t know how much greenhouse gases will warm up our planet or what warming up a planet will do to climate, we just shouldn’t do it until we do understand. Experimenting with the only planet we can currently survive on does not seem sensible.

In our climate-model-less world, we also still know that climate is a complex dynamical system, like the human brain or the power grid, where small changes in one part of the system can cause rather larger changes in another. Bigger changes are quite likely to cause bigger changes. In a world without global climate models, we would want to be very wary of changing levels of temperature-changing gases in our atmosphere much at all.

If we know that greenhouse gases can cause global warming and we know that the global climate system can behave unpredictably, then even if we don’t know how or why or how much change those gases cause, it is irresponsible and dangerous to continue increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

I want us to fix climate change, but I don’t want you to feel like this

Academics get accused of elitism all the time. And some of that is completely warranted. This next bit is elitist.

I want everyone to take climate change seriously because we have waited so long and so must do so much, so fast to stave off the most unthinkable effects. But part of me doesn’t want to convince you, my dear uncle.

Changing your mind, individually, probably won’t make much difference to whether we get a Green New Deal or not.

But understanding what climate change impacts will look like is horrifying and painful. You’re old enough and well-off enough that you and Aunt ____ will probably be fine as long as your AC keeps going and you don’t move to the coast. I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life terrified for my cousins and your new grandbaby, mourning the changes to the land you love as trees and animals migrate and change and die.

So I’m not going to send you this letter, I’m not going to try to convince you that climate change is real. Facing it is like facing death, and of course I would spare you that if I could.

So live your life, blissfully ignorant and cheerful on the phone about the strange weather lately. Live free from the fear that everything you’ve contributed to and cared about in your life will be gone so soon and live free from the guilt that you supported the political and economic choices that may kill us all.

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ChrisDL
503 days ago
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I wrote basically this exact email to my uncle. The rest of my family were not amused and felt like I should go easy on him.
New York
297 days ago
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bronzehedwick
501 days ago
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Astoria NY
297 days ago
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kyleniemeyer
503 days ago
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This. So much this.
Corvallis, OR
297 days ago
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