The Implacable Croupier (aka Climate Roulette)

Flickr image by John Wardell (Netinho)

I created this game to help me understand why different people think the way they do about climate change. The game is based on an imaginary scenario with four variables and one choice. By supplying values for the variables and then indicating your choice, you can help me better understand your thinking about climate change.

Step One: The Imaginary Scenario

You are in a casino facing a roulette wheel. On the far side of the wheel stands a croupier. The roulette wheel contains 100 slots. Some of them are red; the rest are black. In a moment you’ll get to choose how many red slots there are. This is Variable 1.

You hold a wad of money. In a moment you’ll get to decide how much money is in the wad. This is Variable 2.

You must bet the entire wad on one spin of the wheel, either on red or black. There are four possible outcomes. From best to worst, they are:

Outcome I: You bet on black, and the ball lands on black. You win. The croupier hands you back your money, and you walk out of the casino.

Outcome II: You bet on red, but the ball lands on black. You lose. The croupier collects your money, but you still get to walk out of the casino.

Outcome III: You bet on red, and the ball lands on red. You win, but you don’t get your money back. Instead, the croupier exchanges your money for a number of blank bullets, which you get to place in the slots of the roulette wheel, one bullet per slot. In a moment we’ll talk about how many blank bullets you get to place. This is Variable 3.

When you have finished placing the blanks into the slots of the roulette wheel, the croupier opens a box of live ammunition and places one bullet in each of the remaining slots. He spins the wheel again, removes either a blank or a real bullet from the slot in which the ball lands, loads the round in a gun, aims at some part of your body, and fires. We’ll talk about where he aims in a minute. This is the final variable, Variable 4.

Assuming you are able to, you walk out of the casino.

Outcome IV: You bet on black, but the ball lands on red. You lose. The croupier collects your money. He then proceeds as he did in Scenario III, except you lose the chance to try to get him to use a blank. Instead, he simply takes the gun, loads a real bullet, aims, and fires. He aims at the same place he would have aimed at in Scenario III.

Assuming you are able to, you walk out of the casino.

That’s the scenario. To play the game, you imagine yourself in that scenario, then say which color you would bet on: red or black.

Step Two: Choosing Values for the Variables

Before you can make your decision, you need to choose values for the four variables so that the imaginary scenario reflects your views about climate change. In order for you to do that, I need to explain what the different parts of the scenario represent.

As you may already be aware, there is a group of people who believe all of the following things:

  • The earth is warming.
  • Human activities (like fossil fuel use) are the main cause of that warming.
  • Bad things will happen if we don’t take action to slow or stop that warming.
  • Our actions need to be quick and dramatic, because beyond a certain point amplifying feedbacks may kick in, leading to runaway warming that can’t be stopped no matter what we do.

For easy reference, I’m going to call the people who believe those four things “climate hawks”.

Returning to the imaginary scenario:

You represent human society.

Your bet (red or black) represents whether or not society takes the actions the climate hawks are calling for. A red bet means society takes those actions. A black bet means it does not.

If the roulette wheel lands on black it means that the climate hawks will eventually turn out to be wrong about at least one of the four things they believe.

If the wheel lands on red it means the climate hawks will eventually turn out to be right about all four things.

Since there are 100 slots on the wheel, the number of red slots (Variable 1) can be used to represent the percentage chance that the climate hawks are right about all four things. That is, if you believe there is a 25% chance that the climate hawks are right, you should pick 25 as the value for Variable 1, so there are 25 red slots on the wheel and 75 black slots. If you believe there is a 75% chance they are right, you should pick 75, so there are 75 red slots on the wheel and 25 black slots. I’m not trying to push you in any particular direction. I just want to know what you think. If you are sure that the climate hawks are wrong (or right), you’re free to choose 0 (or 100) for the number of red slots. It’s up to you.

The amount of money in the wad (Variable 2) represents the cost to society of investing in the sorts of actions the climate hawks are calling for, as opposed to investing in whatever else society might choose to invest in. Somewhat arbitrarily, I’ve picked $100,000 (roughly twice the average annual household income in the US) as the maximum number for the imaginary scenario. So, pick a number between 0 and $100,000 for this variable. The idea here is that you are choosing a number that “feels” right to you, in the sense that the pain that an individual head of household would feel if he or she lost that money in a single spin at the roulette wheel would be roughly comparable to the pain that society would feel if we invested in action on climate change, only to find out that that action was not necessary.

The number of blank bullets that you get to place on the wheel if you bet on red, and the ball lands on red (Variable 3), represents the percentage reduction in the chance of catastrophe if the hawks are right, and we do take their recommended actions. That is, it’s your best guess as to the chance that the hawks’ recommended actions will actually work to prevent catastrophe, should the hawks turn out to be right in their four beliefs. If you think the hawks’ recommended actions have a 25% chance of averting catastrophe in that scenario, you should choose 25 for this variable. If you think those actions have a 75% chance of averting catastrophe, you should choose 75. And so on.

The point at which the croupier aims his gun (Variable 4) should reflect your best guess as to the actual negative consequences society will suffer if the climate hawks are correct in their four beliefs, and we don’t succeed in averting those consequences. For this variable I’ve somewhat arbitrarily picked the following aiming points, reflecting different degrees of likely harm:

  • The croupier aims just to one side of your head, so that the bullet whistles past your ear. You are scared, but not injured. In the real world, this might mean you believe that even if the climate hawks are right about the four beliefs listed above, some other factor will make it so that the actual consequences we suffer from climate change will turn out to be negligible.
  • He aims at your foot. You are injured, and may suffer some longterm negative consequences, but probably not very extensive ones. In the real world, there might be some sort of ongoing negative effects, but not very extensive ones: Some moderate economic impacts, some sea level rise, and so on, but nothing too dramatic.
  • He aims at your thigh. You are injured, perhaps seriously so, but with a decent chance of at least partial recovery. In the real world, this might be some dramatic negative consequences — drought, flooding, famine, displaced populations — but there would be a decent chance that it would only span a relatively limited area, and/or for a relatively limited period of time.
  • He aims at your torso. You are badly injured, with significant risk of longterm consequences or death, but with some possibility of eventual recovery of at least some degree. In the real world, this might be dramatic, catastrophic consequences over an extensive area and/or an extensive span of time, though with some possibility of eventual recovery.
  • He aims at your head. You are severely injured, and probably killed. In real-world terms, this would be a major climate catastrophe, characterized by famine, war, and probably a general societal collapse, with severe negative consequences continuing over most of the world for a span of centuries or longer.

Step Three: Place Your Bet!

Whew. We’re ready to play the game. Take the values you picked for the four variables, plug them into the scenario, and then imagine yourself facing that scenario.

Now answer this question: Which would you bet on, red or black?

Please put the values you chose for the variables, and the bet you chose to make, in the comments. Thanks!

15 Responses to “The Implacable Croupier (aka Climate Roulette)”

  1. jbc Says:

    My own values for the variables, and my bet:

    Variable 1: 75
    Variable 2: $10,000
    Variable 3: 25
    Variable 4: torso

    My Bet: red

  2. knarlyknight Says:

    Variable 1 40% Chance the hawks are completely right

    Var. 2 $40,000 Cost of evasive economic action

    Var. 3 30% Chance to avoid catastrophe if take evasive economic action

    Var. 4 Torso aim = catastrophic consequences over an extensive area & time span, some eventual recovery.

  3. knarlyknight Says:

    Bet red

  4. shcb Says:

    Not getting many takers are you? I think it is too complicated. It is also still too heavily weighted the hawks being right. Let me offer a simpler analogy that just addresses one small part of the argument.

    This is real world, this happened to my sister. She and her family were visiting, she complained her brakes were making noise, I looked at them as best as I could since time was short and told her the discs needed to be turned and new pads, maybe new discs. Cost, $100-400. Now, auto mechanics is one thing I do have a diploma in so I guess that makes me an “expert”. She took it to a brake place and they convinced her time was critical and the problem was MUCH worse than her other expert (me) had said, to the tune of $1200.

    Needless to say she had the work done. Now, did she actually need that extra work done? It really doesn’t matter now, she chose to play it safe and the money is gone, my expert opinion is she got hoodwinked, maybe it was a false diagnosis with no malice intended, but I think a shop manager needed to fill a quota and saw a sucker that thought time was critical.

    The next part of the analogy is what was harmed, climate hawks will say it is an investment even if they are wrong. Sure she spent money she didn’t have to spend but look at all the good it did, it kept a couple guys busy for a couple hours, it sold some parts that someone else made keeping them busy and now she is sure her master cylinder is good (was, truck was destroyed in the tornado, sounds like a country song). But she didn’t need to spend that money, now her son won’t have a few thousand dollars he could have used for college, but that’s ok, a three and a half year degree is still pretty good.

  5. jbc Says:

    Yeah, I realize it’s too complicated. I plan to give it another shot in the interest of trying to make it clearer. Maybe it would work better if I didn’t introduce the whole metaphor before explaining what the different parts stand for? Instead, I could lead with a brief discussion of the real-world controversy, then develop the metaphor piece by piece, with each piece being explicitly tied to the part of the real-world controversy it is intended to represent.

    I also want to make an interactive version of it, allowing users to plug in their own numbers and then actually run the simulation to conclusion to find out what result they got. I could even include a feature that would run the simulation a set number of times (100?) and let you view a table of all the outcomes and their frequencies. That might be fun to play with.

    It would be relatively easy to make a web form backed by a mod_perl script that would display a static HTML page of results. A fancier approach would be to do it in flash, with animation and sound. My son is learning flash animation in school; maybe I could interest him in taking that on.

    I’m curious, shcb, why you say that this version of the scenario is too heavily weighted toward the hawks being right. Players can assign whatever probability they want to that, down to and including 0. What about the scenario makes you feel it is weighed to heavily in the hawks’ direction?

  6. shcb Says:

    You are way over my computer savvy there but I think you are on the right track, it’s kind of like a phone tree, you can’t give people 9 options, you have to break it into 2 or 3 and then 2 or 3 more… doing it with a form would allow you to do that. The blog format forces you to set the scenario up the way you have, you don’t have the luxury of giving a person 3 options and then 3 more based on their response like you could in a face to face conversation or an email exchange, but you could with a progressive form.

    It seems there is only one option available if the hawks are wrong and we do nothing, we neither lose nor gain anything, but there are a wide number of possibilities (mostly negative) if the hawks are right. I know that isn’t exactly true but it is a sense I get when I read it.

    For instance, in my example (since it is simpler) if my sister doesn’t have the work done that the mechanic did but only has the work done I suggested she saved $800 or you can extrapolate that out to several thousand dollars if it is invested, money that could pay for a semester of college. It seems you are extrapolating out the negative effects on the environment but not extrapolating the negative effects on the economy. Does that make sense? Again I think you could do that better with a form than the blog format, if you give the economic aspect the same number of options you are giving the environment like I want, then you are basically doubling the complexity of something that is already too complex. Good luck.


    Also when you take the possibility to 0 it makes the whole exercise moot, at that point you have lost your audience, I don’t know how to get around that, I haven’t given it as much thought as you, but I know it is a problem. That might also rectify itself with a form or not giving the analogy until after input from the audience.

  7. shcb Says:


    I’m going to confuse things even more, the way you have it set up now it is still pretty black and white that we either do everything or nothing, not exactly I understand, but close. I would like to see a variation where we do some things but not everything. For instance, my contention is cap and trade will do nothing to help the environment but do a lot of harm to the economy (US) say +0 environment but will hurt the economy -30 on a scale of 100. But wind would slightly help the environment +8, it would help the economy some because it creates some jobs (most are transferred) +2 but hurts the economy because of higher energy prices -4. So what do you do now? Add all the numbers and come out with a +6?

  8. knarlyknight Says:

    More meta-cognition:
    What I found interesting is that even after thinking about the variables individually and hypothetically changing some of the values (a lot), when it came to making the decision of Bet Red or Bet Black it pulled on a different part of my brain. That part was less analytical, more the emotional or instinctual side, or to be more precise it depended wholly or my personal preference about risk, or my risk aversion.

    IIRC, you are trying to better understand peoples’ position on this issue by analysing their assumptions about the variables. That assumes peoples’ positions on this issue are arrived at in a rational manner. I’d Hypothesize that assumptions about the variables play less of a role than their degree of risk aversion, therefore the analysis of their assumptions will produce inconsistent results, until you add in risk tolerance. Or perhaps risk tolerance is actually what your metaphore is actually measuring.

  9. knarlyknight Says:

    Simpler metaphore to analyse risk, with fixed variables?

    e.g. Asteroid approaching earth will arrive in 10 years, 25% chance of direct impact that would wipe out virtually all life on the planet. 75% it will harmessly miss earth.

    “Earth” decides to hold a single binding referendum to authorize action or to authorize inaction. Options have already been debated, there are now no other alternatives allowed besides action or inaction. The single question posed to you is this: Do you agree to give 90% of your annual income for the next 10 years (food and shelter will be provided by the government if you need it) to finance a force field around the planet that will divert this asteroid and future asteroids from collisions with earth?

    Choose one:

    Yes, I agree to this radical action to protect earth.

    No, I will take my chances that the catastrophe will not happen.

  10. NorthernLite Says:

    Did you guys catch Bill O’Reilly claiming the tides come from God? I post it here because it’s just the latest example of right-wing loonies completely ignoring scientific evidence in order to play to their followers.

    It’s both hilarious and pathetic.

    PS: Yeah, I’m kind of lost on how to play this Climate Roulette.

  11. jbc Says:

    Do people have to give up 90% of their income who are already on the brink of starvation? For them, it’s probably a pretty easy decision to vote for inaction. Except that your guarantee of food and shelter means that for them they should vote for action, even if there is _no_ asteroid.

    Clearly, though, the immediate choice between a decade of relative poverty on the one hand, and a substantial risk of wiping out “virtually all life on the planet” (including all human life, now and in perpetuity) makes the “take action” choice justified. Many people would not actually do it, though. Just as many novice poker players incur too much risk, and wind up busting out. Yes, it’s human nature to make bad decisions in areas like that. But that doesn’t change the implacability of the odds.

  12. jbc Says:

    Haha. Yes, that O’Reilly clip is pretty fun. Posting to the site as we speak!

  13. enkidu Says:

    call it climate hawks n chicken littles

    I dunno jbc, an interesting exercise, but too many variables and they are all probably sliding scales, interconnected…

    at a guess:

    V1: 65% mostly right (might even be worse? or ameliorating effects due to some climate change goodness [dumb stuff like, its warmer in NHemi, CO2 good for plants etc]) Of your 4 ‘beliefs’ I think 1 and 2 are pretty certain, 3 is very much a sliding scale (how bad will it get?) and 4 is debatable, as we can’t know for certain, but bad things might be just bad or our-species-ends-badly

    V2: over 50 years, net positive.. mb -$1000 over 50 years? IF we take action now we can reap the savings in jobs, environmental impacts, new taxes, construction, technology (build brains, not bombs) One year cost would be over $100,000 (for every American? or entire human race?) But $1000 would seem generous over 10 to 20 years, then it would gradually flip over to being more and more net pluses (esp if you start calculating the cost of the bad effects)

    burning stuff to power our civilization is the old way, building the new way will be cheaper in the long run

    V3: no actual bullets needed (or, they are all blanks) Doing something will be a slight net drag on growth over 10 to 30 years. Doing nothing will be good for growth now, but terrible over 50 to 100 years. If you were to force me to pick a number I’d say 85% to 95% blanks (see previous eco freakouts: CFCs and SO2, simple market based solutions with simple government oversight). But this is also a sliding scale, the less we do, the fewer blanks, doing nothing and its mostly bullets, hmmmmm. Every year we do nothing takes away blanks and increases the worse case scenario odds. The sky will not fall if we institute a small carbon ‘tax’ (really just a real world assessment of the overall impact of an energy source) and bump the CAFE standards up a bit more aggressively.

    V4: if the ‘climate hawks’ are right and we do nothing, we are shot in the leg as a species and limp along (mb 50 years of climate catastrophe is normal for our equiv tech, until we stop burning rocks and move to ??? source of energy). If the hawks are wrong, and it is *worse* than expected, mb that leg is blown off and we might not make it out of our planetary cradle. If the hawks are wrong and it is not so bad, we’ll adjust as we go and costs come down even further.

    I think the sterilization of the planet is a very low probability scenario. Once we start dying off in our millions and billions, nature will come back and fix things. It may take thousands or millions of years if it is on the outer edges of worst case scenarios.

    As a species we may not do as well as if we took prompt action, but we’ll survive. How much pain could have been avoided is between you and your tides.

  14. knarlyknight Says:

    So shcb isn’t going to play because he doesn’t like the game? boo hoo.

  15. shcb Says:

    I was the crash test dummy remember? (take it and run with it Enky and Smith, my Christmas present to you)

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