Friday, June 18, 2010

The missing constituency in climate change negotiations

On Tuesday, about 50 of us from the Sloan Fellows "A" section participated in a fascinating -- and depressing -- climate change simulation. The exercise was based on international negotiations to reverse several global warming trends, as well as a tool called C-ROADS (“Climate Rapid Overview and Decision-support Simulator”). After arriving in a large conference room, we split into groups representing various nations (I was in the India group) and attempted to negotiate a climate treaty that balanced our national interests with the global imperative to reverse the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere. The C-ROADS tool, which was developed by MIT and several partner organizations, has actually been used by governments and NGOs to model policy actions and their impact on long-term greenhouse gas emissions and sea level changes (I've embedded a video below that explains how it works.)

If you paid attention to the horse trading and bickering that took place at Copenhagen last year, you are probably aware that it was impossible to get everyone on board. In the India group, we had several obstacles which prevented us from willingly signing on to aggressive reduction targets. Our briefing document instructed us to preserve economic growth at all costs, and we also had to be cognizant of the fact that India's population will actually surpass China's at some point mid-century, according to the projections we were given. We unsuccessfully attempted to tie the negotiations into demands for technology transfer and an end to European agricultural barriers. In the end, with a little arm-twisting and urging from the facilitator (Sloan professor John Sterman), we gave up these demands and signed on to more aggressive targets. In the C-ROADS simulation, this resulted in a reversal of several trends and a much smaller degree of global warming. The earth was saved!

Not so fast, Sterman said. He gave us an uncomfortable reality check about international climate negotiations: There is little chance all of these agreements would be ratified by the legislatures of the democratic countries that took part in the negotiations. This is because an important stakeholder has not been brought on board: The public. Many people are either not convinced of the need for drastic action, fear the negative economic impacts, or may resent the fact that some countries are receiving unequal treatment, even though they have contributed more to global warming in the past.

After the four-hour session ended, everyone in the room was amazed at what we had just participated in, but depressed about the implications. Is there nothing that can be done? A lot of fellows thought hard about this as we left the building. I actually had a few ideas that targeted the public awareness issue, and sent the following email to Sterman:
Your presentation yesterday afternoon was quite powerful and left a big impression on me and many of the other fellows.

I just wanted to add a few observations about getting through to the public, which you touched upon toward the end of your presentation. I come from an online news background and have some observations with how traditional mass media as well as new media tools can be used to reach the public.

The first is that, perversely, the visuals from the Deep Horizon disaster and the aftermath have probably done more to turn people to sustainability-related causes than any other event in the past ten years. The live video from the well location has been particularly disturbing for the many millions of people who have seen it. It illustrates everything that is wrong with offshore drilling and drives many people to ask the question: What are the alternatives?

The second observation is that visuals like these are often far more effective than data or prose in terms of bringing home the message about something like environmental change. As one of the other fellows told me as we left the Marriott, “instead of showing a simulation involving bar charts or maps, why not show images of people drowning?” It may seem like a strange idea, but creating a simulation of real areas being inundated or ruined by a breach would be very effective, even if no actual deaths were depicted. There are some graphics technologies related to video game design which could actually help do this — imagine a sim of New York City partially under water, or a massive breach overtaking water control features in Holland, Venice, Sacto, etc. This is the type of thing that has a large potential to either A) be picked up by major broadcast news outlets (especially in locales that are depicted) or B) “go viral” on YouTube and Facebook.

The third observation is that C-ROADS is an excellent tool for getting a global view of the problem, but there needs to be a simulation tool or tools for people to see how they will be personally affected by global warming. For instance, how about a simulation that lets people type in their address, and spits out an estimation of whether or not their home is under water, the estimated decline in value or increase in insurance costs, the impact on their community (refugee resettlement, difference in snow/rain/drought days) and even what sort of plants they can expect to see disappear from their garden, as well as new plants that will take their place?
Sterman's response was interesting. While visuals have been helpful in informing the public (he mentioned scientist-turned filmmaker Randy Olsen) he also sent a paper that he authored for Science magazine that noted the following contradiction in public attitudes toward global warming:

"Majorities in the United States and other nations have heard of climate change and say they support action to address it, yet climate change ranks far behind the economy, war, and terrorism among people’s greatest concerns, and large majorities oppose policies that would cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by raising fossil fuel prices."

According to Sterman, another important constituency that needs to be handled with care are scientists themselves. He didn't get too far into this issue, but it's not hard to see why this is so: Different stakeholders respond to different messages and data points, and dramatizations intended for the general public will not work with people who are used to dealing with complex data and peer-reviewed research.

Video: John Sterman on C-ROADS Science and Confidence Building

John Sterman on C-ROADS Science and Confidence Building from Climate Interactive on Vimeo. MIT's John Sterman of the Climate Interactive team explains C-ROADS science and confidence building at the US State Department side event in Copenhagen. Image: Data points from C-ROADS

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