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Fake climate negotiations produce real impacts

Fake climate negotiations produce real impacts
25 Jun

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts—Some critics of the Paris Agreement on climate change probably think they could have done a better job with the agreement's details. Recently, a group of people taking a system dynamics course at MIT’s Sloan School of Management got the chance to take a whack at it.

Ars dropped in on a mock climate negotiation exercise run by MIT’s John Sterman, Climate Interactive's Andrew Jones, and University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Juliette Rooney-Varga—the first time they’ve done one of these since President Trump announced his intent to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement. The simulated negotiation was informed by a display at the front of the room that showed the impact of the participants' pledged emissions reductions on climate change. In this case, the scoreboard was the same simple climate model that was used to facilitate the international negotiations in Copenhagen and Paris.

That model was developed in the 1990s to simulate interactions between economies and climate change, but it was adapted into a tool negotiators could use to quickly calculate the impacts of proposals.

John Holdren—President Obama’s top science advisor—was keen on the model and used its results during the negotiations that led to a bilateral agreement with China in 2014. And just before the Paris talks kicked off, top UN climate officials were running every what-if they could think of through the model.

In 2007, Jones and Sterman realized that with a simplified user interface, the model could drive group exercises that give people an opportunity to grapple with the reality of climate change in a new way. And in this case, the room was split into nine groups. The US, the EU, a group of other developed nations, China, India, and a group of other developing countries each had their own block of “delegates.” For the first time, the US group would operate under new guidelines—uncooperative but still present, since withdrawal from Paris can’t be completed until 2020. Also new was a group representing the US cities and states that have pledged to do their part regardless of the federal government’s stance. The states were joined by two other interest groups: climate activists and the fossil fuel industry.

Let’s make a deal

After an introduction, each group had a few minutes to review background information for their bloc and formulate their goals. When someone joked that all the snacks seemed to be on the wealthy nations’ tables, Sterman let on that the unequal bagel distribution was intentional. And just to drive home the power dynamic of real international talks, the developing nations group was told that they would have to sit on the floor.

The groups then got their first chance to feel each other out for deals. The EU came over to ask China for their top two priorities, while a brash US delegation opted for playing hardball with the Chinese. This was part of an interesting change in this post-Trump negotiation—in the previous iterations, the US has always been the one receiving visitors. This time, it was the Chinese table that commanded the room. In fact, frustrated that they couldn’t get a quiet minute to themselves, the Chinese delegation abruptly walked out of the room and locked themselves in a separate one. Even then, other blocs were knocking on their door.

The group of climate activists worked pretty hard to fulfill their role. Before long, they made protest signs and started demonstrating, (including chants of “Shame! Shame, you capitalist pigs!”). At one point, they shut off the lights to make their point.

With the lights back on, one delegate from each group presented their bloc’s initial pledge. That included the year (if any) they would peak their emissions, when their emissions would start to fall, and how rapid of a decline they would commit to. In addition, they could pledge to reduce deforestation by some amount and to contribute to a Green Climate Fund that's meant to help developing countries make clean technology investments and deal with the impacts of climate change.

EU-group representative “Angela Merkel” pledged to start reducing emissions by three percent per year in 2020 and provide $15 billion per year to the Green Climate Fund—assuming everyone else chips in a fair amount. China’s Xi Jinping, on the other hand, took the hardline stance that his country was still developing and would not contribute to the fund. And while they promised emissions would peak in 2030, they wouldn’t commit to a decline until 2070.

When everyone’s pledges had been tabulated, the climate model was updated to see how much progress had been made. From the initial projection of a little over 4 degrees Celsius warming, the pledges brought things down a bit to 3.6 degrees Celsius. After demonstrating the mapped impacts of projected sea level rise on Miami and Shanghai, Sterman exhorted the delegates to get more serious about meeting the goal of limiting warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

The second round of negotiations made more progress. The US, EU, and China agreed to each contribute $25 billion per year to the developing nations (although the US would do so independent of the Green Climate Fund “because the UN is fake news”). The fossil fuel industry even promised some funding and technology for the developing world. All this helped the developing nations pledge to cut their own emissions.

The US cities and states supporting Paris promised to do enough to ensure that the US as a nation meets its pre-Trump emissions pledge. And China—contemplating boats traveling the former streets of Shanghai—changed its tune, pledging that its emissions would start declining by two percent per year in 2035.

When time ran out, the warming projection had dropped to 2.3 degrees Celsius—within spitting distance of the 2 degree Celsius goal.

And… scene

All the materials for this exercise (including the climate model) are now available in six languages, Andrew Jones told Ars. At least 35,000 people around the world have now used them, from middle school students to national leaders. (“I made the president of Micronesia sit on the floor,” Jones said.)

John Sterman has run the game with a group of Chinese officials and business leaders. Just like the group at MIT, the Chinese officials' “Chinese delegation” initially demanded drastic action from the wealthiest nations while pledging little of its own. But then they saw the model simulation results. When Sterman asked what had changed, someone answered (after a long pause), “We must leave the past in the past.” Sterman couldn’t possibly have told them that, he said; they had to come to the realization on their own.

Juliette Rooney-Varga has been running before-and-after surveys on participating groups, which have shown that the exercise is actually surprisingly impactful. Not only do people pick up some knowledge (like understanding why merely halting the growth of emissions won’t stop the increase of the atmospheric CO2 concentration), but they feel a greater sense of urgency about climate change and a stronger interest in taking action.

Those three things are linked in an interesting way, Rooney-Varga explained. It doesn’t appear to be the new knowledge that drives action, but the emotional sense of urgency. The social, personal experience has an emotional angle that is unlike simply reading an article. We are typically presented with a picture painted by scientists, which we can either accept or reject, Jones pointed out. But in a simulation like this, you are basically handed a tool and given the chance to work out the lesson for yourself.

The most tantalizing result in the early data is that this has seemed to work across political divides (which tend to control climate change attitudes in the US). While Americans who indicated opposition to government regulation of free markets start with more lax attitudes on climate, it doesn't last. On average, their sense of urgency is indistinguishable from everyone else’s after going through the exercise. The sample size is so far a little small, though, so future groups may or may not mirror this rosy outcome.

While adopting the side of a nation in a mock UN negotiation might feel a little silly (and this group had some fun with it, to be sure), people can really get into their roles. Jones and Rooney-Varga have a few good stories of people who held onto negotiating grudges with colleagues long after the final gavel. And there’s some value in this bit of imagination. As Jones put it, it allows people to do something athletes swear by—visualize success.