We’ve pimped a post from The Inside Agenda, the blog of “The Agenda with Steve Paikin.” For Americans, think of him as Canada’s Charlie Rose. They are covering climate models on their public television show and interviewed Climate Interactive partner Dr. John Sterman of MIT. The full post is here.
Climate Model for the People
Posted on: 24 March 2010 by Daniel Kitts
Tonight’s program looks at the climate models scientists are using to try and predict where the world’s climate is going.
These models are impressive feats of mathematical and computational skill. Yet many members of the public remain unmoved by their predictions of a warming world.
One reason for this lack of impact may be that most of us have little or no idea how these models work. These are expensive projects run by highly educated scientists working in elite laboratories and universities. It’s not like you can just go on the Web and make your own climate projections.
At least, that is, until now.
Climate Interactive is a web site that offers simulations people can use to both better understand how CO2 is warming the planet and what kind of options policymakers can take to reduce greenhouse gas reductions.
The climate simulation, C-LEARN allows you to set emission reduction targets, the year those targets must be reached, and input other factors. It then produces a graph showing how that would affect the growth of CO2 in the air and how much the global temperature would grow under that scenario. It also allows you to see other data, such as expected sea level rise, and compare the results of different simulations.
Also available on the site is a widget allowing people to keep track of how current policy proposals, if implemented, would affect the climate going forward.
I asked Dr. John Sterman, one of the creators of Climate Interactive, to answer a few questions about the project and its goals.
1. Why did you decide to develop this climate simulator?
The strong scientific consensus about the causes and risks of climate change stands in stark contrast to widespread confusion and complacency among the public. Science is clearly not the bottleneck to action. Many people believe we can “wait and see” whether climate change will turn out to be very harmful to human welfare, and, if so, then take action. Wait and see works well in simple systems, with short time delays. But the climate is a complex dynamic system with multiple feedback processes, accumulations, nonlinearities and very long time delays. If climate change turns out to cause serious damage to our welfare, it will be too late to take action. The only way people can explore the dynamics of such large, complex systems is through simulations. Existing large-scale climate models, as wonderful as they are, weren’t designed to facilitate learning among policymakers and the public, to whom they are black boxes. And the cycle time for running simulations is too long to be useful in the fast-paced world of negotiations and policy, or in a sound-bite world of channel surfing and short attention spans. The C-ROADS climate policy model we developed runs essentially instantly, so people get immediate feedback on the consequences of their assumptions and can try many experiments in a short time.
2. What’s wrong with the way that scientists often try to explain climate change to political leaders and everyday people?
Some scientists are brilliant communicators. But many don’t feel they should work in the political arena, and others have never been trained to be effective communicators. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that if policymakers and the public are presented with the best available science, then they will make rational decisions (of course the science doesn’t tell us what decisions to make, as that depends on our values, but it constrains what decisions ought to be made given our values). But the “just the facts” approach just doesn’t work. Effective communication about complex issues and risks begins with deep understanding of the “mental models” of the policymakers and public. Research on mental models and persuasion shows that just showing people the results of the science is about the worst way to stimulate learning.
3. What is it about this simulator that you believe will help people learn about climate change more effectively than they may have previously?
On the first day of my classes each term, I tell the students that I can’t teach them anything. They giggle a bit, but I tell them I’m dead serious. I can’t teach them anything. All I can do is create an environment in which they can learn for themselves (I learned this lesson forcefully when my kids were teenagers). There is no learning without feedback, without knowledge of the results of our actions. Traditionally, scientists generated that feedback through experimentation. But experiments are impossible in many of the most important systems, including the climate. When experimentation is too slow, too costly, unethical, or just plain impossible, when the consequences of our decisions take months, years, or centuries to manifest, that is, for most of the important issues we face, simulation becomes the main—perhaps the only—way we can discover for ourselves how complex systems work and where the high leverage points are, in a way that can move us to action. The alternative is rote learning based on the authority of an expert, a method that dulls creativity, stunts the very systems thinking and scientific reasoning skills we hope to develop, and thwarts implementation.
Additional Resources on Climate Models (Video)
To get a better sense of how climate models work, you can also watch this simple but informative video produced by the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. You can also see another useful GFDL video here.