John Sterman on the Power of Simulations

At a recent MIT conference, Climate Interactive member Prof. John Sterman provided an inspiring analysis of the relationship between big data, climate models and climate change action.
Climate Interactive team member, Prof. John Sterman

Climate Interactive team member, Prof. John Sterman

As we see data and models become more advanced and more available, we’re only really reaching the first step toward solving the problem of climate change.  The real challenge that we’re facing, Sterman said, is communicating all this information so that it teaches and inspires people to pursue the appropriate solutions.

“The burden is on us,” he said. “People are solving problems—data doesn’t solve problems [and] information doesn’t solve problems.”

So the question is, how can we use the data and the models we have to push people to solve these problems? Sterman shared one success story from a World Climate exercise he led with a group of Chinese policymakers:

As you might expect, their position is, “the Western developed nations created the problem—you should cut your emissions and we should be continue to be able to burn carbon to develop our economy.”

So we do that in the model and guess what? You find that sea level rise resulting from their continued emissions—and India and all the other developing countries—rapidly causes Shanghai and Shandong and Shenzhen and many other coastal cities of China to disappear under the ocean before the end of this century.

Now I didn’t tell them that—they discovered it themselves.

Suddenly, it gets very quiet in the room.  And one gentleman … when I asked, “what does this mean?” said, “it means we have to leave the past in the past. Pointing fingers and blaming people for historical responsibility is not going to save our country.  We have to take deeper action.”

I could never have told them that and had any impact. They had to discover it for themselves.

This is why, in addition to making our models as accurate as possible, we also make them interactive, transparent and accessible to everyone. A truly effective model is rigorously based on the best available science, but also enables people to try their own experiments and test their own assumptions.  Even more important, that process should empower people to take action in their personal and professional lives, and connect us to one another so that we can, as one conference attendee put it, “turn a crowd into a movement that can make a difference.”

You can read more about our World Climate exercise and the C-ROADS simulator it uses on our website. You can also find other ways to get involved through our related World Energy exercise or our online Climate Leader course.

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