December 4, 2015 by Shanna Edberg
All photos (c) Julie McCay Turner, 2015
By Noel Zamot, a facilitator of World Climate
COP21, the UN Climate Conference is underway now in Paris. The entire world will watch as over these two weeks, world leaders negotiate agreements to commit to policies reducing anticipated global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, the “tipping point” beyond which many believe the effects of climate change will become irreversible. With such world-changing decisions being made, what impact can individuals have at the community level? Here is one story.
It was around noon on a beautiful New England day when my wife and I finished facilitating our very first World Climate simulation, an exercise that allows participants to understand the issues behind the Paris negotiations. The parish meeting hall at our town center had been packed all morning, and the participants were sharing feedback and observations from the just-concluded exercise. One participant, who had been very insightful and dedicated throughout the event, cautiously raised her hand. She shared an uncomfortable thought: “I feel anger and shame”. Feeling the sense of community in the experience we had just created, she shared her tale - more on that later. When she finished, other participants clapped, many hugged her, and several nodded their heads in quiet reflection of the emotions shared in the last three hours. As the room slowly emptied, the tone of the departing participants was clear: we had no idea this would be such an emotional experience, and we are so glad we did it.
Although an avid enthusiast of the outdoors, I would never have considered myself to be a “climate activist” in any way. Although mindful of the environment and aware of the impacts of industry on our world climate, nothing had prompted me to consider focused action contributing to a solution. Climate change was “something that just happened”—a fuzzy problem with difficult, undefinable solutions that just did not interest me that much. Even seeing the majestic, yet fading Crow’s Foot Glacier in Alberta, Canada, during our honeymoon did not stir passion to find a solution. I remained concerned about climate change, took steps to minimize our impact, and dismissed climate change deniers as uninformed. But nothing further. After all, what could one person do?
That changed last year. I had the unforgettable experience of going through a climate simulation exercise as part of Professor John Sterman’s class on System Dynamics, a core course at MIT Sloan’s Executive MBA program. It was an event that significantly changed my mental models and changed my views on how one person could make a contribution. Through the experience of that simulation I learned first hand that effective climate change reform can only happen after difficult, uncomfortable negotiations, paradigm shifts and much education – and that emotion and passions can play a very real part in saving the planet for future generations.
I called my wife as I drove home and told her about the experience. We signed up for an upcoming workshop to learn how to facilitate the climate negotiation exercise. Only a month later, we were coordinating with a local parish to facilitate the game on behalf of their climate action community group.
Facilitating the World Climate event was fascinating. We worked well as a team, and from our training had some idea of what to expect during the negotiation exercise. However, we were a bit concerned about facilitating a climate change exercise for a group of climate advocates in the Northeast. To put it mildly, this would be a cooperative crowd. One of the participants listed his job as “climate activist”, and the room was full of folks active in local climate justice organizations. For a moment, I doubted whether the group would engage in the role-play required to demonstrate just how difficult – but meaningful – climate change negotiations can be.
My fears were unfounded. Taking pages out of the Climate Interactive sessions, I assigned the climate activists to the fossil fuel lobby and ensured folks who had little international exposure were assigned to the developing nations cohort. Negotiations were messy, heated, and full of dead ends and frustration – in short, perfect. The participants clearly took this seriously and took pride in playing their roles well.
In the end, feedback from the participants pointed to something I had not expected: the visceral power of emotion as it relates to climate change. People shared the spectrum of emotions they felt throughout the negotiation—frustration at having to craft meaningful compromise; anger at the realization that future generations would have to address this historic problem; hope at learning about the wide variety of stakeholders from across the political spectrum slowly coalescing around a solution. The participant who shared her feelings of anger and shame told us why. She had previously worked in the energy industry, a detail unknown to us when we placed her in the energy lobby. Her insight was invaluable, as were her words when we adjourned. She said, “I’m hopeful that by connecting with people on an emotional level we can really energize communities in getting involved.”
Much like my experience at Sloan, the participants left having experienced the powerful emotions involved in meaningful climate change negotiations. That feeling of unease – and the realization of the promise it can hold – is what turned me from interested bystander to climate change advocate. I trust that the attendees had the same experience, and I hope they, too, find the will to translate that into action. As COP21 proceeds, let us all be mindful of the positive impact dedication and passion can have for the future of our planet.
Noel Zamot is the founder of Corvus Analytics, an early stage firm providing cybersecurity and risk assessments to the aviation industry. He is a former executive in the aerospace and defense industry and a former senior officer in the US Air Force, and is currently enrolled in MIT’s Sloan Executive MBA program in the class of 2016. Prior to being involved with Climate Interactive, he led his Air Force unit to win a $1M Dept. of Defense prize for reductions in energy use for a 4,000 person military installation.