Climate Interactive’s Travis Franck talks insights at UMass Lowell

Travis Franck presents Climate Interactive’s “Climate Pathways” mobile app

As part of its ongoing interview series, the Climate Change Initiative at University of Massachussetts Lowell talked recently with Climate Interactive’s Travis Franck about some of our simulators and the insights they’re providing on climate change.

As Franck explains, Climate Interactive’s emphasis on an analytical approach called systems thinking gives its models a uniquely comprehensive view of the complex systems involved in climate change.

“Very often in academia, we work in silos, or departments,” he says. “With systems, it’s really thinking across those silos…and it’s really taking that perspective that combines those multiple disciplines and then looks at all the feedbacks and interactions.”

Due the multidisciplinary nature of its approach, systems thinking frequently reveals aspects of the system that may be overlooked in more limited models.

One such insight, which can be seen in our En-ROADS simulation, relates to one of the most controversial energy topics today—the natural gas boom.

Many sing the praises of shale gas for giving the U.S. a cheap, cleaner alternative to oil, but as our models have revealed, it can also postpone the long-run solutions to climate change.

“It works well in the short term,” Franck says. “But one thing it might prevent us from doing, absent other policies, is continuing the long-term investment in renewables.”

This is due to any easily overlooked economic feedback loop in the energy system in which expensive gas prices encourage investment in renewables like solar and wind energy due to their relative attractiveness. Cheap gas means it will be longer until these important investments are made. It also means we could be stuck with this dirty energy for a long time.

“Our energy infrastructure turns over very slowly—every 30-40 years. So as we build a natural gas plant today, it’s still going to be operating in 2040,” Franck says. “For those 30 years, we’re going to be burning natural gas.”

While this is cleaner than coal, it’s certainly not as clean as solar or wind energy projects would be.

Insights such as this are not intuitively obvious and typically require multidisciplinary approaches like systems thinking to bring them to light. You can read more about some of the unique perspectives systems thinking can provide on climate change in our previous posts, or you can search for new insights yourself with our models.