Got a new climate policy? Try testing it out first
A person installs solar panels on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, U.S., September 24, 2018. Picture taken September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Emilie Richardson
Like pilots learning to fly, decision-makers should safely simulate policies before they implement them
Andrew Jones, executive director and co-founder of Climate Interactive, and Krystal Noiseux, associate director of MIT Climate Pathways
Ask a group of leaders from government, business, and civil society to name the solutions with the highest leverage for combating climate change, and you’ll likely hear as many responses as there are people in the room. Ask them how their proposed solutions might behave in a complex system, and you’ll likely hear hesitation – maybe even a pin drop.
The menu of possible climate solutions is enormous, and its implications are vast. Decision-makers need a safe environment in which to test their policy ideas, before making big decisions that impact us all. To draw an analogy, if we expect pilots to fly in simulators before taking us up 30,000+ feet, then we should expect leaders to simulate their policy ideas before taking them to the boardroom or bill-signing. We need evidence-based tools that allow them to do that.
Let’s start with one tool that decidedly won’t work: another slideshow presentation about top solutions. As Professor John Sterman, co-director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative and senior advisor to Climate Interactive always reminds us, “research shows that showing people research doesn't work.” Unidirectional communication, where people are inundated with facts from an expert, won’t change behaviors. Slideshows, however well-delivered, take a linear approach to conveying information in a world that is anything but straightforward.
Climate solutions simulators provide a stark contrast. Built using system dynamics, a modeling technique first pioneered at MIT in the 1950s, these simulators help you learn for yourself about the behavior of policy interventions in a complex system. They connect society and the economy to the physical and natural world, allowing you to input proposed climate solutions and see how they might play out across various parts.
If you plant a trillion trees, for example, how much land will that require? If you accelerate coal plant retirement, what happens to air quality? If you maintain the status quo, what happens to Gross Domestic Product? Tug on one thing, and a climate solutions simulator will show you everything else it’s hitched to - a sightline crucial for considering the equity implications of policy decisions.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relies on simulators like these. Known as the Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), they are high in their scope and detail, but low in speed, accessibility, and transparency. As complex, “disaggregated” models, they include, for example, dozens of different geopolitical regions and subtypes of energy (e.g. multiple types of coal), but are rarely available for public use, and require a lot of computer power and time.
Simple Climate Models (SCMs), on the other hand, are “disaggregated” (e.g. they might model just one region - the world - and one average type of coal). This makes them low in scope and detail, but high in speed, accessibility, and transparency. The En-ROADS Climate Solutions Simulator, co-developed by Climate Interactive and the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, is one such SCM.
En-ROADS is a global model built (and updated regularly) using the best available science, with data sources like the IPCC and International Energy Agency (IEA), and including equity outcomes of policy decisions, like air quality, energy costs, and land use change. It’s free, online, easy-to-use, and translated into 20 languages. It runs on an ordinary laptop or tablet in a fraction of a second. It complements IAMs, because it provides a way for leaders to quickly simulate dozens of policy combinations on their own, before deciding on a few they might like to have run on an IAM.
In turn, IAMs make En-ROADS stronger. We enter the same inputs into En-ROADS as we do the IAMs, and we analyze the outputs. We also test En-ROADS against 30+ years of actual data because it starts running in the year 1990. We use our learnings from these tests to improve the model, and anyone can view its structure, equations, and assumptions online. Users can even challenge and change our key assumptions.
En-ROADS and its predecessor, C-ROADS, have been used by over 300,000 people in 158 countries, through one-on-one demos, group workshops, or negotiation skills-building exercises. This includes more than 6,500 leaders in government, business, and civil society we’ve been able to reach through the MIT Climate Pathways Project, where we leverage interactive simulations to advance evidence-based climate policy.
It’s working. Research conducted by our collaborators at the UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative has shown that participation in our interactive simulations increases participants’ sense of urgency about climate change, desire to learn more about it, and intention to take action. Another study found participants were more likely to support pro-climate policies and willing to contribute to solutions, personally. En-ROADS was also used by 133 members of the U.S. Congress prior to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) - the largest climate investment in our nation’s history - and called “a climate crisis game-changer” by U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. When’s the last time a slideshow presentation produced results like that?
Don’t take our word for it though! Like any good pilot or any leader shaping climate policy, you can learn for yourself in a safe environment, too.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
- Climate policy
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