Simulations to Predict Climate Change

Most people care about climate change, but it can be tough to change behavior. To the average person, the challenge feels insurmountable—and they may not feel the urgency of action until it’s too late.

John D. Sterman, PhD ’82, (Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management; Faculty Co-Director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative) explains that “a lot of people still hold a mental model that says, ‘Let’s wait and see how badly climate change is going to hurt us before acting.’ Folks think it’s like putting the kettle on the stove to boil water. They think you can wait until you hear the whistle to take the kettle off the flame.”

But that’s not how climate change works—people need to take action before they feel the most severe effects. Much like the training of a pilot or heart surgeon, learning needs to happen before experience. “In such settings, people learn best in simulations,” says Sterman.

Enter En-ROADS (Energy Rapid Overview and Decision Support), which provides interactive climate policy simulation models. Created with Climate Interactive, a nonprofit think tank, En-ROADS shows which policies will have the most effective and decisive impact on global warming and the climate crisis.

The team initially launched C-ROADS (Climate Rapid Overview and Decision Support) in 2009 to show how emissions affect climate change outcomes. Both models are free and interactive, with users being able to choose different actions and assess the results. En-ROADS and C ROADS are key aspects of the MIT Climate Pathways Project, which aims to influence top decision-makers to advance the adoption of evidence-based climate policy.

The Climate Pathways team is already pushing forward on this mission as they bring interactive En-ROADS briefings to senior policymakers and other stakeholders—including governors and members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. This coordination has been made possible thanks to fellow MIT alumni, including Michael Sonnenfeldt, SB ’77, SM ’78, Bethany Patten, EMBA ’13 (Lecturer, Sustainability; Senior Associate Director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative), Andrew Jones, SM ’97, and Ben Wolkon, MBA ’16.

According to their research, using En-ROADS increased knowledge about the climate crisis, brought a sense of urgency and hope, and engendered a need to do more to address the problem. Using both simulation models can also elicit strong emotional responses—across the political spectrum—and that’s critical to eliciting change. “Motivating people to act isn’t just about information,” explains Sterman. “The evaluative studies showed that it’s emotional engagement that drives people’s desire to learn more and to take action.”

Sterman spoke about MIT Sloan’s impact on addressing this problem urgently, citing the significance of principled, entrepreneurial leadership. “Within the lives of our children, we will know whether or not we succeed—we can do it, but there’s no time to waste. And if not us—then who?”