The global temperature is rising and an international agreement is needed to avoid irreversible damage to the planet.
That’s the mission in the role-play simulation World Climate, and according to new research from MIT Sloan professor John Sterman, it might also be the key to understanding and encouraging environmental change.
In World Climate, participants take on the role of delegates to the UN climate change summits, and negotiate face-to-face with other participants to reach a climate change agreement. Sterman said the negotiators seek to limit global warming to no more than the 2 degrees Celsius — 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — limit affirmed at the Paris climate summit, while also taking their economic and political situations into account. Participants get immediate feedback on their proposed agreements by using the Climate Rapid Overview and Decision Support (C-ROADS) simulator.
C-ROADS is a peer-reviewed climate simulation model that has been used by senior officials and policymakers in the UN and various governments. Sterman said users enter their own scenarios for fossil fuel emissions and land use (deforestation, for example)t hat the likely impacts of their proposals on the global climate — including warming, sea level rise, and ocean acidification — would be.
Typically, first-round proposals lead to warming well above 2 degrees Celsius, Sterman said, leading to severe harm to the prosperity, health, and welfare of people in every nation. Participants realize that it’s in their own interest to undertake more ambitious cuts in emissions, and usually negotiate a stronger agreement in the second round.
The researchers found “statistically significant gains” in three areas:
- knowledge of climate change causes, dynamics, and impacts.
- affective engagement, including greater feelings of urgency and hope.
- a desire to learn and do more about climate change.
“The results indicate that World Climate offers a climate change communication tool that enables people to learn and feel for themselves, which together have the potential to motivate action informed by science,” Sterman and his co-authors write.
The study surveyed more than 2,000 World Climate participants from eight nations on four continents, ranging in age from 11 to more than 75 years old, with a variety of cultural and educational backgrounds. Participants completed a survey asking about their knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes about climate change before and after the workshop.
The interactive simulation differs from the “information deficit model,” that is, the idea that telling people information about the causes and effects of climate change will change their behavior.
The deficit model approach is not ideal, the researchers write, in part because it limits the amount of information that can be shared and understood about a complex topic.
“Research shows that showing people research doesn’t work,” Sterman said.
The “just the facts” approach induces resistance and lacks emotional intensity, Sterman said,and people’s beliefs are also conditioned by social forces.
“Individuals who share ties with members of social groups that dismiss climate change are also likely to dismiss it, while the belief that other similar people take action increases behaviors to combat climate change,” the study authors write.
But the ideological divide shrank in the context of the simulation.
The researchers found that “gains [in climate knowledge, the feeling of urgency, and the desire to take action] were just as strong among American participants who oppose government regulation of free markets — a political ideology that has been linked to climate change denial in the U.S. — suggesting the simulation’s potential to reach across political divides.”
Sterman, who’s also director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, said he and his fellow researchers weren’t expecting such a large impact on people who don’t support government action on climate change, since previous research suggests the more information provided about climate change, the more polarized the sides become.
But in the World Climate simulation, Sterman said, people aren’t told what to do.
“Instead, participants debate amongst themselves as they negotiate, deciding what, if any, emissions reductions they will offer for the nations they represent in the role play,” he said. “Then we use the C-ROADS model to simulate the impact of their decisions. We believe it’s that shift — from experts telling people about the science to an interactive experience in which participants learn for themselves — that accounts for the impact of World Climate on those who don’t trust government and oppose regulation of the market.”
Another lesson learned from the simulation that can be applied to climate action is messaging.
According to the study, “fearful messages” were historically seen as counterproductive to encouraging climate change action, as they could reduce risk perception and action. More hopeful “solutions-oriented” approaches were seen as the better option.
The simulation showed that gains in urgency, which included fear around climate change, were linked to an increase in knowledge, intent, and a desire to learn more.
This feeling of fear is important for people to understand the severity of climate change, Sterman said, though it’s also essential to help people move past fear, to use the urgency of the problem to motivate action.
“If we conclude that it’s too late, that there’s nothing we can do and then do nothing, then we will create that outcome,” he said. “World Climate not only boosts people’s knowledge of climate change and increases the urgency they feel, but also generates gains in hope. Hope isn’t a belief that it’s all going to be OK. The problem is grave and there’s no time to waste. Hope is the belief that it is not too late, that it is still possible to make a difference, and that what each one of us does, individually and collectively, matters.”