Advancing MIT’s global change modeling legacy

When Prof. Jay Forrester, father of system dynamics, flew home to MIT from his first meeting with the Club of Rome in 1970, it’s a safe bet that global warming wasn’t on his radar. But the global model of the limits of growth that he began to develop on that plane ride paved the way for tools that have proved invaluable as the world struggles to come to grips with climate change.

Today Climate Interactive develops and promotes a set of simulations that grew from Forrester’s global model: computer simulations that model carbon emissions and global temperature. The US and Chinese governments are among the organization’s high-profile clients.

Climate Interactive’s tools help people explore the same core question that the Club of Rome began to address four decades ago, said Climate Interactive Co-Director Andrew Jones “How is growing population and growing industrialization going to react to reaching ecological limits?” he said. The main simulation, Climate Rapid Overview And Decision Support (C-ROADS) shows climate impacts of policy scenarios that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. C-ROADS is simple to use and can run on a laptop computer. Users pose “what if” scenarios and the software generates figures for greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentrations, global temperature and per-capita emissions.

C-ROADS was developed under the leadership of MIT’s John Sterman Jones, Sterman, MIT’s Peter Senge and Elizabeth Sawin founded Climate Interactive to promote C-ROADS. “The four of us said, ‘The world needs to be using these simulations as we figure out how to address climate change’,” Jones said. The software played a role at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009 said Jones. Climate Interactive is gearing up for the next climate negotiations in Paris in 2015, he added. The organization is helping Brazil -- the world’s fifth largest emitter -- create a national climate strategy. And it’s working with the states in Mexico, which have been federally mandated to develop climate plans.

Climate Interactive is also using the simulations to help people deal with today’s climate change realities, said Jones. “We know that the impacts of climate change are here now and want to make our system dynamics model relevant and useful to helping society deal with the current disruption to our ecosystems and our economies,” he said.

To that end, Climate Interactive is modeling drought and population displacement in East Africa and cities’ use of “green infrastructure” -- plants and soil -- instead of traditional concrete structures to deal with water from extreme weather events.

Climate Interactive is also launching an effort to make their tools and insights available to citizen leaders, business leaders, and local officials around the world through a set of online courses, The Climate Leader. 

In addition to the simulations, Climate Interactive is incorporating Senge’s pioneering work in organizational learning, said Jones. The goal is to engage people and take effective action by reflecting on assumptions, building a shared vision of where we want to go, and bringing to day-to-day decision-making an understanding that we’re working in complex, interdependent systems, he said. “In all of these efforts, our mission is to apply the core principles of system dynamics as conceived by the MIT Sloan Sustainability effort,” said Jones. This means understanding the “deep rooted structures that are driving these challenges so we don't just deal with the symptoms but we get to deep, lasting solutions.”