Simulating the Future of Climate Policy

Jun 19, 2017

In the two and a half weeks since President Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, there’s been a lot of speculation about how the rest of the world will respond, and whether they can address climate change without the U.S. on board. An MIT researcher plans to test exactly this idea with a simulation this Thursday.

It's called World Climate Simulation, and it's a mock U.N. negotiation paired with a climate model that spits out the likely result of the negotiated actions. In order to work in real time, the model is stripped way down - total greenhouse gas emissions go in, average degrees of global warming come out. 

The mock negotiators aren't exactly experts, either. Often, they are students, or business people, who get a brief introduction to climate science and the interests of the parties they're representing.

It's, at best, a rough approximation of real U.N. negotiations. But, after some 660 simulations, with more than 33,000 participants, in dozens of countries, co-creator John Sterman of MIT’s Sloan School for Management says it has proven to be an effective educational tool.

"Very often, the reduction in global warming is much less than they expected it to be," Sterman said. "That motivates them to ask questions: Why did that happen? Why doesn't the response make more of a difference?  And what else can we do? And what will the consequences be?"

After exploring those questions, there is another round - or two - of mock negotiations. Sterman says those negotiations tend to go very differently.

"There's usually a shift from the initial frame where the negotiation feels a lot like a zero sum game, where if China wins, the U.S. must be losing, and vice versa," Sterman said."What people start to realize is we're all in the same boat together on this."

But the U.S. won't even be represented at this week's simulation. Instead, some participants will be assigned to represent an alliance of states who have pledged to uphold the Paris Agreement when the U.S. withdraws.