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MIT Sloan Prof: How To Persuade Climate Skeptics

John Sterman, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a renowned climate scientist, says research shows that showing people research doesn’t work when it comes to climate change. MIT photo

Professor John Sterman says that showing a climate change disbeliever charts and graphs won’t get them to reduce their energy consumption.

Sure, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication recently found that 70% of Americans accept that climate change is happening, and six in 10 say they think climate change is affecting U.S. weather. Yet a recent Gallup survey found that only 45% of Americans think that global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. That’s why Sterman, a professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, helped to co-create an interactive roleplay simulation game called World Climate Simulation: to show participants the consequences of their decisions.

It’s one thing to see images of rising sea levels and people fleeing their homes and communities, Sterman tells Poets&Quants. Imagine being shown what it’s like underwater. Sterman says that when players in his simulation, acting as delegates representing different countries, make poor climate decisions, sea levels go up and flood lands and destroy communities — a reality that he and his team illustrate by bringing out a blue tarp and dragging it over participants’ heads. The light is gradually blocked out, and everyone grasps on a visceral level what poor climate choices can cause.

“Climate change is already here,” Sterman says. “People living in coastal areas are being forced out of their homes, property is being destroyed, and they are becoming climate refugees. We want to create an impression on people so they’ll begin thinking more seriously about the energy they’re consuming.”

‘THESE ARE WHAT WE CALL SERIOUS GAMES’

Sterman, whose work focuses on system dynamics and engineering systems that use simulations to help develop and improve thinking capabilities, says that World Climate Simulation players usually start out lightheartedly joking with one another as they get into their roles. But as the game progresses, he says, the room gets quieter. Players begin to realize the seriousness of their decisions that cause all kinds of climate consequences — human displacement, rising sea levels, lower crop yields, even mass migration to nowhere in particular.

“These are what we call serious games, like aircraft flight simulators, or simulators used to train surgeons. In complex situations, people need to learn through experience, and simulations help,” Sterman says. “By the time we find out how bad things are going to be in reality with climate change, it’ll be too late.”

The game can be played by between eight and 50 players. They engage in a mock UN climate change negotiation led by a facilitator who acts as a UN leader. When Sterman is at the helm, he gives those present a brief introduction before leaving the room and returning in a suit and tie. Someone then announces him as the secretary general of the United Nations, and he brings the meeting to order by banging a gavel. Following standard procedure, he acknowledges the different delegates in the room — and then the fun begins.

Sterman says it’s clear that simulations work — look no further than the Sloan School’s webpage of management simulation games for topics ranging from commodity pricing to creating a clean-energy startup, to managing renewable resources and climate and energy policy negotiation.

A FUN BUT SERIOUS GAME SPREADS BY WORD OF MOUTH 

Since 2009, the World Climate Simulator has been brought to policymakers at the Copenhagen Climate Summit, the U.S. government, and even the UN. Sterman says he’s seen the simulation enable policymakers to try new policies, get immediate results, and prove those results to naysayers. The Ministry of Education in Germany has even designated the simulator as an official resource for German high schools. Today, the North American Association for Environmental Education is encouraging educators to use the simulation to teach middle and high school students, as well as older learners, about climate change.

“The ‘play’ experiment increases the realism and seriousness of what’s going on while keeping it fun for people,” Sterman says. “Showing research doesn’t change beliefs or behaviors. Look at smoking and tobacco usage. Listening to experts can be boring, so we don’t tell people what to do. Instead, they decide what future greenhouse gas emissions should be, see the consequences, and get to revise their proposals. They can bring up arguments, ask questions, and encourage their own learning. That makes a difference.”

Sterman says World Climate Simulation has gained public momentum in recent years as participants began telling friends, colleagues, and co-workers about it, and then as people began hosting their own simulations. But the work backing the game was done decades ago. Sterman and his team started developing the simulation model in 2008, but its roots, he says, date back to work done by his Ph.D. students in the 1990s, and even to his own Ph.D. dissertation in 1991.

“So far, over 46,000 people in 85 countries have participated in this game, most because someone else ran it for them,” Sterman says. “In the beginning, when I began using it to teach in class, I stood at the front of the room and ran the model based on suggestions from the students as a whole. Then we began dividing the group into delegations like the U.S., China, the European Union — and the energy level in class rose above all the other classes.”

WHEN THE DISCUSSION BECOMES REAL

Unlike real UN negotiations, where over 200 countries bring forth their own agendas, World Climate Simulation is mostly played with three or six nation groups. (Having all 200 would make the game too long and complicated, Sterman said.) After the first round, where decisions may cause all kinds of climate change effects, participants are given the chance to negotiate a second time — and that, he says, is when the discussion becomes more meaningful and real for people. “They almost always end up with stronger agreements than they started out with,” Sterman says.

In a recent article published in the academic journal Plos One, Sterman and his team share data showing that 81% of diverse participants who engaged in their simulation gained greater motivation to take actions to combat climate change.

Sterman says he’s seen participants make not only lifestyle changes and home modifications to reduce their energy use and carbon footprint, some have even made career changes into roles where they can help promote sustainability. As for himself, he decided that to talk the talk, he should walk the walk, and he now rides a bicycle to work every day and has a greenhouse that makes more energy than he and his family use.

“It would not be ethical for me to facilitate the simulations if I were not putting the principles to practice myself,” Sterman says.

DON’T MISS CLIMATE CHANGE, THE B-SCHOOL WAY and VOTED OFF THE ISLAND AT BERKELEY HAAS