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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Can You Solve Climate Change Better Than World Leaders?

From October 31 to November 12, all eyes were on Glasgow for the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP26). Humanity waited with collective bated breath, hoping world governments would commit to sufficient emissions reduction targets to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and imploring developed countries to make good on climate finance promises to help developing countries manage disproportional climate impacts. World leaders negotiated, peacocked, blamed, pleaded, and threatened in attempts to come together to avert catastrophic climate change.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened COP26 with an urgent warning: “We are digging our own graves … recent climate action announcements might give the impression that we are on track to turn things around. This is an illusion. Even in the best-case scenario, temperatures will rise well above 2 degrees Celsius.” He added emphatically, “We are still heading for climate disaster … Failure is not an option. Failure is a death sentence.”

The cost of our inaction and procrastination has drastically upped the stakes in our fight against climate change: To keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world must reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent over the next eight years.

As the week wore on, I got the sinking feeling we’d seen this movie before, and we knew how it would end. Guterres confirmed these fears in his closing remarks: “The collective political will was not enough to overcome such deep contradictions … our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It’s time to go into emergency mode or our chance of reaching net-zero will itself be zero.”

What Happened, Exactly?

There were some successful outcomes from COP26, both inside and outside of the formal negotiations: bold commitments to reduce methane emissions and halt/reverse deforestation, commitments to end support for international fossil fuel development, and an agreement to phase out domestic coal (the US was not a signatory on this agreement). For the first time, the conference addressed “loss and damage,” the phrase used for impacts that climate-vulnerable nations have already experienced and can no longer adapt to (for example land lost to sea-level rise or forced climate migration due to drought).

Still, the commitments are not even close to what is needed to stave off devastating impacts from climate change. According to the World Resources Institute, plans and commitments coming out of COP26 would limit warming to 2.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, a far cry from what scientists agree is a safe target. Many countries made net-zero pledges, but most don’t even have policies in place to achieve their updated 2030 pledges, much less net-zero commitments.

In all, 197 nations signed on to the Glasgow Climate Pact, the final agreement of COP26. The pact “requests” that signatories reconvene in 2022 (breaking from the precedent of meeting every five years), with strengthened 2030 emissions reduction targets to align with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It also requests that countries commit more resources to provide aid to vulnerable countries saddled with the most devastating impacts of climate change. Several countries (including high emitters like Australia) have already stated that their targets are fixed and that they have no intention of submitting strengthened targets in 2022.

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Last-minute pressure from China and India resulted in heavily watered-down language in the final agreement: Rather than calling on countries to accelerate the “phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels,” the agreement’s final language states the goal of “accelerating efforts toward the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” This is not simply a matter of semantics. The text is littered with phrases like “requests” and “calls upon” and “invites” and “encourages,” starkly reminding us that the pact is not binding.

See Clearly What's At Stake

It’s infuriating to watch world leaders fail to deliver the necessary commitments and action on climate change. If you’re feeling frustrated by the lack of meaningful outcomes from COP26, why not try your hand at saving humanity from itself and host your own international climate negotiations? Or try figuring out the right combination of emissions reduction strategies to prevent the end of life as we know it?

Thanks to nonprofit think tank Climate Interactive, you can role-play the UN Climate Negotiations or calculate the emissions reduction potential of your favorite “save the planet” policies and climate-friendly actions. Climate Interactive, in partnership with the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, created two tools to make climate science and climate action more accessible and less science-y:

En-ROADS (Energy Rapid Overview and Decision Support) is a free, online simulation tool that models warming based on input climate actions and policies focused on things like taxes, subsidies, economic growth, fuel mix, energy efficiency, technical innovation, and other factors.C-ROADS (Climate Rapid Overview and Decision Support) is a climate change policy simulator that tests countries’ emissions reduction pledges to determine whether they are sufficient to stay within the planetary limitations scientists agree on.

Ellie Johnston, climate and energy program coordinator for Climate Interactive, shares more about Climate Interactive’s goals and the science behind these simulation models:

“Our goal is to help people understand the vast scope of possible actions we might take on climate,” Johnston says. “We synthesized the best available science from reports and institutions like the IEA (International Energy Agency), IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and the World Bank to create a free and easy-to-use model so people can quickly distill insights that would be incredibly difficult to glean from reading the reports.”

“En-ROADS and C-ROADS are tools to test out our mental models—does planting trees or implementing a carbon tax have as much impact as I think it will? I can plug in various scenarios and see which actions make a difference in temperature or sea-level rise, or species loss, or ocean acidification. They are like flight simulators,” Johnston explains. “Just as pilots use a simulator when training to fly an airplane, we can simulate different climate and policy actions, get feedback, and explore why some actions are more impactful than others. We only have one planet. We need to test theories to see what has the highest impacts.”

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En-ROADS is fun (and depressing) to explore. Spoiler alert: The massive scale of combined actions needed to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius quickly becomes obvious. There is no single solution. Users can input any combination of scenarios, from carbon pricing to reducing deforestation to electric vehicles to ending fossil fuel subsidies, and instantly visualize how those solutions impact outcomes like future warming and sea-level rise.

Didn’t quite keep temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or even 2 degrees Celsius? Try again, except swap out EVs for highly subsidized renewable energy, or reduce economic or population growth. En-ROADS exposes which policies and strategies are likely to have the biggest impact. Run the simulation on your own, tweaking climate strategies, or have a party and invite your friends over to debate which strategies global leaders should prioritize while you yell at the real-world negotiations on the news broadcasts.

With En-ROADS, you can visualize land area lost to sea-level rise and explore global flood risk maps. You can identify which species are losing range due to climate change, and where. You can calculate estimated decreases in crop yield or increased deaths resulting from higher temperatures. This is significant in areas that historically never needed air conditioning and are seeing record heat-related deaths, like the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.

Role-Play Your Own UN Climate Summit

If you’re more interested in the nuances of high-stakes negotiations and climate justice, check out C-ROADS. Individuals can run the simulation online, but it’s more fun to role-play a simulated United Nations climate summit. Climate Interactive provides facilitator resources and materials for hosting. Groups can represent developed and developing countries in broad categories, or if you have more players, you can play a six-region game and represent the United States, the European Union, China, India, other developed nations, and other developing nations. You can also add representation for climate activists, fossil fuel lobbyists, the press corps, and the United States Climate Alliance.

My college-level students participate in mock-UN climate negotiations to help them understand the complexities of real-world negotiations and gain a more tangible understanding of the impacts of possible climate actions. Student groups are provided with guidelines of actual climate or financial impacts their represented country or stakeholder group is facing and what they need out of the negotiations, and tasked with proposing climate solutions their group is willing to take. 

To make the role-play more realistic, students who represent low-lying island nations are required to sit on the floor at the back of the room while students representing wealthy business groups or developed countries are given superior placement with fancy chairs, snacks, and special treatment at the front of the class.

It’s inspiring to see my students embrace their assigned country or stakeholder group. They would have secret conversations in the hallways, bribe other groups, passionately plead their case to the entire class, do whatever they could to defend their proposals or the urgency of their situation. Some chose to walk out of negotiations. I entered their proposals into the C-ROADS climate simulator, and the tool immediately calculated whether the proposals were sufficient to keep warming below 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees Celsius. When cumulative commitments failed to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius (which they always did), students representing the island nations were covered with a tarp to represent their islands no longer being habitable due to sea-level rise. 

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Sometimes, classes would renegotiate and drop all political infighting to find a way to stay under a 1.5 degree-Celsius rise. Mostly, students would stare at the screen, deers in the headlights, and I would feel (moderately) guilty for crushing their hope that my and older generations would somehow figure it out and not saddle them with the enormous disaster we’ve created.

There is contagious energy from getting people into a room to geek out on the dynamics of climate change. Nobody needs to be a scientist or a politician. You can play negotiator, debate who’s responsible for what, and at the end, recognize the scale of the challenges and what’s needed to address them. C-ROADS is awesome because it helps clarify who’s responsible for the bulk of historical and current emissions, what we must do globally to reduce emissions, and how to equitably determine who should pay for what.

“People are hungry for that one silver bullet that’s going to fix climate change, whether it’s driving an electric car or changing their diets. But it takes more than one seed to plant a garden,” Johnston said. “Those things are helpful, but En-ROADS shows the role they play and where there is leverage. It shows the whole picture and the required suite of actions. We can do everything to promote good actions, but above all, we must stop extracting fossil fuels. There aren’t any scenarios that keep us below 1.5 degrees Celsius that involve expansion of fossil fuel use. Even the IEA is saying there is no other option but to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

The urgency of this crisis demands that we push our own governments for ambitious and necessary climate action. These tools can be used to influence decision-makers and members of Congress, to help them understand the impacts and solutions. Climate Interactive made these tools freely available to everyone to build the necessary climate ambition we need to create a livable future for all.

“We can think about how difficult and challenging this will be, or we can look at all the amazing benefits that come with climate action,” Johnston said. “Shutting down coal plants reduces air pollution and saves lives. Future generations will be able to breathe cleaner air than any of us have ever experienced.”


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