The Professor Who Turns Climate Change Into a Game

By Eric Roston, Bloomberg, April 21, 2020

John Sterman
John Sterman Photographer: Takaaki Iwabu/Bloomberg

John Sterman has spent his life explaining why big systems fail. 

A professor at MIT Sloan School of Management since the early 1980s, his research extends from global supply chain disruptions to the collapse of the biosphere. He literally wrote the book on how to manage complexity, Business Dynamics, and has guided generations of MBA students and executives. Now he focuses on sustainability and climate change.

Sterman likes to start his presentations with a devastating assessment of how well facts, diagrams and figures change people’s minds: “Research,” he deadpans, “shows that showing people research doesn’t work.” More fromSolar Giant Sunrun Surges on Deal to Become a JuggernautForecasters Raise Atlantic Hurricane Outlook to 20 Named StormsPandemic to Spark Biggest Retreat for Meat Eating in DecadesHydrogen’s Role in Europe’s Future Becomes a Little Clearer

What does work is playing games. The latest game takes the shape of an easy-to-use, deceptively sophisticated model called En-ROADS that turns hypothetical policy scenarios into climate impacts, projected out to the year 2100. (Much more on that here.)

The simulator came together over nearly a decade, with hundreds of climate workshops involving thousands of people. In some workshops the attendees—often business leaders or policy wonks—are asked to take on the interests of states or transnational blocs and, in character, haggle with each other over climate solutions. If China promises to cut its emissions by 2040, will the U.S. fund breakthrough nuclear-power research? Can we all agree to a carbon tax?

After every round of negotiation, the terms of a global climate strategy are keyed into the model, which projects results about the future of the planet in real time. Once the players gasp at their poor results, it’s back to the mock-negotiating table.

Read More: This Climate Simulator Lets You Decide How to Best Fight Global Warming

Sterman moderates this role-playing as a senior adviser to Climate Interactive, a nonprofit that develops tools for understanding policy options in an overheating world. MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative and Ventana Systems Inc. helped the group design En-ROADS to anchor these workshops. Think of it as a video game with primitive graphics and the highest possible real-world stakes.

En-ROADS offers 18 different policy levers and instantaneous visual analysis of how different decisions affect temperatures, greenhouse-gas emissions and energy use. Inside the software there are 64 adjustable settings, such as how much land can be reforested, how fast melting ice raises sea level or how long it takes to build a nuclear plant. The scientific basis of the simulation is transparent, meaning users can see which findings inform the outcomes.

It’s easy to forget how impossible climate diplomacy seemed before the breakthrough sealed by the 2015 Paris Agreement. For more than 20 years, the U.S. would not commit to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions unless developing nations did, too. And no poor country was going to forego coal, oil and gas to fight a problem created by industrial nations enjoying the same fuels.

This was the prevailing mindset in 2012, when about 30 government and business officials from China’s Zhejiang Province filed into Sterman’s workshop at MIT to take part in the mock-negotiation game, using an older Climate Interactive model. They eventually decided that rich nations should make deep and fast emission cuts, with China and developing countries cutting less aggressively.

Sterman showed the Chinese visitors the results of their choices, projected out over the decades: Global sea-levels would rise by as much as 2 meters by 2100. Projection maps put Shanghai, Shenzhen and other low-lying coastal cities under water.

Sterman then ran an utterly hypothetical scenario in which developed nations zeroed out all their emissions instantaneously. The results were the same. China and other developing nations would suffer terrible losses even if the West’s emissions ceased tomorrow. “What does this mean?” he asked the group, through an interpreter. 

No one spoke. The silence lasted 10 seconds. “Which is a long time!” Sterman says now. One participant finally answered through a translator: “It means we have to leave the past in the past. We—China—we will suffer unless we cut our emissions dramatically.”

Looking back, Sterman sees that as an example of how a game can help us change what we think. “If I had stood up and said, ‘China must cut its emissions or you’re going to suffer from sea-level rise,’ they would have folded their arms,” he says. “But they discovered it for themselves.” 

A discovery made by a handful of people has limited reach. China has surpassed the U.S. as the world’s biggest source of carbon-dioxide emissions. Tremendous investment in renewable power by Chinese policymakers hasn’t stopped the world’s largest energy consumer from putting out 28% of all CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels, nearly twice the U.S. share.

Systems break for reasons that generally have nothing to do with bad actors. The very design of a system, to begin with, is a “consequence of generally well-intentioned decisions that smart people made,” Sterman says. “We’re not in the business of blaming people. The blame problem is a huge issue today. You see it in the pandemic.”

As he’s watched the spread of Covid-19 from his solar-powered home several miles from the green headquarters of MIT Sloan in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sterman has thought about the similarities between the virus and climate change. Both calamities lock in underlying problems well before their symptoms show up.

Sterman also sees a pivotal difference: There’s not yet a treatment or a vaccine for Covid-19, but climate solutions are well in hand. Learning that is what his role-playing game is all about.

Eric Roston writes the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming. Sign up to receive the Green Daily newsletter in your inbox every weekday.