Feel climate change to act on it

Tags: Op-ed
Feel climate change to act on it
THREAT TO EARTH: We need to teach school and university students as well as policymakers about climate change using simulation tools, this learning is likely to help them to act better
In a paper that came out in Science in 2008, John Sterman, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Sloan School of Management, wrote about asking 212 MIT graduates to give a rough idea of how much greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to be reduced by governments globally to eventually stop the increase in the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. These students had training in science, technology, mathematics and economics at one of the best schools in the world; they are probably a lot smarter than you or me. Yet 84 per cent of Sterman’s subjects got the question wrong, greatly underestimating the degree to which greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced. So when MIT kids can’t figure out climate change, what are the odds that the broader public will?

The study shows the tremendous gap that exists in consciousness about global warming. On one hand are the scientists, who think climate change is very serious and needs to be dealt with immediately and ambitiously. On the other side is the common public, who increasingly believe that climate change is real and worry about it, yet they rarely rank it as a top priority.

A 2007 survey done by the UN Development Programme found that 54 per cent of Americans advocate a ‘wait and see’ approach to climate change action, holding off on the deep and rapid cuts in global warming that would immediately impact their lives. Similar majorities were found in Russia, China and India.

Wait-and-see preferences would work well in simple systems with short delays between the detection of a problem and the implementation of corrective actions. For example, one can afford to wait-and-see when boiling beans until steam builds up and the cooker whistles, because there can be a short delay between the whistle and removing the cooker from the flame.

Unfortunately for a complex system like earth’s climate, there are much longer delays between the decision to mitigate emissions and the corresponding changes in atmospheric GHG concentration. As there are long feedback delays, however, wait-and-see preferences become problematic. Because even if mitigation actions are taken, atmospheric CO2 accumulation would continue to rise until emissions fell below the absorption rate. Average atmospheric temperature would then peak, and consequences such as rising sea levels and thermal expansion would continue. Therefore, wait-and-see preferences are likely to cause abrupt, persistent and costly regime changes on earth in the future.

Through a number of laboratory studies at Carnegie Mellon University have shown that people’s wait-and-see preferences on climate are related to their reliance on heuristics and biases. They seem to rely on two particular heuristics: correlation thinking and violation of mass balance. For climate, relying on the correlation heuristic means wrongly inferring that an accumulation (CO2 concentration) follows the same path as the inflow (CO2 emissions); hence, stabilising emissions would rapidly stabilise the concentration, and emission cuts would quickly reduce the concentration anddamages from climate change.

Consequently, people who rely on this heuristic would demonstrate wait-and-see preferences, because they would significantly underestimate the delay between the reductions in CO2 emissions and in CO2 concentration. Thus, they wo­uld also underestimate the magnitude of emission reductions needed to stabilise the concentration.

It has also been shown that people’s wait-and-see preferences are related to the violation of mass balance, whereby people incorrectly infer that atmospheric CO2 concentration can be stabilised even when emissions exceed absorptions. Violating mass balance leads to wait-and-see preferences because people think the current state of the climate system, where emissions are double that of absorptions, would not pose a problem to future stabilisation.

Recently, researchers at Columbia University suggested that experiencing the adverse consequences of climate ch­ange in simulation-based tools is likely to improve people’s understanding of the climate system. Research has validated this claim and shown that these simulation-based tools that depict the dynamics of CO2 concentrations, emissions and absorptions indeed help people correct their reliance on heuristics about earth’s climate.

Results from using a simulation-based tool, called the dynamic climate change simulator (DCCS), have been particularly noteworthy. DCCS provides repeated feedback on the changes in CO2 concentration each year as a result of CO2 emission and absorption policies set by participants, allowing participants to observe the results of their decisions as they try to control the concentration to a certain level. One main and consistent result is that acquiring experiential feedback in the DCCS helps reduce participants’ misconceptions about the way the climate system works.

Experiential feedback in DCCS enables participants to test several hypotheses about how CO2 emission and absorption processes affect CO2 concentration. It is likely that the ability to test several hypotheses repeatedly about the cause-and-effect relationship in DCCS enables them to understand that the concentration increases when CO2 emissions are greater than absorptions, decreases when emissions are less than absorptions, and stabilises at a particular value when emissions equal absorptions. Therefore, it seems that the experience gained in DCCS enables participants to decrease their reliance on the correlation heuristic and violation of mass balance.

So, what’s the bottomline? We need to teach school and university students as well as policymakers about climate change using simulation to­ols, and this learning will quite likely help them to act on climate change.

(The writer is on the faculty of IIT, Mandi. He is also Knowledge Editor of Financial Chronicle)

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