“81% of participants in a role play simulation increased motivation to combat climate change, regardless of political orientation”

The science is clear: Climate change is real, caused by our greenhouse gas emissions, and poses grave threats to our prosperity, health and welfare.  We are already seeing the damage, and the new IPCC report shows that without urgent action to cut global greenhouse gas emissions it’s going get worse much faster than previously expected.  But public concern and, especially, action, lag behind. How can the gap be closed? Many past efforts are based on the information deficit theory of risk communication, which holds that providing people with information about the reality, causes, and risks of climate change should motivate them to take appropriate action.  That strategy has largely failed: research shows that showing people research doesn’t work.

So what can work?  With an international team, my colleagues and I developed a different approach: the World Climate Simulation, a role-playing game of the UN climate talks.  New research, published in PLoS One, shows that World Climate increased people’s knowledge of climate change science, their motivation to combat climate change and their desire to act in the real world, even among Americans who are free market proponents, a belief strongly linked to denial of human-caused climate change in the United States.

Participants in World Climate take on the roles of national delegates to the UN climate change negotiations and are charged with creating a global agreement that successfully mitigates climate change. As in the real negotiations, each delegation offers policies for their greenhouse gas emissions. The developed nations pledge contributions to the Green Climate Fund to help developing nations cut their emissions and adapt to change; the developing nations specify how much they need to do so.  Participants negotiate face-to-face. Emotions can run high: there are occasional arguments, demonstrations and walkouts, just as in the real negotiations. Then participants’ decisions are then entered into the C-ROADS climate policy computer model, a rigorous, peer reviewed climate model that has been used by the UN, US and some other nations to support the real negotiations.  C-ROADS gives immediate feedback on the expected climate impacts of the participants’ decisions. First round results usually fall short, showing everyone the likely harm to their prosperity, health, welfare, security and lives. Participants then negotiate again, using C-ROADS to explore the consequences of more ambitious action.

We examined how World Climate affected more than 2,000 participants from eight countries and four continents, ranging from middle school students to CEOs. Across this diverse population, and regardless of political orientation, cultural identity, age, or gender, participation in World Climate increased understanding of climate change science, but, more importantly, generated greater affective engagement: greater concern about the urgency of action together with greater hope—the belief that what we do, as individuals and collectively, can matter.  Overall, 81% of participants increased their motivation to learn and do more about climate change. The more people learned through the game, the more their sense of urgency increased. Importantly, increased feelings of urgency, not greater knowledge, led to the gains in people’s desire to learn more and to take action.

Critically, we found that World Climate reached people outside the traditional climate change ‘choir,’ including free-market proponents and people who knew or cared little about climate change before participating. In fact, these people experienced greater gains in knowledge, urgency, and motivation to act. This finding is particularly exciting given the failure of many prior climate change communication efforts to reach across the political spectrum and to engage people who aren’t already concerned about the issue.

Anecdotally (and I stress, these are anecdotes), a number of business executives and others who participated in World Climate at MIT Sloan went on to put their desire to act into practice, from deep energy retrofits and solar PV installations on their homes, to catalyzing action in their companies, to running World Climate in their companies and communities, to changing careers to focus on building a more sustainable world.    

A decade ago, many executives and students here complained that they came to MIT to learn about business and management, not climate change and sustainability.  That has changed dramatically.  Most are hungry for actionable insights, to align their work and career with what they most deeply care about: a future in which they, their children—and all children—can thrive.  Through World Climate, many learn that climate change and sustainability are critical business issues posing grave threats and creating opportunities they can no longer ignore.  As one executive MBA student put it, “Awesome session. Not necessarily relevant to my job beyond the fact that my company is located on Earth.”  

World Climate is non-partisan and designed for ease of use.  More than 44,000 47,000 people in 78 85 countries around the world have participated in the last three years. The simulation has been reviewed by independent educators and scientists, supports national science education standards in the US, and been designated as an official resource for schools in France, Germany, and South Korea.  The PLoS One paper is freely available, as are all the resources needed to learn about and run World Climate.  

John Sterman is the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management and Faculty Director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative at the MIT Sloan School of Management.