Climate War Game – Model Support

Drew Jones of the Sustainability Institute stumbled on a great opportunity for model-based decision support. There are lots of climate models and integrated assessment models, but they’re almost always used offline. That is, modelers work between negotiations to develop analyses that (hopefully) address decision makers’ questions, but during any given meeting, negotiators rely on their mental models and static briefing materials. It’s a bit like training pilots in a flight simulator, then having them talk on the radio to guide a novice, who flies the real plane without instruments.

I may be overstating the case a bit, but the fact remains that negotiators don’t have the decision support needed to ensure that a multilateral process results in a solution that is internally consistent and sufficient to achieve climate goals. Appropriate models could help to invoke the science behind proposed policies. Drew Jones, Lori Siegel, and I have been working to develop a portfolio of small models that can be run realtime to meet the need. The war game is a fantastic testbed for us.

So far, the results are positive. Overnight, we developed a set of model runs characterizing proposals on the table. This morning (day two), Drew delivered a short briefing. I think it was very successful in establishing that (1) business as usual was not attractive (2) proposals to date improved on BAU, but didn’t achieve stabilization, and (3) it’s important to have all major players – particularly China – on board. We also developed some very simple indicators (trajectories for historic and current emissions, emissions intensities, per capita emissions, etc.) that served as useful starting points for discussions about commitments and principles (e.g., equity).

However, there have been significant challenges. Our model can be run in less than a second, but it turns out to be difficult to capture and test the essence of proposals at conversation speed. There are simply too many permutations of commitments to anticipate all the possibilities in an interface: how about an absolute target for developed nations, with increasing stringency after 2025, an intensity target for developing nations transitioning to absolute cuts after 2030, and no obligations for countries until their GDP reaches $3000/person/year, after which they implement a carbon tax? Obviously we don’t want to constrain negotiators’ thinking to match the available frameworks in models. We need to go back to the drawing board to develop a fast way of characterizing diverse policies with extreme flexibility, without losing transparency.

Watching the four national teams in the war game struggle to develop mitigation targets has reinforced my suspicion that commitments, especially absolute emissions commitments (in the style of the Kyoto Protocol) are an impediment to or distraction from real progress. I’ll try to tackle that in my next post.

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