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2015 Conference: Confronting Climate Change at Every Level, On all Fronts


Confronting Climate Change at Every Level, On all Fronts

What could you personally do about climate change that you would be proud to tell your grandchildren?

That was the question Thomas Malone, the director of the Center for Collective Intelligence at the MIT Sloan School of Management and principal investigator for the Climate CoLab project, posed at the opening of the CoLab’s annual Crowds and Climate conference on October 6th.

It’s also a main focus of the Climate CoLab itself, which seeks to find innovative ways to confront climate change through a bottom-up approach. The solutions-driven online platform engages thousands of experts and citizens from around the world in generating, refining, and selecting cutting-edge actions we can take to tackle climate change.

The conference was a time to shine a light on those winners (learn about them here), but also to engage leaders from businesses, non-profit organizations, governments and communities around the world in the discussion on what to do about climate change.

That discussion kicked off with a panel focused on the barriers and breakthroughs in confronting climate change, including John Sterman, the director of the MIT System Dynamics Group at the Sloan School of Management; Leslie Dewan, the co-founder & CEO of Transatomic Power and a member of the MIT Corporation; and Chris Knittel, the director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research. It was moderated by the director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, Jason Jay.

Jay asked the panel, what is the current state of play in regards to climate change? Sterman laid it out simply by quoting his colleague at Yale, Anthony Leiserowitz: “It’s real. It’s us. It’s bad. Scientists agree. And there’s hope.”

Sterman said it is true that we are heading towards warming that is “somewhere between extremely bad and catastrophic.” Even if all of the pledges in the run up to the Paris climate summit were fully implemented, the warming would drop by only a degree. “That is a lot of progress,” Sterman said, but there’s still “an enormous gap between where we’re headed and where we need to go to create a safer world for our grandchildren.”

Knittel agreed, saying that if someone were to create the perfect environmental disaster it would be climate change. He also emphasized that the immense technological progress on fossil fuels has been a strong headwind. While prices for batteries and clean energy have gone down, so have fossil fuel prices.

“It is up to us – somehow – to conjure up the momentum to create change,” Knittel said.

How? According to Sterman what is needed is “action on every possible front.” While it is still technically possible to reduce warming to safe levels, the main bottleneck is social and political.

To lessen the bottleneck, Knittel said we need to be willing to leave fossil fuel resources in the ground. That means putting into place a price on carbon – “the perfect solution to this powerful entity.” Knittel said a price on carbon “changes what you cut back…what you buy…and incentivizes innovation. It puts all of the wheels into motion.” Meanwhile, alternative policies might put us in the right direction, but they are hugely inefficient, he said, costing five to ten times more than a carbon tax to achieve the same reductions.

“That makes climate change action look more expensive than it really is,” Knittel said.

Dewan emphasized that there is hope.

“The current climate crisis is driving engineers into action, and it is spurring tremendous innovation in many sectors,” she said, noting that these engineers are motivated by fear but also hope. She encouraged fellow researchers to explain the benefits of their work to the public so they understand why it’s important and how it will help.

Following the keynote panel, the 2015 Climate CoLab contest winners presented their proposals in a series of focused breakout sessions. The topics included reducing emissions from transportation, how communities can adapt to climate change, and how the United States can implement a price on carbon emissions. Participants then took part in an interactive workshop where they had a chance to form small group discussions about various topics on climate change such as how to go about financing the global response to climate change, scaling renewable energy technologies in developing countries, and the role of the crowd.

The conference featured a session from the MIT Solve conference, which was happening concurrent to the Climate CoLab conference. The session focused on energy issues in the developing world, where energy growth will largely be coming from in the decades ahead. Ratan Tata, the chairman of Tata Trust, had a discussion with Robert Stoner, the deputy director of the MIT Energy Initiative.

Tata said that having electricity in the developing world changes the way people live and opens up the door to improved education, and an improved economy. Continuing progress in improving access to energy is needed, while also confronting the environmental and climate challenges.

The Climate CoLab winners represent those all around the world tackling this challenge, including the grand prize winner SunSaluter – a nonprofit dedicated to making energy and water more accessible in the developing world by using gravity and water to rotate a solar panel, generating 30 percent more electricity and four liters of water each day – and the winner of the United States Climate Action Plan contest, which suggested a pathway to engineer cities so that they are built for livability, sustainability, resiliency, energy-efficiency and affordability.

The winter 2015 contests were announced, including one run in collaboration with Nike, which seeks revolutionary ideas to change the way we value, make and use low-impact materials. See press release.

The conference ended with a final call from Malone emphasizing the need to approach climate change as a global community.

“Climate change is a big problem,” Malone said. “No individual person or group is going to solve it alone. But our hope with the Climate CoLab is that we can bring together scientists, businesspeople, policymakers and many others around the world to plan and gain support for better climate actions that would have ever been possible before.”

Photos will be posted at
Watch the opening panel and breakout sessions at

Article written by Vicki Ekstrom.  Posted by Laur Fisher.