Climate Change and COVID-19: Online Learning and Experiments in Seeing the World Anew

Climate Change and COVID-19: Online Learning and Experiments in Seeing the World Anew

A Powerpoint slide on a Zoom call reads: Silence. What would you love about being part of a world on track to making a scenario like this happen?

By Adam Fleischmann

The site is easy to access. Just a short walk and I’m there, immediately confronted with two large rectangular windows. The large window up high and on the right is mostly opaque, save one dominating feature: a single, dark line scorches across its surface like a comet’s tail, bottom left to top right. The window on the left is less subdued, less ominous. Graceful curving layers of color arc to the right and skyward, almost topographical in their technicolor. Later, the layers will change shape, sloping hills, climbing ever-upwards or back down, until 2100.

I click on the “Graphs” menu above the two windows, switching the window on the left to a graph of “CO2 Emissions and Removals” rather than “Global Sources of Primary Energy.” I move the “Carbon Price” lever on the Energy Supply table and the lines on both windows plunge dramatically.

This field site, of course, is a website, and I’m visiting it from the desk in my bedroom that has served as my home office for over a year, due to the public health measures surrounding the novel coronavirus pandemic and thanks, in no small part, to my own privilege allowing me to work from home. The website is the online space of non-profit Climate Interactive’s climate change solutions simulator, En-ROADS. This simple climate model is free, runs on a laptop in less than a second and is available in nine languages. It is a climate policy System Dynamics (an approach to systems science) model that can show “how changes in the energy, economic, and public policy systems could affect greenhouse gas emissions and climate outcomes” (Climate Interactive). Just a click away from the Climate Interactive (CI) homepage, En-ROADS is the model to match the Climate Action Simulation role-playing game.

Last Thursday, April 15, 2021, I joined 316 other people on Zoom in a giant game of the Climate Action Simulation. Before it started, I went to refresh my memory on the En-ROADS model, whose refaced and expanded version was released about eighteen months ago along with the game, a non-role playing workshop and a guided assignment for the classroom and elsewhere. Last year CI converted the Climate Action Simulation, which is usually played in-person, for online play during the pandemic and beyond. Originally set up to play with twenty to fifty people (same as the in-person version), last Thursday’s giant game was an experiment to see just how scalable it could be.

Following my own experiences with remote, online and event-based research—some of which I’ve previously written about here on anthro{dendum}—this giant online climate change game has inspired me to ask questions related to anthropology and the shared circumstances of the global pandemic. For remote research methods, can a website act as a placeholder? Can a website be part of a field site? More broadly, for many, including many academics and educators, the past year has been spent Very Online It’s a year that has forced us all to think about our individual actions in relation to our communities and a larger virally interconnected globe. It’s also been a year that’s further demonstrated the inequities of our political, economic and medical systems. Could the experiences of the pandemic provide gateways into another possible world, ways of seeing and being in the world that emphasize our relations, in spite of the distances between us? Climate Interactive’s in-person games allow people the opportunity rethink their relationships with larger systems through learning experiences that are embodied, social and affective. I was curious how these learning experiences could function online in ways that give insight into building a better world post-pandemic.

The scalability experiment opens by unmuting everyone and having them say “hi” in their language. Among the 317 participants, I count people and languages from North America, Europe, South Asia, South America, Central America, East Asia, Africa and Pacific Islands. CI co-director Drew Jones briefly introduces the model, its confidence-building methods and the work of CI to “apply systems thinking as a framework for addressing climate and climate-related justice and equity issues.” He then breaks down how we’ll play the game. Players assigned alphabetically to one of the teams of stakeholder groups will negotiate their team’s positions among four to six fellow players in Zoom breakout rooms. Each stakeholder team is represented in the main Zoom room by a Team Leader, played by a CI staff member or associate. For Climate Justice Hawks, it’s Swedish activist Greta Thunberg; for Conventional Energy, former Exxon Mobil CEO and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Land, Forestry and Agriculture is represented by someone playing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and World Governments, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors leads Industry and Commerce, while Clean Tech is led by Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and SpaceX fame. After breakout room negotiations, each team will be polled on which policy lever in the En-ROADS model their Leader should move, and each Team Leader will advocate for their team’s chosen climate policy change back in the main Zoom room. Drew will then share his screen and show us all in En-ROADS what difference that policy change makes. Together, all teams will work toward the goal of reducing global temperature increase to below 2°C, and ideally below 1.5°C—just like the goals of the actual UN Paris Agreement on climate change.

I’m assigned to the Conventional Energy team. I’ll have to negotiate for the continued relevance of the fossil fuel industry. We’re given five minutes to read our role-play briefings, change our Zoom names and backgrounds to align with our teams. Drew returns, now sporting a jacket and tie as UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, and sends us to our breakout rooms with gusto. By chance, all but two players in my room are from Conventional Energy, including Team Leader Rex Tillerson, played by CI staffer Bindu Bhandari, based in Nepal, who is wearing a necklace of money symbols from different world currencies. Myself, Yvonne in Switzerland and Paula in the U.S. round out the Conventional Energy team. Rory from Ireland represents World Governments and John plays team Land, Agriculture and Forestry from Hong Kong. Much as Rory tries to be the voice of reason, John quietly backing him up, we from Conventional Energy dominate the debate, arguing for carbon capture and storage technologies—a solution that allows us to keep producing our existing products even though those technologies do not yet exist. A pop-up appears telling us we’ve got 30 seconds before Zoom sends us back to the main room.

Up first in the main room is Clean Tech, who vote to increase the carbon price. Elona Musk, a woman in a sharp red blazer with an eastern European accent, steps up to the Zoom mic, riles up her Clean Tech teammates, and rallies the rest of the stakeholder groups for carbon pricing. “Electrify everything! Make them pay! Let’s put a carbon price on everything, we can do it by ourselves!” Before Drew-as-Guterres shows us how a carbon price of $50/ton CO2 would lower global temperature increase, he asks all the players “run your mental model,” to mentally simulate what we think our actions will do to the global temperature. The CI team then releases another poll, asking us, “What are the equity considerations that concern you with this policy? Or equity-related co-benefits you’d hope to capture?”

A $50 carbon price in the model leaves +3.2°C temperature rise, a relatively small reduction from business-as-usual 3.6°C.  The Conventional Energy and Industry and Commerce teams thwart a higher carbon price. Bolsonaro pledges some afforestation (planting trees), but it doesn’t do much to reduce emissions since carbon-absorbing trees take so long to grow. Team World Governments proposes some mild investment in renewables, but that, too, only reduces the global temperature by 0.1°C, since Clean Tech’s carbon price already drastically reduced coal use. During the whole first round of negotiations and proposals, the Zoom chat feature is figuratively on fire, the debate raging among what feels like all three-hundred-plus participants. Drew spurs us on with urgency, “This is terrible! We’re only at 3.4°, we started at 3.6°!”

In our second-round breakout room, Paula from my Conventional Energy team breaks the ice. “Out of character, this role-play is amazing. I want all my meetings to feel like this!” Rory, representing World Governments, agrees: “Three things: first,” he addresses our Rex Tillerson, “you in character are amazing. Two, how are you going to pay for carbon capture and storage? Third, you mentioned your engineering expertise and expressed concern for developing nations, Rex. Allow them to piggyback on your clean energy technology! You could be leaders!” Yvonne from Switzerland provides a counter argument for our dominant Conventional Energy team, but suggests conceding to a $50/ton carbon tax. Then I interject to reclaim the power dynamics. “I feel like I need to simply say: ‘Fossil fuels keep the lights on.’” I fidget, smirk. When Tillerson nods and repeats my phrasing, the rest of the breakout group all smile at the repetition of a phrase we all hear but suspect Bindu and I don’t actually believe out of character.

Brought back after the second breakout room, we have twelve minutes left. Drew-as- Guterres asks Team Leaders for just one sentence on the one policy their team will advocate for. Eventually we do get the temperature down to 1.8°C, using a combination of carbon pricing, electrifying the transport sector, regulating methane and other greenhouse gases and even carbon dioxide removal technologies (which, Drew reminds us, don’t exist yet, despite their appearance in countries’ real-life Paris Agreement pledges).

Drew stops the game there, and acknowledges what we’ve just accomplished. The team shares a link to our simulation, where our results can be viewed. He tells us we’re going to shift into a mode of reflection, removes his tie and suit jacket and asks everyone to remove background images saying what team they’re on. He asks us how we’re feeling, how it feels to go through this, to play a different role. A word cloud is produced on the polling website based on our answers: “hopeful,” “frustrated,” “overwhelmed” and “complex” loom largest. “I want to acknowledge the legitimacy of whatever you’re feeling,” he says. We’re then asked to take a 60-second moment of silence to reflect on what we would love about being part of a world on track to making something like our scenario happen. During the silence, I can hear only Drew’s quiet breathing, my roommate speaking in the room next door, my own thoughts. Other players have closed eyes, or are staring up in contemplation, hands on chins, ponderous. This time, instead of a word cloud, the screen lights up with dozens of responses. “Justice” and “future” are two words I note repeat. The simulation debrief ends with a question about what we’re going to do next to help fight climate change.

Ideally, this climate-policy simulation is meant to teach people some of the dynamic complexity of the climate-policy system, relating their own lives to broader systems and equity issues, while teaching them to connect delayed and distant climate causes and effects that are not intuitive. If the giant online game of the Climate Action Simulation is any indication, this form of climate change education and communication can work even with increasing levels of abstraction. Perhaps this unsurprising, given the success of the large Zoom call setting that is not unfamiliar to many students and educators during the past year or more of much teaching and learning from home. However, the longevity of online Zoom-style games for climate action work like CI’s remains unknown; there have clearly been advantages and challenges to hybrid and online learning during the pandemic. As for websites as field sites, many ethnographers contend that remote fieldwork works best when combined with some element of in-person research, and it’s true that my own has involved both. Some learning moments can be gateways to the possibility of making the world anew, independent of the learning or research venue.

In a recent talk organized by Trent University’s Anne Pasek, UCL anthropologist Hannah Knox talked about “the magic of scalar shifting” available when understanding global climate change action through a technological lens. Knox also noted how for the bureaucrats, engineers and scientists with which she did fieldwork, climate change was close to home—not far away, distant and global. Knowing climate change entailed a rethinking of people’s relationships with themselves and larger systems. I’ve experienced this gateway opening among my students, and also as a student, in anthropology and other classes that taught me to see the world anew. I’ve also experienced this new possibility through the lens of photography as an early teen. For many people, Climate Interactive’s games and models make global climate change about “immediate, material relations to the world and knowledge about the future,” as Knox put it in her talk. Through engaging learning experiences (“I want all my meetings to feel like this!”), CI’s work like the giant online Climate Action Simulation allows people to form those immediate relations between their lives, the global climate and future ways of being in the world. As Drew put it in his closing remarks, “We’re going to need to find the arguments, voices, ways of being that bring others together to get to the solutions we need.” I’m hoping that the strangeness and distance of the past year can, counterintuitively, help us do that.

Adam Fleischmann is a PhD candidate at McGill University in Montréal, Québec, located on unceded Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe territories. His research looks at the community of non-state climate change actors at the intersection of science, politics and technology.

One Reply to “Climate Change and COVID-19: Online Learning and Experiments in Seeing the World Anew”

  1. Climate science as group think.
    The glaring problem here is that science, real science, is not consensus. It is a never-ending process of contestation.
    From “One potato, two potato . . . ” on :

    “Government experts and media talking heads routinely warm of increasing CO2 levels caused by the notorious “carbon footprint” produced by our use of fossil fuels. The reasoning is that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise until they reach disastrous levels. A popular trope, one proposed by otherwise rational humans, is that the planet will become hotter and hotter until it is another Venus, shrouded in carbon dioxide clouds and with a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead. That is a ridiculous comparison. Venus is thirty million miles closer to the sun than Earth, a real bake oven, with a thick atmosphere of ninety-six per cent carbon dioxide and lovely fleecy clouds of sulphuric acid. How does Earth’s atmosphere compare? What do you think? You’ve been exposed to the argument countless times; you must have formed some opinion even if vague. Ask acquaintances, particularly those who are consumed with worry about our carbon footprint. How many more years of heedlessly burning fossil fuels will it take before our planet is another Venus? Surely, you may think, we must already be near the point of choking on carbon dioxide. If the atmosphere of Venus is almost entirely that gas, Earth’s must be, what, fifty per cent? Twenty-five per cent? Ten? Surely at least ten. Well, no. As it happens, after all these years of spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (here read “years of sinning” since we are dealing with a quasi-religious cult of climate believers), the gas remains only a trace element, less than one-half of one-tenth of one per cent. There is more than twice as much argon in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. How worried are you about argon? ”
    Lee Drummond