Playing Russian Roulette — With the Gun Pointed at Our Children

How can you explain to ordinary people the dangers of not taking action to lower the risks associated with climate change in the future?

Professor John Sterman

Professor John Sterman

That's a question MIT Sloan School professor John Sterman has given thought to -- which was evident when he gave a presentation on climate change last week at a systems thinking conference at MIT.

Here's how Sterman explained in, as he put it, "plain language," the implications of some climate change projections by MIT climate researchers for the year 2100:

"We are playing Russian roulette with the future of the climate, with a weapon in which 19 of the 20 chambers are loaded; [there's a] 5% chance you won't have a live round in the chamber.

There's one difference, though, between that story and classical Russian roulette. We're holding the weapon. Our finger is on the trigger. The barrel's not pointed at our head; it's pointed at the heads of our children -- and grandchildren."

And yet, Sterman continued, although "the best scientific evidence -- overwhelming scientific evidence -- is that we have an extraordinary set of risks that require concerted action, nothing is happening" to address climate change risk on a public policy front. Why is that?

Some of Sterman's research provides some insights into that question of the public's complacency about climate change.  In  a study published in the journal Climatic Change, Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeney of Harvard found that even well-educated graduate students have a hard time intuitively grasping the dynamics of the problem of carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere.  Many graduate students in a study Sterman and Booth conducted, for example, didn't realize that we could reduce carbon emissions slightly from current levels -- yet still face increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere over time.

What about you? How well do you understand the dynamics of climate change -- and the risks of not addressing the problem soon?  To find out, try using the MIT System Dynamics Group's Greenhouse Gas Emissions Simulator. Or try  reading a relatively short, nontechnical article about Sterman's bathtub metaphor for carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere. It's a really helpful metaphor.

2 Comments On: Playing Russian Roulette — With the Gun Pointed at Our Children

  • john porter | October 27, 2010

    That is so true. We should act now before it’s too late

  • RalfLippold | November 24, 2010

    We should not only act – who is with us to make the change happen?

    Who has the time to be part of the journey (actively)?

    The future is OURS to shape!

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