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What will it take to control climate change?

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 11/24/09 • Media Contact: Susan Knapp (603) 646-3661

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Dartmouth students learn in their Science for Sustainable Systems class

With the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen only a few weeks away, Biology Professor David Peart decided that his students needed a better appreciation for the tough negotiations that will take place there. The students in his environmental studies class, called Science for Sustainable Systems, recently participated in a classroom exercise designed to do just that.

The role-playing exercise and accompanying computer modeling software were developed by the internationally renown Sustainability Institute of Hartland, Vt., in collaboration with systems dynamic modelers at MIT. The Sustainability Institute was founded by the late Donella Meadows, an environmental studies professor at Dartmouth and a MacArthur award winner. The Institute’s climate initiative is led by two Dartmouth alumni, Drew Jones, Class of 1990, and Beth Sawin, Class of 1988. The model Peart used in class, assisted by modeler Lori Siegel, is referred to as the Climate Rapid Overview and Decision-support Simulator, or C-ROADS. C-ROADS is now being widely used by government officials in the U.S. (including Senator John Kerry as part of a senate hearing), in the European Union, and in other nations, to gauge the impact of policies on climate and to inform their negotiating positions.

Professor Peart played the role of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the students, mostly juniors and seniors, were split into negotiating teams representing affluent nations, rapidly developing nations, and less developed nations. A few students acted as UN mediators.

“I sent an email asking what countries students knew best and felt a kinship to, and then I assigned them to the group of nations most different from that,” says Peart, a biologist whose work focuses on the dynamics and sustainability of temperate and tropical forests. Peart also serves on the Sustainability Institute Board of Directors.

“I think the best experience was being assigned countries that we knew the least about initially,” says Lauren Lesser, a member of the Class of 2010, who led the group of less developed nations.

Students prepared by researching their nations’ main concerns, economies, and political landscape, and they developed negotiating strategies by interacting on the course website. Then, in class, the students engaged in three rounds of discussions and deal making, and they submitted their group’s negotiating positions on how to address climate change.

The categories for the positions included: the year that CO2 levels are expected to level off, when and at what rate emissions would begin declining, and the timing and rate to reduce deforestation and begin reforestation. After each round, the negotiating positions from each group were entered into the C-ROADS computational model that immediately and graphically showed the impact on atmospheric CO2, global temperature, and sea level rise, through the year 2100.

“There was power in seeing the climate consequences resulting from your negotiations in real time,” says Lesser. “All the groups kept changing their positions because they had instant feedback on the global impact.”

Peart said that part of the experience is to understand the profound compromises necessary to take control and head off the worst consequences. “The stakeholders are diverse nations, in differing stages of development, with different economic needs, constraints, and aspirations. But, we all share the same atmosphere. The students really identified with their groups, taking responsibility as national representatives. That kind of experience achieves something beyond the regular academic routine of lectures, papers, and exams.”

“I learned that the less developed countries just have no leveraging power at all,” said Chase Eldredge, a member of the Class of 2011. “The only thing that island nations can argue is the fact that they’re getting covered by water as the sea level rises due to global warming.”

Peart added, “The students now have a better feeling for what it’s going to take in Copenhagen, and beyond. And they learned how hard it is to address climate change globally. I believe that there is still time, if we can act quickly and decisively.”

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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Last Updated: 11/24/09