If there ever was a problem that’s hard to solve, it’s climate change. It’s a complex challenge requiring more expertise than any one person can possess—in-depth knowledge of the physics of the upper atmosphere, a firm grasp on the economics of technological innovation, and a thorough understanding of the psychology of human behavior change. What’s more, top-down approaches that have been tried for decades—like efforts to pass national legislation and to negotiate international agreements—while important, haven’t yet produced the kind of change scientists say is needed to avert climate change’s potential consequences.
But there’s at least one reason for optimism. We now have a new—and potentially more effective—way of solving complex global challenges: online crowdsourcing.
The visible effect of pollution in China is undeniable. I recently spent two weeks in Beijing, where I grew up, with my family. For the first seven days, the sun did not shine. A hazy layer of greyish-white smog hung over us. Every morning, I checked the air quality index, which uses guidelines set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on my smartphone app and the results were alarming.
Air quality came in at around 300. According to the EPA, levels between 301 and 500 are considered “hazardous”, meaning people should steer clear of all outdoor activity. Essentially, it’s like breathing in the fumes from a forest fire. (For comparison, Boston’s air quality is about 45.)
It’s been over a year since we launched the Climate CoLab and held our first world-wide contest. Our goal was to create a site to harness the ideas and knowledge of thousands of people to find real solutions to climate change. Inspired by systems like Wikipedia and Linux, we wanted to collect the best collective intelligence to come up with proposals for what can be done about this problem.
My latest research* looks at how consumers adjust to high gas prices by changing the kinds of car they buy, and the prices they pay. What launched this research was the debate around the effectiveness of a gas tax to reduce climate change; the goal was to determine whether consumers undervalue fuel economy. If consumers do undervalue fuel economy, then such a tax would not shift enough consumers to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient automobiles.
I try to do my research with an eye toward showing policymakers what will happen if they adopt Policy X over Policy Y. I am not a granola environmentalist, but I do see a lot of inefficient policies out there, and as an economist that’s frustrating.
Motivation and aspiration instead of doom and gloom
Joking that his students often refer to him as “Dr. Doom,” MIT Sloan Professor and sustainability advocate John Sterman made it clear to the gathered crowd that the time has come for motivation and aspiration. In other words, a lot less scolding and a lot more focus on solutions.
To achieve that kind of monumental change in the thinking around sustainability, Sterman and fellow faculty member Rick Locke talked about the unique approach of MIT Sloan’s Sustainability Initiative. The initiative focuses on a systems approach that is dedicated to research that matters, education and outreach, engagement in public policy, and, walking the talk.