Journal Club Review: C-ROADS

Journal Club Review: C-ROADS

November’s journal club was led by Sam Anderson (Graduate Student in Biochemistry). Journal club review was written by Kevin Lauterjung (Graduate Student in Biophysics).

November’s journal club focused on the Climate Rapid Overview and Decision Support simulator (C-ROADS), which lets participants navigate the real world consequences of climate change policies.

I know I’m going to be the bad guy here, but frankly, climate change anxiety has become cliché. That’s not to say that I find it unimportant—on the contrary, I’m constantly one bad job interview away from catching a flight to Norway and building a windmill home where my future children can grow up near a reliable water source and Svalbard. No, I join most of my generation in thinking this is an existential threat, but it’s become predictable in its framing:  everything is screwed and the powers-that-be won’t take any constructive steps to fix it. When it comes to scientific or policy details—or perhaps more importantly, strategies for communicating said details—most of us frequently come up short.

How many people have actually read the IPCC reports? What about the Paris Accord commitments? Maybe some know the carbon cutoff goals or the key national players, but when you take a planet’s worth of stakeholders and weigh all of the possible consequences with the sociocultural dynamics, things get hairy. This is why C-ROADS is so effective. It essentially models climate outcomes of decisions made by international powers, and lets the users simulate the big decisions that these countries have to make.

Here’s how it works…users get to choose their roles, between the US, the EU, China, India, other “developed” countries, and other “undeveloped” countries (with the latter two posing as aggregates for these loosely-defined categories). Each user then makes decisions on five factors influencing fossil fuel emissions:  the years that emissions will 1) stop increasing and 2) start decreasing, 3) the annual rate of emission reductions, 4) the amount of forest protected from deforestation, and 5) the amount of afforestation, i.e. the amount of land to plant new trees on. As each stakeholder makes these decisions, a graph displays the projected gigatons of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere up to the year 2100. A second graph shows the likely temperature increases in the same timeframe, and users can switch between their simulated decisions and the current ones in place internationally.

What does all this information amount to? Well, those of us at November’s journal club had a chance to find out, as we each took on one of these roles. We found very quickly that it’s exceptionally difficult to get global temperature increases within the desired 2°C. As China, I practically had to doom my burgeoning economy back to a pre-industrial state by setting extreme emission reduction rates. It was also surprisingly clear to each of us in the room which of the five factors bore the most relevance to the 2°C goal. It wasn’t necessarily how drastic the mitigation measures were, but when they took effect, that predicted success or failure. Thus, even as concerned scientists-in-training, we gleaned a sense of urgency for significant proactive measures (and a matching concern over whether that urgency is matched by world powers).

More importantly, C-ROADS brought an abstract anxiety into more concrete terms, and even gave me a sense of specific steps that can be taken to reverse existing trends. Of course, those steps still seem far off in our current political context, but somehow I still gleaned the tiniest whiff of autonomy, even if theoretical and borrowed from those with political power. Somewhere, someone is actually making these decisions. And if our simulation were more immersive—e.g. if participants had to actually embody their donned roles, including power inequities—I probably would also be adding enhanced empathy to the list of benefits from C-ROADS. What’s more, I really got the sense that C-ROADS could easily be run in a school setting, as it does a good job of taking an extremely complex topic and distilling it into a digestible and—dare I say it—fun exercise (“fun” but for the existential dread, of course).

Our journal club host for the month, Sam Anderson, has floated the idea of running C-ROADS as a larger campus event, and recruiting enough people to really workshop this out—role-playing and all—so stayed tuned to the CaSP newsletter in case we can convince her to do it. In the meantime, it’s really worth checking out the model behind C-ROADS, because they do incorporate a remarkable amount of information that I’ve largely skipped over here. And of course, we should all keep looking for better ways to communicate climate change information because the well-worn knowledge deficit model has been repeatedly shown to not work. C-ROADS succeeds because it doesn’t just tell you the issues, it lets you find them yourself.