Cleaning up the horse manure of the 21st century

December emerged within a whirlwind of dialogue on global preparation for climate change. On November 30th, an MIT audience of hundreds listened to Steven Chu’s perspectives on “The role of science, technology and innovation in solving the energy challenge.” Well-poised and direct on Kresge’s stage, the Secretary of Energy first contextualized the clean energy challenge within a historical timeline. Chu recounted the turnover from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles, discussing how horse manure in city streets was a crucial impetus in the technological switch that revolutionized daily transportation. And returning to the modern nexus of wiggly hockey-stick diagrams, he provoked us to consider parallels between horse manure and greenhouse emissions.

Secretary Chu’s discussion occurred while much of global climate community was tuned into its latest conference in Durban, South Africa – COP17 – which convened from November 28 to December 9. As representatives carved out difficult paths to the Durban Platform, greenhouse mitigation and human adaptation comprised main demands, while concerns of technology sharing and intellectual property rights resonated among several Southern parties. As Chu’s audience considered the U.S. status on clean technology, a wider audience deliberated a wider definition of innovation.

In particular, COP17 witnessed remarkable innovations in the science-policy interface. As Nature highlighted, Climate Action Tracker played a notable role in delivering science to the political drawing board. A small group of specialized analysts, the organization translates policy decisions into environmental consequences through scientific models that couple together the Earth system and society’s choices. Their final analysis of the Durban Platform reported that the 2015 deadline for a new climate framework is too late, and given the continued decisions of governments, Earth’s climate will exceed current upper limits of a 2 °C temperature rise.

Perhaps Climate Action Tracker signals a new trend in the way both scientists and policy-makers think about climate models. Too often do the languages of scientific models and decision-makers just miss each other. Like Climate Action Tracker, Climate Interactive also endeavors to close this gap between models and policy here at MIT. In hopes of establishing a space for model sharing, the organization has released software that allows users of all backgrounds to design their own model experiments and understand the consequences of their own agendas.

Common to many complex struggles is the realization that problem-solving requires its different solvers to communicate on common ground in the first place. Thus, amidst conflicting dialogues on how the world should manage climate change, it is not surprising that the language of innovation increasingly alludes to the dialogue itself. Climate models, which have provided both impetus and points of contention for negotiators who want results but not the broad uncertainties of scientific predictions, are a growing demand for innovative communication.

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