MIT on Climate = Science + Action | Grassroots Action & Climate | Speaker: Larry Susskind

Thank you for the invitation to be here. What you see is the cover of our new book, Managing Climate Risks in Coastal Communities: Readiness, Engagement, and Adaptation. We work with a wide range of groups in four coastal cities in New England. We work in other parts of the world, but for today, I'm focusing here on these four cities to test a new approach to enhancing the readiness of the public to engage in climate adaptation planning. It's a lot easier to generate local interest, it turns out, and adaptation than it is to build substantial local support for mitigation. And that's going to be a point threaded through everything I have to say today. Most of the day is focused on mitigation, reducing CO2 emissions. But if you want to figure out a way to connect to all kinds of stakeholder groups locally, it's a lot easier to talk about climate change in terms of adaptation. The effects of climate change-induced flooding and the public health and environmental effects of increasing heat are all too real to coastal residents, whether they're rich or poor, they're Democrats or Republicans.

But being concerned does not automatically translate into informed involvement in local risk management. We have been trying to focus on the choices that municipalities can make, the collective choices that people in municipalities can make. This requires increasing climate literacy. Can't just say, come on down, be a part of some choices we have to make, and people don't understand the gist of a lot of the things that were presented here. So you've got to figure out a way to increase climate literacy. Then you have to help communities formulate realistic choices about actions they can take to manage risks, now and going forward. And then you have to figure out a way to build local agreement on the trade-offs implicit in making those choices. How can we do this on a widespread basis in city after city? We use what we call serious games. Role-play simulations, not handheld computer games.

Paper, role-play simulations tailored to each community. And that's very, very important. So we have to begin by producing local climate risk assessments, which means we have to do downscaled forecasts and figure out a way to present that in language that everybody in a city could read easily and quickly, and see what the climate risks are that their community faces. We can't even begin to do that without involving local officials and community leaders in laying out realistic risk management options and their likely costs and benefits. You cannot swoop into a place and say, we're going to get everyone in town involved with something except the elected officials. You can't do that. If you say you're going to talk only to the elected officials because they're the policymakers, I promise you, they're followers, not leaders. And nobody's saying anything, so they're not following. So nothing's happening. So you need to engage the local officials in formulating these local risk assessments. You need to engage local officials and community activists and leaders and all different stakeholder groups in laying out possible actions you could take to manage those risks, laying out their costs and benefits.

And then you need to condense all of that scientific and technical work into something that a couple hundred people sitting at a cafeteria– because you can't be like this. You've got to sit at a table because people are going to have to talk to each other at the same level in a role-play simulation at tables of six or eight. You have to formulate, again, which people can play in an hour. Read in half an hour, play in an hour, and talk about in half an hour. And it has to give them information in roles that they are assigned. And the roles and the way people in the roles in the game react to the choices that have to be made have to be like the reactions that people in those real roles are going to have. So it means you go to a place, you produce a risk assessment, you work with local officials to look at that and imagine what conceivable policy options there are. You work with them to try to cost those.

You take all that information and you put it into a small packet of pieces of paper so that a group of six people sitting at a table could be assigned the roles of a local property owner or real estate interests in the community, environmentalists in the community, public health officials in the community, whole series of different roles from activists to civil society roles, governmental roles, industry roles. You have to pick a small number. They have to get this information. They have to be able to consume it in half an hour, which means lot of it is visually presented and not long things people have to read. And then they need to play out these roles in which they have an hour to make a very specific set of choices amongst a very specific set of strategies or policy options for dealing with the risks in this hypothetical community. The name of the place is made up, all the data is real data. All the roles are made up. They're all based on interviews with real people.

Why are we making this hypothetical? If people thought they had to be someone they're not at the table, they would refuse to play the role. If they were supposed to represent an interest in the town, they'd want to represent themselves. In a hypothetical context, people are willing to suspend disbelief and play those roles. And what's most important is they're learning something about how other people in the community think about the problem. There's some appreciation gained of other perspectives. They're not at a public meeting to sound off on what they want. This is a form of public learning and public engagement, enhancing readiness in which people are learning about the science, they're learning about the perspectives of their neighbors and officials, and they're attempting to see whether agreement is possible. Now we have written into the confidential instructions for each person– they all get different instructions– shared information and confidential instructions.

And it says what you can and can't accept on a series of two or three policy choices that have to be made, and your arguments for why are in your three or four page briefing note. Some people really have a hard time saying those arguments because they're being forced to play a role that is not their everyday role. But people are almost always good natured about it. They look at it and they say something like, well, it says here that– right? Because they don't want the words coming out of their mouth without some justification for why it's different from what they believe. Takes an hour. At the end of that hour, people at 10 tables of six are all in the same room, and now we've quickly put up all the results. And the tables get different results, even though the same cards are dealt.

Because of the way people interpret those roles, we get different results. And we talk about the variation. And before we're done I say to that group, so, what do you think this means for your own town? Not hypothetical place anymore. And people begin to talk about, well, we got agreement in an hour. Then we get agreement on our own community about it, and maybe some of those options are right for our community. Say, well, that's all the time we have right now, but public officials are here. Conceivably there'll now be some set of task forces created in this community. And this has happened in many places to carry these ideas forward. Now because we're at MIT, we survey all those people before they start. We survey them when they're done. We're trying to measure what they're learning. We're trying to measure what they believe, what they understand, what they feel. You can see a dramatic impact with the one hour and a half hour discussion in what people believe is the seriousness of the risk, their optimism about the prospect of doing something about those risks locally.

And it's not driven by party politics. Because we asked people in the survey before and after about their demographic and educational and political background and interests. And then just to be sure that maybe it's only very strange people who come to do these events, we survey the whole city with a polling system so that we can match the profile of the people who came and did the events to the people who came, to people in the community in general. And if you want to see any of the results, if you want to see the games, if you want to see the survey results, if you want to see the way we've got people to come to the events, it's all on And the games are being used now in lots of places, which is a little distressing to me, because I would like to have colleagues modify the games in the next place, because I believe the tailored nature of the material is part of how we're doing a kind of building literacy. And the believability of the result is a function of it matching the profile of the risk and the cost related to different options in different communities.

The results are really quite compelling in terms of the effect of the use of games. Again, role-play games, face to face, and then debriefing those results with people together. We are now engaged in research in the city of Cambridge, with the city of Cambridge, trying to look at how to estimate the public health impacts of climate change risk. We're trying to reformulate flooding, heat into very specific kinds of public health risks. Turns out, even though several of my colleagues were modeling the health costs of climate change, at the local level of really laying out how a whole series of risks associated with different scenarios translates into a lot of very different public health risks, very much something that the Cambridge Public Health Department wants to do. We've made all new games using all the climate risk information, working with Harvard Public Health School test to make the public health cost, laying out the options of what can be done, running all through all different groups in the community to play this game. It's my belief– and I've done this use of games in many different parts of the world.

It's not a US, not an East Coast kind of thing. I believe you have to bring people together face to face in a place, not to comment on what the government's already decided, but in a process that's aimed at enhancing the readiness of the public to participate, and helping to formulate policies which then will have traction and will have credibility because of the way people participated together. Doing local climate risk assessment, as some of the people here know, it's got all kinds of difficulties and uncertainties associated with it. But you can't just downscale from the regional circulation models. You have to build up from all kinds of local meteorological data. And it turns out in New England, we have lots of those stations that we can work with. But we're very clear in the way these are presented about the uncertainty. That doesn't put people off. It's just that it gives them a sense that you still want to look for actions that have co-benefits.

I take Noelle's point very, very seriously in the discussions we're talking about. What are the co-benefits of local adaptation? Yes, you can minimize certain kinds of risks associated with climate change, and you can simultaneously be encouraging development or doing other kinds of things that the community wants to do. The MIT Science Impact Collaborative, which is the version of a lab when you move from the engineering school to the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, it becomes a collaborative– the MIT Science Impact Collaborative is going to continue to work with civil society groups, citizen action groups, corporate interest groups, local government officials on adaptation planning. I feel very, very strongly that when people actually see the cost of trying to adapt or respond to local risks, eventually they'll say, gee, that's a lot of money we're spending every year.

Maybe we should look at the source of the problem. And I think it'll be easier to work back in terms of really building public support from adaptation to mitigation, rather than the other direction. I hope I've left a few minutes for questions. I really am eager to hear people's reactions. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE] Are you talking about building sea walls that keep out the rising sea level? Or are you talking about things that stop tunnels from flooding? Like, what sorts of things are you talking about? The question was, what is the– can I give some examples of the kind of things that people are really making decisions about in these games? Is it building sea walls, which are very expensive, or are there other kinds of things. Turns out, sea walls, not the major priority, even in New England for people in coastal areas. What they're looking at are questions of emergency preparedness. What they're looking at our systems of insurance for people who are prepared to make investments, for example, to raise their house up on stilts along the coast, to make private investment.

Can they get any credit for that in terms of a property tax or other kinds of abatements? There are people who are very interested in whether or not we should be pulling back from certain areas, flood after flood. And can we have a local system of buying development rights, buying land, and other ways retreating from areas which constantly are under attack? When you talk to people about heat and you talk to them about examples of what happens, people say, well, is our local hospital going to be able to take in 65 cases of people with renal failure if it's 95 degrees four days in a row? There's been no discussion about what kind of capacity building on the public health side goes with heat. If you look at public housing, a lot of public housing doesn't have air conditioning. So what should you do? Should you have cooling rooms that the local government creates? What about the people who are not mobile? Will someone be around to take them from where they are in a public housing unit that's not air conditioned and take them to another part of the facility? Who's going to pay to upgrade those facilities? We do not want to suggest, let's add room air conditioners to every public housing unit in America. Right? So what are the alternatives? So these are design alternatives, they're land use alternatives, they're preparedness alternatives, they're credit for local action.

It's a very rich agenda. Sea walls, turns out, not to be high on a lot of people's lists. On the projects that you have already completed of these game projects that you've done, are there categories of resolution that have come out of them that have surprised you? Yeah. Did everybody hear that question? Oh, I'll say it for the recording. OK. So I have I been surprised by any of the kinds of outcomes or resolutions achieved in these gaming contexts? I run games to deal with the public opposition to hydro in Chile with indigenous peoples. I run games to look at some of the serious problems in Mexico with the law that's trying to move to 30% renewable energy. Right? There are nine geothermal projects. They're not going anywhere because of public resistance, which nobody thought– who would oppose renewable energy plants? Who would oppose renewable– I mean, just as PG&E in California how many renewable energy facilities are not going forward that have already been permitted. And when we run these kinds of games in facility siting dispute contexts, and in the game, people get agreement.

Right? And partly, it's because in the game, someone's consulting people before the decision's been made. People are getting evidence that they believe about the nature of the risks and the benefits. People are being given alternatives or being compensated or being given land swaps, or being given something else as opposed to just saying, this is in the public interest. Lump it. Too bad for you. The decision's already been made. If the process seems fair, you see a very different reaction. If costs are compensated, if the gains to the gainers are literally taxed to help compensate the losses to the losers, people reach agreement. And all the games that we design, we design them so that it's almost possible to reach full agreement, but not completely, if everybody follows their instructions. We do not want to pretend there's unanimity that will come because everybody will come together and share information and trust each other.

So in fact, the game says, if there's six people at the table, you don't have agreement unless at least five people agree. And then everybody doesn't want to be the one left out, and so they're looking for ways of saying, what do they have to have in order to be part of it? It's no longer a surprise, but it was a surprise in the beginning that if you engage people before decisions are made, they are much more likely to listen to information and help brainstorm ways of meeting interests in a consensual or close to unanimous way. It's what we have most of the time, which is the decision's been made, and now we'd like your involvement, please. And then people come, and they don't listen to anything, and they don't believe anyone's information, and there's never any– it doesn't look like you could ever get consensus, because there's the pro in the con.

But if you treat these kinds of public engagement efforts as problem solving, possible to get agreement. That's the single most important thing I've taken from this all around the world in different political contexts. .