Recap of DoTS #10: Addressing Climate Change - There Is No Silver Bullet

Mar 23, 2020

On Thursday 19th of March, Drew Jones was Otto Scharmer's special guest speaker in the interactive online Dialogues on Transforming Society and Self. Drew spoke about his life’s work to develop a climate simulation model, and invited participants on a journey taking them from opinion, to facts, towards proposals for grounded action.

Over 800 participants from over 55 countries registered for the session on "Interactive Climate Simulation: from Opinion, to Facts, to Grounded Action", featuring Drew Jones, expert on international climate and energy issues, and also Co-Founder and Co-Director of Climate Interactive.


Thinking In Terms Of Systems

Otto Scharmer opened the dialogue with Drew Jones by acknowledging the current situation of acute disruption and the global health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and what that might mean in a longer term perspective involving personal and collective choices. He remarked that in terms of dealing with big challenges, we are now made aware more than ever of the need to respond to global warming and climate change. Two reflections are therefore now emerging very clearly and can no longer be ignored:

1) All of us need to "become system thinkers": in order to address the situation, we must be aware of how our individual actions impact the whole system.

2) Massive change is not only necessary: it’s also very possible. We are seeing it unfolding before our very eyes: we are capable of collectively honing in on a single topic, deploying the necessary resources, and changing our behaviors.

Elaborating on how systems thinking can provide us with the tools to respond to the current situation and move us towards civilizational renewal, Otto mentioned the GAIA initiative, the global infrastructure created impromptu to help make sense of our current moment of disruption. Drew, as Co-Founder and Co-Director of the MIT systems dynamics group, has himself been working over several decades to create large-scale practical applications of systems thinking to real-world problems, notably in the field of climate change.


Trash Bags and Feedback Loops

When invited by Otto to share his story and journey, and what brought him into this line of work, Drew reminisced about the times when he was a 22-year-old student at Dartmouth College: "I was an activist with long blond hair, concerned about consumption" who quickly realised that judging and shaming were not effective ways of inspiring awareness or helping to create new behaviors. So Drew came up with "a crazy idea": he started to carry his trash in a clear plastic bag for a whole week, to "make visible the junk on my back". The idea caught on, a hundred people on campus joined him, and something shifted. This behavior, he noticed, made it "fun and interesting and exciting."

A Faculty Professor came to Drew and told him: "You have just closed a feedback loop in the system, you have created a simulation! A learning space to understand and make visible the long term, and open up new possibilities." Donella "Dana" Meadows, a pioneering American environmental scientist, teacher and writer -- best known as lead author of "The Limits to Growth" -- then invited Drew to take her course and study systems dynamics. Drew began building simulations to make visible the implicit, and his work became to help the world understand how the system creates behavior in the long term, and how behaviors create patterns.

Dana encouraged Drew to go to MIT and study: that’s how he met Otto, John Sterman and Peter Senge, and created the climate simulation think tank. "Twenty years later, here we are, with a 12-person think tank, and our simulations have been used in the United Nations and by over half the members of the US senate - Republicans and Democrats."


Choices and Consequences

Why, wonders Otto, are simulations powerful? The challenge of complex systems, explains Drew, is that cause and effect are distant in time and space. Simulations, on the contrary, can compress time and space so we don’t have the delay, and can get a sense of the urgency to act, today. The "game" aspect of simulation helps to make the abstract more physical and visceral - and not just intellectual.

Drew then took participants into an almost direct interactive simulation journey using the EN-ROADS simulator, a policy simulation model grounded in the best available science, calibrated against a wide range of existing integrated assessment, climate, and energy models. The simulator provides the ability to explore the likely consequences of energy sources, economic growth, land use, and other policies and uncertainties. Drew asked participants what actions they wanted to test - from tweaking energy supply quantity and price, to intensifying afforestation, to rethinking transportation, to intervening on population growth. By moving the sliders on the various parameters of the climate simulator and based on participants’ suggestions, Drew gradually built up a picture. He started from a non-sustainable scenario, a world that “we could not adapt to”, where by 2100 the temperature would have increased by 4.1°C. 

In some ways, the result was disappointing, as the realisation sunk in: there is not one action that will halt or decrease global warming. In fact, many of the actions that we habitually imagine would create profound change will in reality only make a small dent in the overall drawdown scenario. “There is no silver bullet*,” concludes Drew. “We need to think of it as a ‘silver buckshot**’, where we need to act across the whole picture, and put it all together in order to get to the 2°C or 1.5°C acceptable scenario. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”

* the term 'silver bullet' refers to an action which cuts through complexity and provides an immediate solution to a problem. The allusion is to a miraculous fix. The belief in the magical power of silver, especially of weapons made from silver, is very ancient.
**a typical buckshot load consists of multiple medium diameter pellets.


Pausing and Taking In

At this point, Otto asked everyone to pause and stay for a moment in the experience, dwelling on what they had just seen and heard. He invited people to connect with what their personal experience had been while watching the simulation, notice their own resonance, and then share it back collectively using the sentence structure “I saw, I sense, I feel.”

Some of the resonances that emerged were:

“I feel sorry for those who have lost their lives”

“I see possibility”

“I see the opportunity for synergism, to tackle what everyone thinks is important to change”

“I saw a shattering of illusions that I still held onto, that it would be easy”

“I see a panic moment”

“I saw facts and I remembered the conference with the ozone project”

“I saw a huge task, I sense that a change of lifestyle is necessary, and I feel it’s too big a challenge”

“I sense that agriculture is going to be the most important pressure point in all of this”

“I see that while no single intervention takes us to where we need to go, that multiple interventions could succeed, I sense a lack of political will to do everything that’s required and I feel encouraged”

“I sense a lot of lobbying against all these helpful measures, and a lot of resistance and a lot of hard work to overcome these and put everything into action”

“I feel a worldwide global rise to the occasion to bring the point of drawdown drawing carbon back home to us sooner rather than later”

“I feel resistance, I saw a huge wave full of… garbage, but maybe it was also people, and I had a question coming up in my mind: what does the world look like, that you want for your kids, in 2050?”

“I am very grateful for this knowledge, I sense that we meet wisdom more than ever”

“I see possibilities, I sense alignment, I feel adaptive”

Participants were then moved into ten-minute breakout group and asked to briefly introduce themselves, before sharing more about their feelings and thoughts in their small group settings around the questions: 

  • What are you noticing about your own emotional reaction?
  • What resonates for you?
  • How does it relate to your own sense of possibility and agency? 


Connecting Science to the Heart

Coming back together into the plenary session and bringing various strands of themes and insights together, participants shared a variety of feelings: ranging from joy in the midst of fear and pain, to wondering whether we can be satisfied with less and get in touch with what we truly need and yearn for. 


Drew again referred to Dana Meadows, remembering her posing the question: “How do we meet our material needs (for shelter, for food, etc.) materially, and our non-material needs (for connection, joy, experience) non-materially?” He remarked: “We haven’t been doing that. What are we learning from this time that might be relevant for afterwards, for after this time passes? What are we learning about what’s possible, about our lifestyles, about the power of collective action?”


Questions people asked included whether it is possible to gamify or regionalise the model. En-Roads Climate Action offers a simulation game and role playing formats with a training video, to which Drew warmly invited everyone (see end of article for more information and links). Regarding regionalisation of the model, Drew offered the following: “Think global, then put the model aside, and act local.”


Many found the feedback loop powerful, and that it is a great tool for making infrastructure decisions. However, some also wondered where the soft variables like gender equality and discrimination fit into this type of thinking, and how do we factor in the human variables? Some felt a little bit of resistance against the overly rational simulation model, and wondered whether it wasn't this mindset that had brought us to this situation in the first place? 


Otto then reflected on the following two points:


  1. “The invitation is to connect.” He referred to Ghandi’s phrase “there is enough for everyone's needs, and not enough for everyone's greed.'' “How,” he wondered, “can we reimagine how we live and work? How do we reshape our economies to serve the well-being of all? Evolve our democracies to make them more direct and dialogic, shape our learning systems to integrate head, heart and hand? These are questions of collective agency, not just individual agency. That’s the big possibility we are sitting with right now, the ‘gift of COVID-19’.”
  2. “No one can do it alone in self-isolation: we need each other.” The GAIA journey is a global activation process for intention and action, and now is the time. 


In closing, Drew emphasised the importance of framing the simulator as a “transitional object that grounds us in science, that we use to contribute to our conversations” but encouraged us to then “put it aside, and then talk from the heart, from our more whole selves.”

“So, let science and analysis contribute to the conversation, but not consume it. That’s how it works best.”


He concluded: “Overall, I want to come back to the possibilities that are being opened right now. I have been working on the issue of global sustainability for 30 years and they’ve always told us ‘we can’t change our behavior, we can’t take collective actions’ - it’s what we have told ourselves. We now have more and more evidence that was never true. We can change behaviors and still meet needs, we can take collective action in powerful ways. Let’s all learn, and pay attention: what is it that is possible now, that wasn’t possible six months ago? And what does that do to us as humans, leaders, people contributing?”


The Future is Already There

Click image to enlarge
Click image to enlarge - Olaf Baldini's scribed image for the DoTS 10 session


Olaf then shared his scribing with the participants and remarked about his visual:

“We started with collective attention and action, and I made little dots. For me that was like little dots coming together to do something. Then I forgot about it and when we talked about the buckshot, I realised that I did the same, because it’s little pieces that create the buckshot. It was already there, and the pieces then come together in terms of impact, and this all happens around the ‘feel’ part that is in the middle.”

Otto observed: “The future is already there, it's about a different way of seeing it” and invited everyone to take in the picture for a little while. The session closed in the usual manner, with all participants unmuting themselves and saying goodbye in their own native language.


Recording of the session:


Invitations From Drew & Team

  • Climate Interactive will be hosting several free online sessions of the En-ROADS Climate Workshop on Thursday, March 26 in three different time zones [register here].
  • En-ROADS is a free, user-friendly climate solutions simulator which you can interact with online – built by leading system dynamics modelers of Climate Interactive and the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative. 
  • You can explore the underlying science behind the model by reading through the En-ROADS webpage and exploring videos on En-ROADS.
  • Most often, En-ROADS is used to engage people through interactive group experiences – such as the En-ROADS Climate Workshop or Climate Action Simulation
  • Currently, the Climate Interactive team is working diligently to develop a diverse suite of online resources which will support engaging, online group experiences with the En-ROADS simulator. 
  • Climate Interactive will be hosting an online training session to discuss strategies for virtual engagement with En-ROADS and other tools next week, on April 2 [register here]
  • For people who are interested in leading multiple events with En-ROADS, please explore the En-ROADS Climate Ambassador program: a unique leadership opportunity to join a distinct cohort of volunteers committed to mastering the En-ROADS model and spreading data-driven climate insights across the globe. 
  • If you are interested in their work, be sure to sign up for Climate Interactive’s updates, and explore their twitter profile!
  • If you have any questions regarding En-ROADS or other parts of Climate Interactive’s work, please email