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How Millions of People Can Help Solve Climate Change

By collaborating online, people from around the world can devise and refine solutions and adaptations to climate change.

ByLaur Fisher, Robert Laubacher, Thomas MaloneNOVA NextNOVA Next
Climate change threatens people around the world with disasters like storm surges, including the one seen here caused by Megastorm Sandy in 2012.

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.

Millions of people around the world can now work together online to achieve a common goal at a scale and with a degree of collaboration that was never before possible. From Wikipedia to open source software to online citizen science projects, crowdsourcing has produced remarkable results in the worlds of education, technology, and science. Take the online game FoldIt , for example. In just ten days, players from around the world helped produce an accurate model of a key protein found in an HIV-like virus, solving a problem that had stumped scientists for 15 years.

We believe these examples are just the beginning of what’s possible.

In our work at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, we’re exploring the potential of crowdsourcing to help solve the world’s most difficult societal problems—starting with climate change. To do that, we’ve created the Climate CoLab , an on-line platform where people from around the world collaborate on developing and evaluating proposals for what to do about global climate change. (All three of us are actively involved in the Climate CoLab.)

Anyone is allowed to contribute.

In the same way that FoldIt opened up the chemist’s laboratory, the Climate CoLab opens up the elite conference rooms and meeting halls where climate strategies are developed today. To move beyond relying solely on experts, scientists, and politicians to develop solutions, we’ve broken down the complex issue of climate change into focused sub-problems and invited a global community to tackle each of the sub-problems and then put the puzzle back together again into a global strategy.

Anyone is allowed to contribute. No matter who a person is or where they come from, they can contribute ideas and have them reviewed by an international community of thousands of people—including world-renowned experts from organizations like NASA, the World Bank, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, and leading universities like MIT, Stanford, and Columbia.

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Over the past three years, the Climate CoLab community has grown dramatically, and it now has over 10,000 members from more than 100 countries. Members include business people, researchers, scientists, officials at non-governmental organizations (NGOs), policymakers, students and concerned citizens, as well as dozens of the world’s leading experts on climate science, policy, clean tech, investing, and more. Together, the community has submitted and evaluated over 400 proposals on a wide variety of topics ranging from eating vegetarian diets to adapting to sea level rise to shifting public attitudes about climate change.

How the Climate CoLab works

Any member of the community can create a proposal or discuss, support, and evaluate proposals submitted by others. Proposals can advocate new technologies, community projects, marketing strategies, businesses, policies, or any other kind of action to address climate change. Both individuals and teams are welcome to develop proposals, and an increasing number of representatives from non-profit organizations and businesses are submitting their ideas, including the United Nations Development Programme, the eBay Green Team in Germany, and JUCCCE (a Chinese non-profit founded by a TIME magazine “environmental hero of the year”).

A key component of each proposal is how well it addresses climate change.

Activity on the site is organized through a series of contests. As people develop proposals, other members of the community are invited to support them—akin to liking a page on Facebook—or comment on them. Judges, who are distinguished researchers and officials at companies, government agencies, and non-profits, select the most promising entries to be finalists and provide feedback on how they can be improved. After the finalists’ entries are revised, the community is invited to vote for the ones they find the most promising, with the top-ranked proposals receiving Popular Choice Awards. The judges also select the Judges’ Choice Awards. The Climate CoLab offers a cash award to a single grand prize winner, but all the Popular and Judges’ Choice winners receive an opportunity to present their ideas to top experts and potential implementers.

A key component of each proposal is how well it addresses climate change. For proposals at the global level, the Climate CoLab has integrated a computer simulation model into the site to project the environmental and economic impacts of the proposed actions. The model estimates how a proposal would change, for example, the future concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, average global temperature, and sea level, as well as various economic costs. In making these models available to the public, the Climate CoLab enables citizens to test first-hand how their ideas could affect physical and economic systems and then use this information to improve their proposals.

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Breaking Down Climate Change

A key principle behind the Climate CoLab is breaking down the large, complex problem of climate change into a series of more focused sub-problems , as mentioned above. These sub-problems are defined by three key dimensions: What actions will be taken to address climate change? Where will these actions be taken? And who will take the actions?

The “what” dimension describes the kinds of actions that can occur, including actions that directly affect the earth’s systems, such as reducing carbon emissions (mitigation) or responding to rising sea levels (adaptation), and actions that affect human systems, such as adopting new policies or changing behavior. “Where” reflects the geographical location of the action, for instance China, New York City, or all developing countries. And “who” describes the primary organization or person expected to undertake the proposed action. The “who” dimension could include governments, businesses, and other kinds of organizations like educational institutions, non-profits, and churches, as well as individual citizens.

Using these dimensions, the Climate CoLab conducted 18 contests on a broad range of sub-problems in seven major categories: reshaping public attitudes; reducing consumption; increasing energy efficiency; removing carbon from the energy supply; reducing emissions from agriculture, forestry and waste management; adapting to climate change; and geoengineering (the direct manipulation of the world’s climate).

Of course, just breaking a problem into pieces isn’t enough. There also needs to be some way of putting the pieces back together to solve the overall problem. This is why the Climate CoLab will soon launch a new set of integrated contests at the national and global levels. Here, community members will combine ideas from other contests or elsewhere to form proposals for specific countries or for the whole world. In doing so, members will be able piece all the different ideas together to see what their total combined effect could be.

Activity So Far

In 2010-2011, Climate CoLab contests focused on what global climate treaties should be adopted and how the global economy should evolve through 2100 given the risks of climate change. The winners of these contests presented their ideas in briefings to officials at the United Nations in New York and the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C.

The 2012-2013 contests focused on the more detailed sub-problems described above. Some of these contests were run in conjunction with other organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, Carbon War Room, and ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability. Almost 400 proposals were submitted from Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India, Mexico, South Africa, and many other countries. The winners presented at the Crowds and Climate Conference at MIT in November 2013, which brought together experts from Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, the Executive Office of the President of the United States, the City of New York, General Electric, the New York Times , DBL Investors, and many others .

Winning ideas included creating a more sustainable vision of the good life, called the China Dream , for the emerging Chinese middle classes; preparing Vietnamese cities for seasonal migrants , and replacing carbon-intensive diesel pumps used by small farmers in India with foot-operated treadle pumps .

A grand prize-winning entry shows homeowners where and how much heat their houses lose.

The grand prize winners , from the University of Calgary in Canada, took home a $10,000 award for their proposal about a project to show homeowners where their houses are wasting heat, how much it’s costing them, and how to fix it—all on Google Maps and all for free. The invention helps residents improve their home energy efficiency, save money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As a result of their Climate CoLab proposal, the team is now working to scale up the project to cities with populations of over 1 million people.

A Reason for Optimism

For the first time in history, there is now a highly-accessible, democratic, solutions-based platform that allows people across the globe to collaborate on developing solutions to climate change. By bringing together experts, crowds, and key stakeholders, the Climate CoLab opens up the possibility that effective solutions to climate change can come not just from international conferences or labs, but collectively from large numbers of people from all over the world.

Has the project yet had an impact on climate change? In many ways, it’s too soon to tell. The 2013 winners have been recognized by national and international news media, and at the very least, the Climate CoLab has helped many people learn more about climate change. But if the project achieves its highest aspirations, it will also engage a broad range of scientists, policy makers, businesspeople, members of non-profits, and concerned citizens in helping to plan—and gain support for—better actions to address climate change than anything we would ever otherwise have done.

To join the community and submit, support, comment on, and vote for proposals, visit the Climate CoLab .

Photo credit: Don McCullough/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and Passivhaus Institut/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.