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Congressional Caucus Plays a Game to Learn the Real-Life Complexity of Climate Solutions
U.S. Representative Judy Biggert and Alan I. Leshner
Photos by Harvey Leifert
Climate scientists and policy makers generally agree that over the next 50 years they must develop strategies to significantly stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in order to forestall an unacceptable level of global warming. But which strategies would be most effective and provide the greatest bang for the buck? On that, there is no consensus, but a game may help officials devise a framework to attack the problem.
The Congressional Research and Development Caucus hosted a short version of the Wedge Game at a 20 November briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Congress. U.S. Representative Judy Biggert, the Illinois Republican who co-chairs the caucus, welcomed the audience of 80 congressional staff members and representatives of foreign embassies, energy-related companies, and nonprofit organizations, noting that they were not there just to listen, but to participate in a serious game.
U.S. Representative Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who co-chairs the caucus, is a physicist and author of an aphorism quoted by AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, who introduced him: "The purpose of science is to tell us about the nature of the world, whether you like the answer or not." Holt described the purpose of the R&D caucus as "trying to build the idea here in the House of Representatives that research and development is a necessary and important investment for our well-being, through affecting every issue that is before our Congress. We need to make a better investment in research and development."
Roberta M. Hotinski
Roberta M. Hotinski, a science communicator with Princeton University's Carbon Mitigation Institute, presented the Wedge Game, which derived from a 2004 Science paper by Steve Pacala and Robert Socolow, "Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies." The goal of the game is to adopt strategies, using only existing technologies, that would keep carbon emissions flat for the next 50 years. This first step, said Hotinski, would put the world on track to limit the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide to less than double the current level. In the absence of such strategies, current trends would lead to a tripling of the pre-industrial level of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the end of this century, she said.
Achieving the goal of flat emissions over 50 years, Hotinski told the attendees, requires the elimination of 8 billion tons of carbon emissions by 2055. This could be done, she suggested, by adopting eight strategies, or "wedges," of emission reduction or storage, each of which would save 1 billion tons of carbon emission. She presented 15 such strategies and asked the participants to form groups to discuss the alternatives and make recommendations that seemed the most practical. Each of the strategies presented serious challenges, in terms of cost, social consequences, or availability of required resources.
Ideally, said Hotinski, the game is played over several hours, but in this demonstration presentation, the eight teams had just 15 minutes to make their choices. The strategies selected by most of the teams at the R&D caucus session were:
Double the efficiency of all the world's cars from 30 to 60 miles per gallon.
Use the best available technology in all new and existing buildings to increase insulation and reduce demand for electricity and heating fuel.
Increase the efficiency of electrical generating plants from 40% to 60%.
Triple the current capacity of nuclear plants worldwide.
Increase wind capacity to 30 times the current level, requiring a total land area equal to about 3% of the U.S.(or about the size of Germany).
Employ 700 times the current capacity of solar panels to displace coal-based electricity.
Store more carbon in forests by halting deforestation in 50 years.
Practice carbon management on all agricultural lands worldwide.
Hotinski told the participants that their selections were similar to those of other groups that had discussed the 15 alternatives presented in the game. She noted that all eight strategies, if adopted, would have to be fully implemented in order to achieve the overall goal of freezing emissions at their current levels.
James A. Edmonds
Following the Wedge Game demonstration, James A. "Jae" Edmonds, chief scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Joint Global Change Research Institute, discussed some of the technological challenges facing policy-makers. Chief among these is the cost of implementing various strategies, which is dependent upon many variables, including energy technology and the degree of international participation in emissions mitigation. If developing regions delay participation beyond 2020 and the world is committed to limiting atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 450 parts per million, the cost of carbon dioxide stabilization would jump significantly, Edmonds said. And, he added, if mitigation in developing countries is delayed past 2050, "it isn't even physically possible" to stay below the stabilization goal of 450 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Edmonds noted that the Framework Convention on Climate Change sets a goal of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. All stabilization goals share the same long-term challenge, he said, namely the eventual reduction of global manmade carbon dioxide emissions to virtually zero. He observed that the Wedge Game supported the idea that a broad portfolio of technologies would be more cost-effective to achieve any stabilization goal than an all-out effort limited to just a few of them. Further, he said, "investments in basic scientific research in the first half of the 21st century can be transformed into both improved versions of our current suite of energy technologies and potentially into completely new energy technologies that could become a major part of the global energy system in the second half of the century."
The energy system should not be the only source of reduced carbon dioxide emissions, Edmonds noted. We must also look at issues of the global economy, including land use and land cover. The continued improvement in crop productivity can be an important technology for mitigating carbon dioxide emissions, as it reduces pressure on deforestation to expand food production.
There will not be a quick fix, Edmonds added. "Climate change is a long-term problem, requiring major and permanent changes to the global energy and land-use systems. Investing in the R&D and also investing in the basic, underlying science that's going to be needed to develop a whole suite of new technologies is extremely important.
"Investments in R&D are going to be critical to meeting society's climate stabilization goals," he concluded. "I hope I've left a sense of urgency. Low greenhouse gas concentration goals are not achievable with a long period of delay on the part of virtually anyone."
Climate change, energy, and innovation "are becoming increasingly linked and are high-priority items on both the congressional and presidential agendas," said Kasey White, an environmental specialist and senior program associate in the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Congress. She said that AAAS "wanted to provide an opportunity for congressional staff to explore the range of options for addressing climate change that is possible today, as well as the potential of research and development for future energy and climate mitigation technologies."
11 December 2008