Interactive Simulation Helps State Legislators Weigh Energy Policies

Juliette Rooney-Varga presents at the State House Image by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of the university's Climate Change Initiative, walks legislators through the climate change policy simulator at the State House.

By Ed Brennen

When state legislators wanted to learn more about climate change and how energy policies can impact global warming, they didn’t have to look far for scientific expertise.

Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga of environmental biology and several fellow members of UMass Lowell’s Climate Change Initiative were invited to the State House recently to give a legislative briefing titled “Meeting the Climate and Energy Challenge.” Approximately 50 legislators and staff members attended the two-hour session, which was sponsored by Rep. Thomas Golden of Lowell, along with Reps. Denise Provost of Somerville and Frank Smizik of Brookline.

“Any time we can inform decision-making, it’s a good thing,” said Rooney-Varga, who walked lawmakers through the climate change policy simulator C-ROADS World Climate, an interactive tool developed by her colleagues at Climate Interactive that shows the long-term impacts of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Rooney-Varga asked participants to come up with target percentages and dates for desired emission reductions and then entered them into the simulator, which showed how they lined up with the goals of the recent Paris Agreement. 

Members of the Climate Change Initiative at the State House Image by Ed Brennen
Rep. Denise Provost, left, welcomes Provost Mike Vayda, Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga and members of the Climate Change Initiative to the State House.

“Getting the audience to make suggestions in real time and to see what the consequences are, that is golden. That is not something that we often get to do,” said Provost, a member of the House Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change who would like Beacon Hill to tap the expertise of UMass institutions more in the future.

“It’s the opposite of the ivory tower,” said Provost, who added that she’s become familiar with the “fantastic and innovative work going on at UMass Lowell” through her work on the state higher education committee over the past eight years. “I would hope that the intellectual and innovation resources of the Commonwealth, especially at an institution like UMass Lowell, could be put to use in the interests of everyone.” 

Rep. Mike Connolly, who represents parts of Cambridge and Somerville, said he was struck by how big an impact a carbon tax would have on achieving temperature goals.

“The simulator is a fabulous tool that really makes policy choices very clear to those of us who are charged with legislating,” Connolly said. “I’ve never seen anything with that kind of simulation in real time, so that was really new.”

Rooney-Varga, who is on sabbatical this year at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said the goal of the simulation isn’t to be “prescriptive and tell people what to do.”

Juliette Rooney-Varga presents at the State House Image by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga, who is on sabbatical this year at MIT, helps lawmakers see how energy policies can impact global warming.

“Our goal is to empower decision-makers to make their own decisions and to come to their own insights,” she said. “And we want to ensure those decisions are informed by our current scientific understanding of climate and energy.”

Provost Mike Vayda, who joined the university delegation on Beacon Hill, told lawmakers that climate change is a “critical problem that’s facing the world right now, and this is the place where we need to step up as leaders.”

While adopting policies like a carbon tax would cause some economic discomfort — particularly for the poorest segments of the population — Vayda said the state can also benefit from being a leader in innovative energy technology.

“There’s an opportunity here for economic growth for the Commonwealth,” he said, “and that’s the fuel that will help balance the social pain of instituting new policies.”