Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga: Biden Administration Brings Hope for Renewed U.S. Leadership

Juliette Rooney-Varga talking to a class Image by Ed Brennen
Climate Change Initiative Director Juliette Rooney-Varga says it's a 'relief' to have a president who listens to science.

By Ed Brennen

Now that the new Biden administration has made tackling climate change a top priority, researchers from UMass Lowell are helping policymakers better understand why the issue is so urgent.

The university’s Climate Change Initiative (CCI) has partnered with the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative and Climate Interactive on the Climate Pathways Project, which uses interactive computer simulations and role-playing exercises to show how policy decisions on energy and greenhouse gas emissions can affect the future of the planet.

CCI Director Juliette Rooney-Varga, a professor of environmental science in the Kennedy College of Sciences, helped develop the Climate Action Simulation and accompanying En-ROADS computer model that have already been used by thousands of people around the world. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, whom President Biden recently named as his special presidential envoy for climate, calls En-ROADS “a climate crisis game-changer.”

Next month, the Climate Pathways Project will introduce the simulation to a new wave of deeply divided U.S. policymakers at the national and state levels.

“Our goal is to really engage moderate and conservative policymakers,” says Rooney-Varga, whose research has shown that participation in the simulation leads to greater feelings of urgency and hope about climate change.

Given Biden’s flurry of executive actions since taking office — from rejoining the Paris climate accord and halting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to imposing new limits on oil and gas production and mandating climate change as a priority across every federal agency — we asked Rooney-Varga to share her thoughts on the state of climate change education and policy.

Q: What will the CCI’s role be in the upcoming simulations with policymakers?

In addition to helping facilitate the simulations, we’re going to research their impact on policymakers. What’s their emotional response? How engaged are they? How much personal involvement do they have? And do they actually make decisions or communicate about what they’ve learned with others? We’ll be using surveys and interviews, and we’ll also look at their public sphere of communications. We’ll be collaborating with (Criminal Justice Prof.) Arie Perliger, using his approaches with software and artificial intelligence to look at social media posts, press coverage, voting records, policy proposals, resolutions — all of that information before and after the simulation.

Q: What do you hope policymakers will take from the experience?

Depolarizing climate change and other politically charged issues is really important right now. We need to come together to solve problems in a way that’s grounded in reality and facts. And we are really excited that we have evidence that this simulation-based experience, this way of learning about climate change and energy transition, appears to not only reach people who are politically conservative, but it actually shifts their set of values a little bit towards a more communitarian and egalitarian mindset. So we’re really hopeful about that.
Gina McCarthy speaks to students at O'Leary Image by Ed Brennen
Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who spoke to UML students in 2017, has been named the first White House National Climate Advisor by President Biden.

Q: President Biden hasn’t wasted any time establishing climate change as a pillar of his administration. What’s your reaction?

I’m relieved. I feel like we’re finally at a place where climate change is not a niche issue anymore. This is what we’ve been imagining and hoping and working towards for more than 10 years now. Climate change is so clearly connected to so many other problems, and people are seeing those connections. We need to be aware of all of these connections and address them together. I think that’s where we have the most hope for action. 

That’s what Biden is showing and understanding with cabinet-level appointees whose job is not to address climate change, per se. We have Pete Buttigieg, his nominee for Transportation Secretary. He’s talking about how we have an opportunity to invigorate the economy and recover from this pandemic — build back better — while addressing climate change, while creating more sustainable transportation systems. And we have climate change front and center in terms of thinking about national security.

The climate benefits are only going to come later from these actions. But when we have climate change policy that has immediate benefits to the economy, public health and our experience in the natural world, it makes sense to a lot more people.  

Q: How has the COVID-19 crisis intersected with climate change?

I personally don’t like to refer to silver linings — because there’s been so much grief and suffering and awful things that people have had to go through with the pandemic, and it seems disrespectful to call it a silver lining — but it does seem like the pandemic has laid bare how inequity and public health are collective-action problems. And climate change intersects with those. We’ve also raised some questions about whether we’re able to cope with disasters. How many disasters can you throw at us at one time and still expect us to get through without really causing disruptions to human systems?

One of the critical things that we need to address with any of these collective-action problems is trust in government. There’s a real crisis in this country right now where people don’t trust the government, and for understandable reasons in many cases. But on the other hand, we need policy solutions, and I think trust in government is a big way to get there. We need to rebuild that.

Q: Former President Trump often questioned science. As a scientist yourself, how are things different now with President Biden? 

It’s just a relief, and not just as a climate scientist. You heard from Dr. Anthony Fauci, just the sense of, OK, I don’t need to be afraid about speaking up anymore. Ultimately, reality is going to come back to haunt us if we ignore it. It’s important not to shy away from reality. And it’s a relief to not have to.

Q: You were at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in 2015 that resulted in the Paris Agreement — from which Trump withdrew the U.S. and which Biden has since rejoined. What are the effects of this back and forth?

There definitely are ramifications of our withdrawal. Clearly, as with all of the things that have happened recently, including the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, that’s going to be front and center in so many of our allies’ minds when they think about what’s happening in the United States. We can’t erase that. We can’t pretend that none of that happened. We can’t pretend that we didn’t pull out of the Paris Agreement.

But it’s also critically important because our rejoining and working toward reclaiming a leadership position in the international climate negotiations can build momentum and lend more credibility to other nations and blocs that are trying to lead, and shift the momentum away from inaction. It’s so easy to make a case for inaction or continued growth in fossil fuel use if you can point to the United States and say, ‘The biggest polluter out there, historically, is not willing to do anything.’ Just the fact that we’ve already changed that narrative is a huge win.