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Collboratorium Copenhagen Challenge White Paper

Harnessing collective intelligence to address climate change:
The Climate Collaboratorium Copenhagen Challenge #

White paper presented to Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
by Robert Laubacher, Lara Pierpoint, Joshua Introne, and Thomas W. Malone
MIT Center for Collective Intelligence
December 12, 2009

Executive summary#

The Climate Collaboratorium is a global, on-line forum that seeks to harness the world’s collective intelligence to address climate change. The site launched in late September 2009, and users developed proposals describing the agreement they hope to see in Copenhagen. The site attracted nearly 400 unique visitors from all continents during the first week of COP 15. More than 90 percent of voters on the site advocated proposals that would lead to projected CO2 concentrations of between 350 and 480 ppm in 2100. Voting continues, and results are at
(Note: Voting ended in September 2010, and the vote totals on the link above reflect all voting over the September 2009-September 2010 period).

Overview of the Climate Collaboratorium#

The Climate Collaboratorium seeks to harness the collective intelligence of thousands of people around the world to address global climate change. Inspired by systems like Wikipedia and Linux, the project is developing a global, on-line forum where people can create, analyze, and ultimately select detailed proposals for what we humans can do about global climate change.

At the core of the on-line forum is an evolving collection of user created proposals comprised of proposed actions tied to computational models that project the impacts of those actions. Users can enter arguments for or against the positions on major issues embodied in proposals, comment on proposals’ plausibility and desirability, and rate other users’ comments. They can also vote for proposals and positions.

At a minimum, the Collaboratorium community hopes this on-line forum will help to educate the public about the issues involved in global climate change. But by constructively engaging a broad range of scientists, policy makers, business people, and interested citizens, this forum also has the potential to develop proposals and policies that are objectively better than any that would have been developed otherwise.

Collaboratorium Copenhagen Challenge#

The Climate Collaboratorium was launched on September 24, 2009 at the Louise Blouin Foundation’s Global Creative Leadership Summit in New York City. Users were invited to develop and vote on proposals that addressed a specific question: What agreement should be reached at the UN Climate Talks?

Through December 11, 2009, users participated in the Collaboratorium Copenhagen Challenge. In the challenge, users created and voted on proposals that outlined the agreement they hoped would be reached at COP15 in Copenhagen. The three proposals receiving the most votes were declared winners.

Models in the Collaboratorium#

In the initial version of the Collaboratorium, users create proposals that outline policy choices in two areas:
  • emission reduction targets for major regional blocs,
  • targets for reductions in deforestation and increases in aforestation.

These policy choices are then translated into inputs to a set of linked simulation models:

  • climate projections are from C-LEARN, Climate Interactive’s Web based climate simulator, developed by the Sustainability Institute, Ventana Systems, and MIT’s System Dynamics Group;
  • mitigation cost projections are from response surfaces based on runs of IGSM (developed by MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change), MERGE (developed by the Electric Power Research Institute and Stanford University), and Mini-CAM (developed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest Labs and the University of Maryland);
  • projected costs of climate change damages are based on response surfaces created from DICE (developed by William Nordhaus of Yale) and PAGE (developed by Chris Hope of Cambridge);
  • projected physical impacts of climate change are based on the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report and studies undertaken by the Tyndall Centre for the U.K. government’s Stern Review.

Usage of the Collaboratorium to date#

The Collaboratorium development team attracted users by scheduling events with student groups and sending announcements to mailing lists of university and community groups interested in climate change.

The site has been on line since late September, but post-launch development efforts focused on adding new features. Because of this, site analysis tools were only installed on December 6, 2009.

For December 6-11, the site received 503 visits from 373 unique visitors. The majority of visitors were from the North America (70 percent), Europe (22 percent), and Asia (6 percent), but Latin America, Africa, and Australia were also represented. From launch through December 11, 162 users registered on the site, and 58 of them voted in the Copenhagen Challenge.

Collaboratorium Copenhagen Challenge results#

Two proposals stand out far above the rest:
  • 350 parts per million (ppm) or bust, which received 40% of the vote,
  • IEA 450 ppm scenario, which received 31% of the vote.

Thus a large majority of Collaboratorium users to date advocate strong actions to reduce emissions.

The 350 ppm proposal called for the greatest emission cuts possible: 99 percent reductions in all regions by 2050, with elimination of deforestation and maximum increases in aforestation. Such cuts are truly drastic and may not be realistically attainable. Nonetheless, prominent scientists like NASA's James Hansen, as noted in the debates on this proposal, have advocated a 350 ppm target as an ambitious and responsible policy to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius. Collaboratorium users argued that although a 350 ppm goal may not be imminently reachable, we should aim for it in order to attain a less ambitious target.

Those who voted for the 450 ppm scenario noted that the targets outlined in this proposal, such as 40 percent reduction in CO2 emissions in developed countries by 2030, will still be very difficult to realize. But proponents of this proposal see the 450 ppm goal as more feasible than 350 ppm, given the potentially high cost of mitigation. The Collaboratorium's cost models project that even the more modest 450 ppm target would still lead to a GDP decrease in 2100 ranging from 2 percent to 11 percent vs. the business as usual case.

The third most popular proposals, tied with 7 percent of the vote each, are:

  • Drew Jones TED proposal
  • Business as Usual (BAU).

The Drew Jones proposal is a compromise between the 350 and 450 ppm proposals, achieving 396 ppm by the end of the century. The BAU proposal is based on the IPCC’s A1F1 scenario and leads to CO2 concentration of 951 ppm in 2100. Proponents of BAU for the most part do not view climate change as a threat.

Overall, 91 percent of Collaboratorium voters advocated proposals that led to projected CO2 concentrations of between 350 and 480 ppm in the year 2100. Many of the site’s users so far are students or citizens deeply involved in energy and sustainability research, so voting patterns may shift as the user base grows. Voting will continue indefinitely on the site, and ongoing results will be available at

Future work#

Going forward, the Collaboratorium community will seek to improve the usability of the web site for citizens who may not yet be knowledgeable about climate issues; grow and strengthen the community; and add new models, in particular, models that allow users to select a portfolio of energy technologies and match their portfolio’s characteristics with carbon targets.

Downloadable version#

A pdf version of this white paper can be downloaded by clicking on the "Attachments" link at the bottom of this page.