Climate Feedback

Can we solve global warming by reshaping Web 2.0?

Sick of fractious climate blogging? MIT researcher Mark Klein and his colleagues are envisioning a souped-up new forum on global warming – described as “simultaneously a kind of Wikipedia for controversial topics, a Sims game for the future of the planet, and an electronic democracy on steroids” – that they say could reshape public discourse.

It’s called the Climate Collaboratorium. Here’s what it might look like, in part:

(click for larger version, or download the original PDF)


What you see is the heart of the idea, a discussion structure known as an ‘argument tree’. Mason Inman*, writing about the project for Nature Network recently, summarized it well:

The structure requires people to present their comments in one of four categories: issues to be addressed, options for resolving those issues, the pros in favor of various options, and the cons against them. In this way, the debate could become self-organized, making it easier for people to see what’s been said, and whether points have been supported or rebutted.

Succinct, logical debate threads instead of arguments spread over dozens of sites… ideas neatly aggregated rather than forgotten with the next news cycle… pardon my nerd-drool.

But will it work? Last December, Klein and two researchers at the University of Naples tried out a prototype on 220 Italian engineering students, asking them to create an argument tree on the question “What is the future of biofuels?” The students seemed to love the forum – their steady 24/7 stream of posts totaled over 5,000 after two weeks – but they weren’t particularly good at keeping the discussion on track. The argument trees needed continuous pruning and rearranging by a dedicated group of moderators, who would have to make up 5-10% of the user population in a larger-scale Collaboratorium, the researchers estimated.

Klein is now starting more tests with Swiss and Italian students that will evaluate whether the Collaboratorium produces superior content and better-informed participants compared with ordinary wikis and forums. How to arrange for quality control in the project’s next phase, however, is still something of an open question. Climate modeller and RealClimate blogger Gavin Schmidt (who’s recently defended climate blogging in Nature Geoscience (subscription) and on RealClimate) told Inman* that generating respect for an open forum on climate “is by far the most challenging aspect of this proposal”. Doubtless, many top climate scientists – who may at times volunteer half their workload toward the IPCC reports already – wouldn’t get around to participating in the fledgling project. Fortunately, they do have grad students.

The fully realized Collaboratorium, as outlined in this paper by Klein and collaborator Thomas Malone, would be even more ambitious. Their vision relies heavily, for example, on users building their own climate models that are integrally linked to the speculation and debate going on in the argument tree. Above all, though, Malone and Klein stress the need for a more powerful tool to help us get our collective heads around climate change:

Today’s on-line discussion forums, blogs, and chat rooms do a good job of encouraging lots of people to express their opinions and share them widely. But these systems are not very good at supporting evidence-based, logical deliberation: the quality of contributions can vary enormously.

Andrew Leonard at Salon has aptly compared this to “saying nuclear bombs do a good job when employed for purposes of mass destruction, but are not so great for handcrafting quality woodwork.”

What do you think, climate debaters? Could a more sophisticated approach force out a high-quality product?

Anna Barnett

[UPDATE: Klein also pointed me to this 10-minute video summarizing the Collaboratorium structure and its differences from traditional forums]

*In the original version of this post, the Nature Network story was wrongly attributed to Corrie Lok. Mason Inman wrote the story, and Lok’s first name is spelled Corie.


  1. Report this comment

    Bart said:

    great initiative. Centralization of information and debate is what internet needs. There is just too much unstructured info out there and it’s often a hard job to find the initial source of the information.

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    adrian chan said:

    Could twitter, using hashtags for content organization, be of help? Granted, posts are limited to 140 chars, but it could be used for polling and surveying the audience, no?

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    A Siegel said:

    To a large extent, this is a variation of a path that has been pursued with Energize America ( The developmental process included 100s of blog postings, 10,000s+ of comments, with substantive legislation provided to members of Congress and several offshoot groups (such as Stranded Wind: actually pursuing technologies or other paths of activism.

    A major difference, I guess: EA2020 has done everything without a single person on salary, without any compensation to any of the participants.

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    Wayne Hamilton said:

    I’d like to see a comparable ‘blog’ for sustainable modeling. By that I mean developing a community → society model that is a balanced equation; including of course energy balance and resource conservation (of mass).

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