A Perfect Storm Hit an Imperfect Climate Dialogue

By Auroop R. Ganguly, Professor, Northeastern University
Instructor, 2022 Climate Dialogue in Tanzania

When I generally hear the now clichéd phrase “this is not rocket science”, I usually try to smile in a way that I hope comes across as amused tolerance. When my graduate students use the phrase however, I gently tell them that rocket science is no longer what it used to be and perhaps the time has come when we should replace that cliché with “climate science”. I ask them to talk to my former students who have distinguished themselves at NASA to get further confirmation. Be that as it may, if climate science, which in my view needs to integrate the natural, human-engineered, and social dimensions, as well as tools ranging from modeling and simulation to physics-integrated machine learning along with techno-social principles, then there is perhaps no royal road to learning this interdisciplinary topic. Talking of clichés, it is said that when the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy (the first) asked the Greek mathematician Euclid (in about 300 BCE) for an easier way to learn geometry, the classic response was: “There is no royal road to geometry”. Unlike geometry however, actionable climate science cannot afford to be overly elitist. As the ancient Indian polymath Chanakya (375 to 283 BCE) said: “He shall despise none but hear the opinions of all. A wise man shall make use of even a child’s sensible utterance.”

Fast forward to modern times and our Dialogue of Civilizations (a month-long faculty-led study abroad program designed by Northeastern University’s Global Experience Office: NU GEO) on Climate Science, Engineering, and Policy in Emerging Economies, which I have been running (in non-pandemic years) from 2014 CE to 2022 CE. Our Dialogue has attracted students from all colleges at NU over the years:  hence a key question that arises is how to develop the pedagogy for such an interdisciplinary topic for a diverse and cross-college population of undergraduate students. For the interested reader, an overview of our Climate Dialogue, including the academics and cultural immersion components, and how this has fared over the years, was presented to NU alums, which can be viewed on YouTube.

Team UN at the climate wargames

My teaching philosophy for the Climate Dialogues, which have covered emerging economies, from India, Indonesia, and Nepal in Asia to Brazil and Peru in South America and most recently Tanzania in Africa, has been to emphasize what we call “climate wargames” which are envisioned as informed role-playing exercises. Motivated by a 2008 event organized by the Washington, DC, based think-tank the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) – see reports by Nature and by ES&T – I have tried to orient my pedagogy around two wargames and the teaming that entails. Our multisector wargames within the country or region we visit focus primarily on adaptation (which has been called “managing the unavoidable”) while our multinational wargames – still with an emphasis on the country or region we visit but with additional international stakeholders – focus primarily on mitigation (or “avoiding the unmanageable”). The wargame teams are made of students from diverse colleges and majors, with assigned roles of “experts” in science, engineering, economics, data analysis, and policy. Our pedagogy includes teaching the fundamentals, where the hope is that the interdisciplinary teams will first learn from the instructor and then learn from each other as the wargames progress. The outcomes are expected to be varied: to a science or engineering major, it can offer training in certain quantitative tools and an appreciation of social science and behavioral principles, while to a social science major it can offer a grounding in policy and an understanding of the scientific and technical challenges and opportunities, and to a computer or data science major it can clearly show the relevance of their areas to a societal priority. The pedagogical aspirations are high, and the learning process (in a loose sense) can have attributes of two central elements of climate data and processes: chaos or extreme sensitivity to initial conditions and random walk or the dominance of what may be viewed as chance.

Our 2022 Climate Dialogue to Tanzania hit a perfect storm which almost derailed the entire process. A change in my own travel plans to have to make connections in Tanzania before the students reached there, a last-minute cancellation for understandable but unforeseen reasons by the Dialogue Program Assistant (in our Climate Dialogues, the PA is one of my PhD students), and the health scares from COVID diagnosis to travelers’ diarrhea, hit and almost crippled this Dialogue. While I tried to keep the fallouts as invisible to the students as possible, it hit us hard. The combination of our experienced travel providers Prabodh Badoni and Prasanna Gautam of Chariot India, our new friends in Tanzania Dr. Philbert Luhunga and Ms. Ester Luhunga, as well as Prof. Ned Bertz of the University of Hawaii who is on a Fulbright in Tanzania, and last but certainly not the least, an NU and a Climate Dialogue alumna Ruth Linnaea Cahill (a graduate student at TU Delft who despite her very busy schedule agreed to join us as a mentor for a few days) made the situation at least somewhat manageable.

Professor turned entertainer

We did return home, all safe and sound thankfully, and we did travel to various parts of Tanzania, specifically, Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar, and Arusha including the national parks. Our learning was experiential as we interacted with professors, scientists, and policymakers at the University of Dar Es Salaam (UDSM), Tanzania Meteorological Agency (TMA), the Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH: a prime nodal organization), State University of Zanzibar (SUZA), and the Nelson Mandela African Institutions of Science and Technology (NM-AIST). The students and I visited the bazaars, roadside restaurants and coffee places, Tanzanite shops at Dar, the white beaches and islands at Zanzibar, and the magical Tarangire, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti national parks. We witnessed the burst of wildlife from antelopes and zebras to cheetahs and leopards, we gazed with awe at lions climbing on trees and we saw hippo parents playing with their young. We stared at elephants roaming in herds and hyenas in packs, we saw flamingoes in the water, and we noticed herds of wildebeest at the start of the migration phase. We stayed in luxury hotels and in jungle tents, we interacted with director generals and small coffee shop owners, as well as with the Maasai and the Hadzabe. The supposed Maasai belief about cows made us wonder about manifest destiny in the US, while the Hadzabe made us think of our own Native Americans. As I reminisce about the Dialogue, perhaps no less interesting to me was the interactions of the Northeastern students within themselves and without, occasionally forming a microcosm of the echo chamber we sometimes witness in climate debates in this country and around the world. I pointed to the debate pyramid, got questions about my own loyalties, and even some sarcasm (which I pretended to not understand) when I tried to tell them how I view my role. As one of those professors who still believe that it is not my role to tell my students what to think or believe but to help them develop informed opinions, it is often an intriguing experience these days trying to teach a topic that unfortunately has become as partisan (at least in the US) as climate change. The more I try to teach the more I realize how much more I need to learn myself. We have an imperfect Dialogue with an equally imperfect instructor, but perhaps that is okay. For, as they say, perfectionism can be the enemy of resilience, and this Dialogue is all about climate resilience. I feel proud that we were able to withstand the perfect storm this year.

Reminiscing the Serengeti

Students in a village dance

Our 2022 Climate Dialogue in Tanzania comprised 29 undergraduate students representing four NU colleges: College of Engineering (COE), College of Science (COS), College of Social Science and Humanities (CSSH), and the Khoury College of Computer Science (Khoury). I requested one student from each college to tell us about their perspectives each of which is reproduced below. As a grand finale, I requested one alumna who has been associated with our prior Dialogue in various capacities for four years and has stayed in touch since, to offer her perspective on our Climate Dialogue. Besides glancing through the picture collages and videos from our 2022 Dialogue on this website, I would request the reader to peruse the student and alumna perspectives that follow. I would also suggest the interested reader visit my university homepage (NU COE) and the website for our Sustainability and Data Sciences Laboratory (SDS Lab) for information about our research.

Auroop Ratan Ganguly is a professor of civil and environmental at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Please view his Wikipedia profile, Google Scholar publications, and the SDS Lab website, to learn more about him and his research, teaching, and entrepreneurship. This article was written in Boston on August 10, 2022.

Climate Dialogue 2022 in Tanzania: Cross-College Student Perspectives

Perspective by Nicole Buckley (Khoury College of Computer Science)

I would have never thought that I’d have the opportunity to travel to Tanzania, much less participate in everything that I did. I applied to the Dialogue last summer, meant to take place in French Polynesia, extremely excited to take some classes on climate science and policy. I was most looking forward to exploring how my major was applicable to the field since I’m very interested in equitable climate solutions. It was unfortunately canceled due to COVID, so I was extremely excited to see it offered again this year and immediately applied.

From the day I got to Tanzania, eating street food and learning some Swahili, to the day I left, comfortably riding around on boda bodas, I had a great time. My favorite experience was when a local bought all of us some fried dough balls, or mandazi, because he said everyone should be able to experience them. In general, being able to interact with locals, the language and culture, and Tanzanian policy was really enriching and impactful. It was interesting to learn about just how big the Tanzanian population is going to get and how the government is preparing and responding not only to the population growth but also to related climate impacts, like flooding and drought periods. During our adaptation wargames, we all agreed that Tanzania really needs to focus on developing infrastructure (like roads) and other adaptation measures, rather than mitigation since Tanzania hardly has any GHG emissions anyhow. While it was only briefly discussed, I did get to see an overlap of climate science and computer science, with discussions of network science and resilient transportation systems. I really loved Tanzania and am really grateful I got to opportunity to explore the country.

Nicole Buckley is an undergraduate student in the Khoury College of Computer Science (Khoury) at Northeastern University, majoring in Computer Science.

Perspective by Shannon Butler (College of Engineering)

My month in Tanzania was incredible, especially for an environmental engineering major. While the class was cross-listed, it counted as a major specific class for me focusing on climate resiliency in developing economies. During our time there, we were able to speak with tons of professors, fellow students, and scientists in my field to see the work that we are doing. We were able to make personal connections with these peers, creating a great networking opportunity for us to share our climate resiliency projects with them, as well as for them to share their findings with us.

Aside from coursework, we were also able to explore Tanzania and immerse ourselves in the culture. During our two weeks in Dar Es Salaam, we went to many of their local markets and museums. We then went to Zanzibar where we toured Stone Town to learn about the history of the slave trade in Zanzibar, and in other free time, students and I were able to go snorkeling and horseback riding. We ended our trip near Arusha touring the national parks and observing how animals behave with each other and with us (from a distance). It was truly an incredible experience that I believe will help motivate me to do great work in my field in the future.

Shannon Butler is an undergraduate student in the College of Engineering (COE) at Northeastern University, majoring in Environmental Engineering.

Perspective by Grace Coffelt (College of Social Sciences and Humanities)

I truly think this dialogue is something I am going to learn from in the years to come. In the 26 days I spent traveling around Tanzania, I tried my best to process everything around me. Every moment was packed with novel experiences, whether it was eating dinner with the kind strangers who showed us around their favorite places in Arusha or smelling and tasting the local spices that are only grown in Zanzibar. One discussion with students from Nelson Mandela University was especially impactful. They explain how, in Tanzania, climate change policy is much more complicated than just reducing emissions. In an ideal world, Tanzania would take every step to reduce emissions and maintain its natural environment. But those same steps would prevent Tanzania from developing its economy and raising its standard of living. Green technologies are simply much more expensive than their polluting counterparts. As we discussed hypothetical policies as a class, it was interesting to try to balance protecting human lives against protecting the environment. It was a perspective I had never even considered before this trip and a perspective that’ll impact how I look at government policies in my classes going forward.

Grace Coffelt is an undergraduate student in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities (CSSH) at Northeastern University, majoring in Political Science and Mathematics.

Perspective by Justin MacLennan (College of Science)

The opportunities to experience science in Tanzania were diverse and spanned many science-based disciplines. Local scientists have been working on various projects and research that we may have never heard about otherwise. An archeologist uncovering a lost city off the coast of Tanzania or breakthroughs happening at COSTECH (Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology) is innovating in ways that would seldom reach a science undergrad in the US. To top that off, we got to enter the TMA (Tanzania Meteorological Agency) headquarters where they manage tons of meteorology and atmospheric research locally. That feeling when you see concepts learned in base-level earth science classes explained and utilized makes the class feel that much more applicable and inspiring. Not only that, it also gave a glimpse into what working in one of these fields would entail. This is invaluable knowledge for a scientist’s future. It was truly an honor that these experts and esteemed organizations were so welcoming and informative about the scientific scene in Tanzania. Moving on to our time on safari, the wealth of information presented to us about not only climate change, but biology and ecology in one of the most ecologically interesting places in the world was striking. There’s no better way to remember concepts than to be living within them, and that’s what we did for two weeks. This leads to my next point, there is clearly no substitute for immersion in any regard. Despite various barriers (language, cultural, etc.) science was a common interest among everyone. There’s no better way to learn about science than to be on the ground doing it, in any fashion. Getting to do that in a completely new place only makes it more memorable and fruitful.

Justin MacLennan is an undergraduate student in the College of Science (COS) at Northeastern University, majoring in Environmental and Sustainability Science and Economics.

Climate Dialogues: Alumna Perspective by Lindsey Bressler

When I decided to join the Climate Dialogue in 2013 as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college freshman, I had no idea what to expect. I entered the College of Social Sciences and Humanities with the conviction that I wanted to pursue a career solving complicated global problems. However, I had many interests and could have seen myself as a member of probably all but one or two of the Dialogues Northeastern had to offer. I signed up for the Climate Dialogue with the vague sense that climate change would be important to my International Affairs coursework and that Civil Engineering classes would challenge me intellectually. What I could not anticipate was that the Climate Dialogue became one of the formative educational experiences of my life.

As a student on the first Climate Dialogue in India, I spent each day feeling a sense of awe. This inspiration was due in part to the fact that I had not traveled much outside of the United States. At the time, I likened the experience to turning up the color saturation on a digital photo. All of my senses were pleasantly overwhelmed, their metaphorical hues deepened. In a typical day on the Dialogue, I found myself marveling, 7,600 miles from home base, and admiring ancient rock carvings at a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

However, more than the centuries of culture or my steadily building tolerance for the heat, I was struck by the people we met. The quiet, passionate, day-to-day work of the students and researchers that offered us lectures at Indian universities was the true heart of the Dialogue. Here were people that were making small progress, each week, to address the problems of their own country. I began to reframe my thinking from “What do I have to offer this world?” to “What do I need to learn and who can I learn from?”

As the culmination of our class, Professor Auroop Ganguly asked us Northeastern students to participate in War Games, where we would take on the roles of countries or various climate sector stakeholders and debate climate policy mechanisms. Again, I found myself struck by my classmates. Although we had just begun to scratch the surface of the vast climate-related topics we covered during the Dialogue, our professor asked us “What do you think? How would you begin to consider the trade-offs that lie ahead?”

I was asked back to participate in the development of encyclopedia chapters in Auroop Ganguly’s Sustainability and Data Sciences Lab and then later became a student mentor and researcher for the next three subsequent years of the Dialogue. Admittedly, it took me some time, as a non-science student, to feel like I could claim a space in the climate conversation. However, my feeling of belonging grew each summer as I was surrounded by a new mix of students from across Northeastern’s various colleges and a different set of local climate subject-matter experts.

Looking back on my four years of involvement with the Climate Dialogue, I feel grateful for the people I had the privilege of experiencing it with, the research I had the privilege to learn and ask questions about, and the places I was able to see. The Dialogue, each year, continued to teach me that the issues of climate change could use everybody’s talents in some capacity. The best ideas come from interdisciplinary collaboration and the willingness to approach new ideas with nuance and openness.

Lindsey Bressler is a four-time participant and student mentor of the Climate Dialogue, an alumna of the Sustainability and Data Sciences Lab, and 2018 Economics and International Affairs graduate. She currently works as a Senior Analyst at Cadmus Group where she consults federal government clients on various preparedness and resiliency projects and was a Peace Corps mathematics education volunteer in Tanzania.

Reliving Zanzibar

Related Faculty: Auroop R. Ganguly

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering