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MIT Better World


12.387 / 15.874 / IDS.063
People and the Planet: Environmental Governance and Science


Noelle Selin, Associate Professor, Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

  • “My experience working on mercury emissions and policy has showed me that managing this challenge requires not only understanding mercury cycling in the environment, but also the domestic and international governance mechanisms that create incentives and regulate human activities.”

Susan Solomon, Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

  • “Science, public policy, the engagement of citizens and industry, and technology formed fascinating elixirs that sometimes succeeded in managing past environmental issues. What’s the magic that made these gel, and does understanding the magic help us on climate change?”

John Sterman PhD ’82, Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

  • “Science and technology are essential in solving the pressing environmental challenges we face. But that’s not enough: research shows that showing people research doesn’t work. In this course we use simulations and interactive experiences to enable students to learn for themselves about the science and technology of sustainability—and the human and social dynamics we must understand to create a world in which all can thrive.”

First Offering

Fall 2017

From the Catalog

Introduces governance and science aspects of complex environmental problems and approaches to solutions. Introduces quantitative analyses and methodological tools to analyze environmental issues that have human and natural components. Concepts are introduced through three in-depth case studies of environmental governance and science problems. Students develop writing, quantitative modeling, and analytical skills in assessing environmental systems problems and developing solutions. Through hands-on activities including modeling and policy exercises, students engage with the challenges and possibilities of governance in complex, interacting systems including biogeophysical processes and societal and stakeholder interactions.

  • Games include: role-playing scenarios cocreated by Sterman and Selin, respectively: World Climate, which simulates the process and outcomes of international negotiations on emissions reduction, and the Mercury Game, which helps participants explore the consequences of representing scientific uncertainty in various ways in the context of making an environmental treaty.


  • Introduction: Achieving a Sustainable Ecological Footprint

Topics include: I = PAT (impact = population* affluence*technology); stocks and flows; system dynamics.

  • Case study: Ozone depletion

Topics include: Ozone science; the development of US environmental policy in the 1960s and 1970s; the international Montreal Protocol addressing ozone-depleting substances.

  • Case study: Mercury pollution

Topics include: biogeochemical cycling and scientific processes, regulatory challenges, and environmental justice.

  • Case study: Climate change

Topics include: greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the physical mechanisms of global warming and climate change; the carbon cycle and other biogeochemical cycles; scientific, technical, economic, social, psychological, and political issues relevant to reducing GHG emissions and limiting the damage from climate change.

Learning Objectives

Through the case studies, students completing the course will:

  • Understand the importance of relationships among population growth, economic growth, natural resources, technology, and environmental challenges, including the drivers and impacts of environmental damages;
  • Identify and understand the scientific principles and interactions that influence environmental systems in the cases presented;
  • Identify and assess individual, collective, public, and private strategies to deal with environmental challenges, and their advantages and disadvantages;
  • Use quantitative modeling tools to simulate environmental systems, including the impact of human activities;
  • Compare different analytical lenses through which differing environmental problems can be viewed and assessed, including risk, economics, ethics, ecology, and policy analysis;
  • Design potential solutions to address complex environmental challenges, incorporating both technical and policy constraints.

Course Requirements

This course involves extensive participation by students. Designated “student experts” for a particular day will raise questions about the readings and lead small-group discussions. For each class topic, students will complete an assignment such as an essay arguing an original viewpoint or a quantitative problem set. Students will also complete a final project that will draw lessons from across the course topic areas to provide insights about environmental problems and their solutions.

Suggested topics for final projects include: deforestation, fracking, bees and pesticides, genetically modified food, ocean acidification, Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Sample Readings

  • Michigan v. EPA, Supreme Court opinion, 2015.
  • Rockström J., et al. “A safe operating space for humanity.” Nature 461: 472–475, 2009.
  • Selin, N. “Global change and mercury cycling: challenges for implementing a global mercury treaty.” Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 33(6): 1202–1210, 2014.
  • Sterman, J. “Communicating climate change risks in a skeptical world.” Climatic Change 108: 811–826, 2011.
  • Ungar, S. “Knowledge, ignorance, and the popular culture: climate change versus the ozone hole.” Public Understanding of Science, 9: 297–312, 2000.