A group of us at the lab, led by Jon Pipitone, has been meeting every Tuesday lunchtime (well almost every Tuesday) for a few months, to brainstorm ideas for how software engineers can contribute to addressing the climate crisis. Jon has been blogging some of our sessions (here, here and here).

This week we attempted to create a matrix, where the rows are “challenge problems” related to the climate crisis, and the columns are the various research areas of software engineering (e.g. requirements analysis, formal methods, testing, etc…). One reason to do this is to figure out how to run a structured brainstorming session with a bigger set of SE researchers (e.g. at ICSE). Having sketched out the matrix, we then attempted to populate one row with ideas for research projects. I thought the exercise went remarkably well. One thing I took away from it was that it was pretty easy to think up research projects to populate many of the cells in the matrix (I had initially thought the matrix might be rather sparse by the time we were done).

We also decided that it would be helpful to characterize each of the rows a little more, so that SE researchers who are unfamiliar with some of the challenges would understand each challenge enough to stimulate some interesting discussions. So, here is an initial list of challenges (I added some links where I could). Note that I’ve grouped them according to who immediate audience is for any tools, techniques, practices…).

  1. Help the climate scientists to develop a better understanding of climate processes.
  2. Help the educators to to teach kids about climate science – how the science is done, and how we know what we know about climate change.
    • Support hands-on computational science (e.g. an online climate lab with building blocks to support construction of simple simulation models)
    • Global warming games
  3. Help the journalists & science writers to raise awareness of the issues around climate change for a broader audience.
    • Better public understanding of climate processes
    • Better public understanding of how climate science works
    • Visualizations of complex earth systems
    • connect data generators (eg scientists) with potential users (e.g. bloggers)
  4. Help the policymakers to design, implement and adjust a comprehensive set of policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  5. Help the political activists who put pressure on governments to change their policies, or to get better leaders elected when the current ones don’t act.
    • Social networking tools for activitists
    • Tools for persuasion (e.g. visualizations) and community building (e.g. Essence)
  6. Help individuals and communities to lower their carbon footprints.
  7. Help the engineers who are developing new technologies for renewable energy and energy efficiency systems.
    • green IT
    • Smart energy grids
    • waste reduction
    • renewable energy
    • town planning
    • green buildings/architecture
    • transportation systems (better public transit, electric cars, etc)
    • etc


  1. One of the challenges is understanding the limits of computer models themselves, and validating assumptions.
    For example see the article by Prof. David Rutledge, in which he challenges the assumptions of fossil fuel supplies in the IPCC models (4th assessment) http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2697, see esp Fig 10.

  2. Rose: good point, and important enough to elevate to its own blog post. Coming right up….

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  5. Interesting agenda and the target audience is well thought out. However, it has taken me by surprise that there is no mention of “investment and finance” community the the audience. This includes venture capitalists, private equity, people with loads of cash (HNIs), trading companies, corportaion wanting to invest etc.

    May be Im wrong, but the real problem with climate change is that abrupt changes to new low carbon economy will be very costly provided practical feasible scaleable solutions exist. This is the reason countries like Canada dont want to put any targets on table, US has feeble targets that wont prevent rise to 2 degree, EU can move upto 30% only if other do (classic prisoners dilemma) etc. No one is ready for carbon price of $100 per ton.

    Anyways, private money is already flowing in the sector – albeit slowly. And everything should be done to increase the flow. You need to have someone who will pay the engineers a salary to make a device that sucks CO2 from air, the journalist his plane ticket to cover a conference in maldives, get climate scientists research grants that can accurately forecast impacts so that corporations can start planning for asset investments and , of course, organise free lunches to help politicians raise green money.

    Without education, this wont happen as fast as we want. We cant hope (and wait) that knowledge and social concious will penetrate automatically to private sector. And the trick to educate them is with financial numbers integrated with climate numbers – something that is possible only by innovative use of software.

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