The Williams Wedge Project

Williams College aims to reduce its carbon emissions by 35% below 1990 levels by 2020. With this deadline quickly approaching, the Center for Environmental Studies launched the Williams Wedge project to investigate possibilities for achieving this goal.

To complete this project, a group of professors worked with students and administrators to instigate and nurture a campus-wide conversation about what the college should do to reduce its emissions and address climate change. The project was inspired by Princeton’s stabilization wedge game (CITE), created in the early 2000s as a way to map possible emissions reductions strategies on a global scale. Our game, like Princeton’s, allows the user to choose from various “wedges,” where each wedge is an emissions reduction option. The user combines these wedges to reach a set emissions reduction goal.

To create this game, professors including Sarah Jacobson, Sarah Gardner, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Ralph Bradburd, teamed up with student research assistants, Amy Johns and Zilkha Center staff, and programmers in a collaborative, multi-step process. Students worked with Proffesor Jacobson during the summer of 2016 to collect data about the regarding several possible wedges and find out how much these might reduce the college’s total emissions. Dandelion Technologies was then hired to consolidate this data into an interactive game that community members could use to brainstorm strategies for meeting the goal, and thus, the Williams Wedge was born.

Over the course of the 2016-17 academic year, the Wedge team used the Wedge software to generate conversation about what the Williams community is or is not willing to give up to fight climate change. During Winter Study, Prof. Jacobson led a course that used the Williams Wedge as a jumping off point to discuss broader climate change issues. During the course, students not only learned from the Williams Wedge but also added their voices to the creative process, collaborating with Prof. Jacobson to improve the software and plan events. Then, in the spring, the team unveiled the Wedge in two small workshops: one with Prof. Gardner’s senior seminar students, and another at a Log Lunch. At these events, participants used the Williams Wedge software to envision their plans for the college’s future. Different participants provided valuable feedback that reflected their unique concerns: for example, some students were concerned with the ethics around offsets or curious about the role of divestment in the college’s commitments to fighting climate change; whereas some professors were more concerned about whether they could continue producing outstanding research or travelling to conferences while still reducing their emissions.

The Williams Wedge project culminated in April with an all-campus workshop intended to give a broader swath of the community a forum to talk about the college’s climate future. This workshop gave participants ample time to consider their options and craft thoughtful wedge diagrams. Participants found that they had to make tough choices to achieve the college’s goals–options like reducing the number of singles on campus or cutting down on travel were particularly heart-wrenching. Some attendees felt discouraged because many very difficult changes only made tiny wedges, that is, tiny differences in the college’s total emissions. But participants were also empowered by the activity because it revealed concrete paths to achieving significant reductions in emissions.

The Williams Wedge generated valuable discussion on campus about what concrete steps we can take to fight climate change, and helped the Williams community examine our values to create feasible emissions reduction strategies. As we approach the end of the decade, the college must take these lessons to heart by mindfully considering the choices it makes in light of our responsibility to the environment.

The Williams Wedge simulation can be found here: