Reflecting on the “World Climate Simulation”: Extra Credit? Bueller? Bueller?

I am following up on an exercise I introduced a few weeks ago (see this post from Nov 3, 2023). Strangely enough, for the first time ever, it did not go entirely as I thought it would. To remind you, I provide two incentives for the classroom while they try to stop climate warming and get it below a 2-degree temperature increase by the year 2100.

  1. If the whole class manages to get below the desired temperature increase, everybody receives an extra credit point.
  2. The group with the least amount of commitments receives an additional extra credit point.

Based on prior experiences, what usually happens is that students are initially confused by the exercise, the numbers, and the task at hand. Through two rounds of thinking, talking to their teammates, and then later negotiating with the other countries’ team members, they eventually manage to figure out a way to slow down climate warming. Largely, this happens because they realize that if they do not manage to find some compromise and agreement, no one will receive an extra credit point. They eventually accept that not everybody can commit the least, and they are willing to take that hit in exchange for everyone at least receiving one extra credit point on their final grade.

Image: Media for Literacy Blog, Reggie Grant

Not this time. Although after two rounds of negotiations, my students were stating that an agreement had been reached, when the first group provided their new commitments on carbon emission, deforestation, and afforestation they apparently provided not the numbers that had been agreed upon. This in turn prompted ALL the other groups to renege on their climate commitments, and the class did not manage to decrease climate warming below the desired temperature point. And this outcome genuinely surprised me.

Granted, simulations are never guaranteed to provide a desired outcome. I operate in a realm of unpredictable actors (aka my students) who do not live in my head and know what is “best”. I know that when I provide these two types of incentives, I pour fuel in the fire. But I incorporate them to simulate more clearly the need to overcome a collective action problem. In the case of “solving” climate warming, the countries represented harbor historical, economic, and cultural tensions that require taking the high road to address this transnational problem, which will ultimately affect all countries around the world.

I was comforted in the past by the students’ realization that the breaking of the fourth wall in the simulation was necessary (overcoming their obstacles and motivations to receive all the extra credit points) to receive at least some of the carrot that I was dangling in front of them. One extra credit point –in the past – was better than no extra credit point.  This semester, though, that realization never materialized. This is truly strange to me. A debrief after the exercise showed that the students did not consider the fact that they would not get any extra credit at all. They were largely motivated by the second additional extra credit point, without realizing that they came together. There was just a lot of frustration going around on how the first team reneged on the initial agreement. It surely was an interesting lesson in the trust component in international agreements.

Although I want to continue this exercise next semester, I wonder if this was a fluke, a fault in the set-up, or a changing understanding of what it means to cooperate transnationally.

Using the “World Climate Simulation” in Class

When teaching International Relations, the issue of climate change is unavoidable. I found myself a couple of semesters ago in a position where I got frustrated about my stale lecture on this issue. Climate change is man-made, the world is one fire, and our students are experiencing it daily. How can I add to this in class without just shouting “look at the data”?

The internet came to the rescue: I found the “World Climate Simulation”, a role-playing game from Climate Interactive (MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative; UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative). I will forego, explaining the simulation in detail, because the simulation’s website is exhaustive enough, and I would end up simply copying what they already explain. Instead, I will briefly go through some key points and considerations that I have, after conducting the simulation now three times in different learning environments.

C-Roads Interactive Climate Change Simulation Dashboard

  1. The purpose of the simulation is that country and region representatives (i.e., the United States or Other Developing Nations) come to an agreement to lower and slow down the warming of the globe. The simulation illustrates that if all countries around the world won’t change any of their behavior by 2100, the global temperature will increase by 3.3 C, which will have detrimental and irreversible effects on human existence and the global biodiversity. Negotiations and discussions between the global players aim to bring the rate to below 2 C.
    1. The simulation provides character sheets for each country/region. They are adaptable to class size (I use six; but that is not necessary).Students must make decisions on when their country/region will reach peak emission rates, when/if they will reduce emission levels, by how much, and whether they will support afforestation and prevent deforestation (and at what rate).
    1. The simulation also provides great slides that allow you, as the educator, to set the scene.
  2. I pair the simulation with two readings/media:
    1. Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”An episode of the New York Times Daily Podcast (“Who pays the bill for climate change?”, 2022).
    1. With both of these, students are exposed to both the ideas of free riding, collective action, and inherent conflicts regarding the responsibility to tackle climate change.
      1. Based on these readings, I add two specific incentives for the students throughout the simulation:
        1. If they can change the trajectory of climate warming by 2100 to below 2 C, the entire class gets 1 Extra Credit Point.
        1. The group that commits the least will get an additional Extra Credit Point.
  3. Depending on how long your class sessions are, you can easily adapt and change the simulation to your needs.
    1. My broad structure is:
      1. I email character sheets out prior to meeting, urging them not to share their sheets with others.Class begins with a first initial meeting within the groups to establish who they are, what their country is doing, and what is feasible in terms of their own commitments to slow down climate change.As a group we collect in the interactive dashboard (see picture above) all of our countries/regions initial commitments, assessing by how much/if at all we were able to change the trajectory of climate warming.Then, the student groups briefly strategize, and then they disperse to speak to other groups to move the needle in any direction.
        1. Depending on how much time you have, you can do multiple negotiation rounds.
        After the negotiations, we collect again in the dashboard feasible commitments, and evaluate where we are.
      1. We debrief. This includes asking questions about how they felt getting the initial tasks, how the negotiations went, and discussing why it is difficult to make any global agreements on climate change.
  4. Thoughts on how the simulations have gone so far:
    1. The more time you can dedicate to it the better. I have played around with different structures anywhere between 60 minutes to 2 hours, and obviously, the longer session had better discussions/negotiations.
    1. In most cases, students will find that balancing national interests vs. global commitments is quite difficult. Countries tend to be selfish, and no one wants to make the biggest contributions right away. The debrief is key here, because it allows you to combine the students’ experiences with the readings and illustrate the thinking/obstacles that exist in global politics to overcome transnational problems.
    1. Take the time to walk around while the students are negotiating. They take it seriously, and the things they say to one another are both profound and amusing at times!