Live From COP 27, Part 2


Another on the spot report from COP 27. Again, the opinions expressed here are solely my own.

The Saudi Green Initiative is housed under two large geodesic domes near COP 27, but is not one of the official conference venues. Its purpose? Elaborately showcasing the environmentally-friendly innovations of companies like Saudi Aramco and SABIC — some of the world’s largest petrochemical firms headquartered in and capitalized by one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters. The people explaining the products being brought to market were all men. Same for the staff at the Saudi Arabia pavilion in the Blue Zone.

Green innovation projects are also on display in the Green Zone space dedicated to Egyptian universities. They are much smaller and obviously receive far less government financial support than their Saudi counterparts. But they are explained to conference attendees, if not headed, by women. Thinking like a comparativist:

The columns could also be labeled as regime type, with monarchy for Saudi Arabia and bureaucratic authoritarianism for Egypt. You get the idea. I’m just wondering if data indicates a relationship between a state’s commitment to green technology and gender parity. One might assume the two are positively correlated (e.g., Germany and Sweden), but maybe in the Middle East it’s an inverse relationship.

While Egypt seems to be doing better than some of its neighbors in how women are treated, I wonder who at the U.N. thought it was a good idea to have COP 27 hosted by a military dictatorship. Egyptian civil society organizations have largely been excluded, and it is simply too dangerous for Egyptian human rights activists to participate. To give a very minor example:

No chickens burger for you

The photo shows an eating establishment that has appeared in the Blue Zone, which is in theory a U.N.-governed space. Note the group seated on the roof deck, consisting of a 60s-ish man surrounded by women half his age. The staircase to seating on top of the shipping container is to the rear. When I tried to ascend these stairs to take in the view from above, I was stopped by a man in skinny jeans and a black t-shirt who said the area was “blocked.” I noticed the attention of a few Mukhabarat (the not-so-secret police) wearing suits and earpieces seated at a nearby ground-level table. I backed off to observe, and saw a few other Mukhabarat milling about. Over the next few minutes, five other people, some of whom were ordinary Egyptians, were prevented from climbing the stairs. My guess is that the man at the table was a government bigwig, and the women he was speaking with were representatives of some kind of business venture.

Last, here is the obligatory Egyptian cat photo:

Live From COP 27

As usual, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

I’m attending the COP 27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh as an observer, courtesy of my university. For the general vibe, read this cheeky article (plus a follow-up!) from The Guardian. In its design and operation, the event models some major international relations and comparative politics concepts.

The Blue Zone, the main conference site, is sprawling and chaotic, yet has only one entrance and one exit where attendees badges are scanned. You’re either in or out. The Blue Zone is dominated by meeting rooms and exhibition spaces for state actors and a few U.N. organizations. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, petroleum exporting rentier states, have the largest and most glitzy exhibits. Egypt, military dictatorship and conference host, ranks third in this respect. The U.S. pavilion is good-sized and neatly organized, but extremely loud, as is typical for Americans. Canada? Friendly and free coffee for passersby. The pavilions of African states are quite welcoming, despite their organizers’ histories of exploitation by foreign powers.

Potemkin coffee kiosk

Power hierarchy is apparent in other ways. One Blue Zone area is the preserve of high-ranking officials who meet behind closed doors after arriving in limousines. Occasionally dignitaries stroll through the mass chaos elsewhere in the Blue Zone, flanked by plainclothes protective teams. My compliments to the bodyguard who expertly guided me into a non-threatening position by gently touching my upper arm with only three fingers.

The Green Zone is a smaller space for Egypt’s government ministries and universities, along with international civil society groups, to showcase their environmental sustainability efforts. It is located directly across a road from the Blue Zone, ostensibly allowing attendees to conveniently pass back and forth. But the Blue Zone’s gate that faces this road is closed for the duration of COP 27 because of “security,” and the promised shuttle bus running between the Blue and Green Zones did not materialize until a few days after the conference had started. The conference venue includes a third building, dedicated to public-private partnerships, that also requires a shuttle or taxi to access because of surrounding walls, despite being only a short distance away as the crow flies. My prior international travel experience in authoritarian states leads me to believe that these impediments to movement and communication are a feature, not a bug.

My final comment, more directly pertinent to the subject of this blog: so far, COP 27 has resembled the typical academic conference at which information is dumped onto a passive audience via speeches and panel presentations. I have not yet encountered any Blue Zone events designed with active learning in mind. This is probably not the most effective strategy for teaching about an existential threat.

Update on CHAMP Forecasting Project

My impressions so far of the political forecasting project (described here, here, and here) that I created for the undergraduate course on the Middle East that I’m teaching this semester:

The quality of student writing on the different elements of CHAMP has improved over the first three iterations of the assignment. Their analyses are more specific and relevant to what they are trying to predict. I’m hoping that this is a sign of students’ increasing interest in the project. Citation of sources remains problematic for some students. No, a string of URLs is not a bibliography.

The quality of no-stakes classroom presentations has similarly improved. After each forecast, one member of each team presents his or her team’s collective conclusions without using any visual aids. The first two rounds of presentations were terrible. The third round was adequate. I’m now wondering, if I use this project in the future, whether I should grade the presentations against a simple rubric and introduce a rule that a different team member presents each round.

As for the forecasts themselves, here are the average probabilities assigned to each event for the three rounds of predictions students in the class have made so far:

Team Champ

As promised, here is the prompt for the collaborative portion of the forecasting project in my upcoming Middle East course. There are two of these team deliverables — a draft report due after students have submitted the first three of their individual CHAMP assignments, and a final version (shown below) due at the end of the semester. In terms of contribution to course grade, the draft and final versions together are worth only a third of what the five individual assignments are worth. Also, a portion of the course grade will come from teammate evaluations.

Your team is interviewing for a job with Eurasia Group. The interview process requires that your team submit a jointly-written report on your team’s Forecasting Project topic using the CHAMP framework:

  • Comparisons
  • Historical Trends
  • Average Opinion
  • Mathematical Models
  • Predictable Biases

Your team’s final report should apply all five components of the CHAMP framework in a forecast that is no more than five pages of double-spaced 11- or 12-point font text. Do not use quotations of sources in the report. Reference source material using footnotes. See the list of syllabus readings for proper bibliographic format. Footnotes can be in 10-point font. 

Only one member of your team needs to submit the document for this assignment.

Your team’s work will be assessed using the rubric below.

Now I just need to create rubrics for the project’s individual and team assignments . . .

Assign Like a CHAMP

As promised in my last post, here is an example of iterating so that students repeatedly practice the same skills.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m putting a forecasting project into my fall semester Middle East course. The project’s constituent assignments will be based on the CHAMP system recommended by people like Phil Tetlock. A brief description of CHAMP is at the end of this Financial Times article by the economist Tim Harford.

My prompt for the first CHAMP assignment reads:

You are interviewing for a job with Eurasia Group. The interview process requires that you submit a forecast on your team’s Forecasting Project topic. The forecast needs to use the CHAMP framework:

  • Comparisons
  • Historical Trends
  • Average Opinion
  • Mathematical Models
  • Predictable Biases

In a one-page, double-spaced, 11- or 12-point font document, answer these questions for the Comparisons portion of your forecast:

What other cases are comparable to this situation?
How do they indicate what will happen this time?

My guiding questions for the other CHAMP assignments are:

Historical Trends

What individuals, groups, and institutions played key roles in similar events in the past?
How are these “power players” likely to influence the current situation?

Average Opinion

What are the experts predicting about this situation?
What is the view that lies in the middle of their assessments? 

Mathematical Models

Are there mathematical models or empirical measures that can be used to gain insight into this situation?
What do these models or measures indicate?

Predictable Biases

How has your thinking been affected by emotion and personal preference?
How have you adjusted your analysis to account for these biases?

I’ll talk about the team-based aspects of this project in a future post.

Can Students Predict the Future?

I like each of my undergraduate courses to have at least one authentic skill-based deliverable; for example, historical timelines or ArcGIS storymaps. I’m teaching the Middle East in the fall semester, and, having recently read books like Superforecasting by Tetlock and Noise by Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein, I hit upon students trying to predict events in the region.

I’ll have students assign percentage probabilities to a list of potential events and give them opportunities to periodically adjust these probabilities. At the end of the semester, students will earn points if the events have happened and lose points if they haven’t, with point amounts weighted against the associated percentages. My formula:

((Sum of the percentage probabilities student chose for each of his or her correct forecasts) – (Sum of the percentage probabilities student chose for each of his or her incorrect forecasts ))*50.

A hypothetical example:

% ProbabilityEventOutcome
100The sun rises in the eastern skyCorrect
30The capital of Turkey changes from Ankara to IstanbulIncorrect
70Barham Sali remains president of IraqCorrect
50Iran fires an ICBM with a nuclear warhead at Saudi ArabiaIncorrect

The points earned by this student would be: ((1.0 + 0.7) – (0.3 + 0.5)) * 50 = 45.

The negative effect of incorrect predictions should prevent students from trying to game the process by blindly assigning 100% probability to every event on the list. But they won’t actually suffer from incorrect predictions, since the scale for the final course grade tops out at 950 and more than 1,000 points will be available from all assignments, quizzes, and exams. If an event on the list happens before the semester ends, I will simply use each student’s most recent forecast to calculate point values.

Since forecasting accuracy improves when estimates are averaged, I will show the class the aggregate results of students’ forecasts each time they are updated. I’m also going to divide the class into teams, with the members each team taking the lead — through additional research and class presentations — on becoming more expert on one topic from the list. Potential events that I might put on the list:

  • The value of the Turkish lira against the U.S. dollar decreases to less than 22:1.
  • In Iran, the Assembly of Experts names a new Supreme Leader.
  • An anti-government protest in Cairo results in at least twenty demonstrators arrested, injured, and/or killed.
  • The president or prime minister of Lebanon is assassinated.
  • Turkey ends its occupation of Syrian territory.

I’m still working out more of the details on this idea, but I think it could be interesting for me and the students.

Comparing American Foreign Policy Simulations

Today we have a guest post by Charity Butcher, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at cbutche2[at]kennesaw[dot]edu.

I am always looking for new simulations – particularly ones that are easy to use and require less preparation. For my American foreign policy course, I usually use my own simulation on Iran-US relations. However, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Model Diplomacy simulations, discussed by others here and here, was an opportunity to try something new.

My simulation presents a crisis in Iran-US relations involving nuclear weapons, state support for terrorism, and/or the rivalry between Iran and Israel. In the simulation, students engage deeply with a topic, engage with a large number of state actors, and must deal with the consequences of their decisions. My ability to introduce problems in real-time creates flexibility and makes the simulation more dynamic for the students. However, my simulation requires a lot of preparation, both for me and my students.

Model Diplomacy, on the other hand, offers professors a menu of topics to choose from, and many of the simulations can be completed in a single class period. The simulations come with outstanding background material, so there is little need for students or the instructor to do additional research. However, Model Diplomacy simulations do not move past a predetermined decision point and there are no consequences to participants’ actions. Students sometimes reach a decision very quickly, which might reduce what they learn from the simulation.

I decided to use both my simulation and Model Diplomacy in the last iteration of the foreign policy course, in an attempt to capitalize on the advantages of both. Two one-day Model Diplomacy simulations served as a starting point for a longer three-day simulation. For this longer simulation, students began with the Model Diplomacy Iran Deal Breach scenario, but were provided with additional stimuli during the simulation and were able to interact with other countries. The results were quite positive, and I will continue to use both the short Model Diplomacy simulations along with a longer more interactive simulation in the course.

Simulating the Syrian Civil War

Today we have a guest post from Guy Zohar, an instructor at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He can be contacted at guyzoharbiu [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Syrian civil war is already one of the bloodiest and most devastating conflicts in the 21st century, and it is far from over. To explore various dimensions of the war, seventy-five people at the recent International Studies Association (ISA) annual convention in Baltimore, Maryland participated in “The Syrian Civil War and the Spread of Terror” simulation.

Participants assumed roles such as Bashar al-Assad, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi and were assigned to teams that represented major actors in the conflict. Team size varied depending on the actor’s complexity and its power status. Each participant was given short and long range goals to accomplish in the face of challenges such as terror attacks. The ultimate long range goal was to agree on a framework for settling the entire conflict. Continue reading “Simulating the Syrian Civil War”

Unconventional Movies As Conventional Pedagogical Tools: The Dark Knight

Gigi GokcekToday we have a guest post from Gigi Gokcek, associate professor of political science at the Dominican University of California. She can be contacted at gigi.gokcek[at]dominican[dot]edu.

Professors have long relied on movies like Dr. Strangelove (1964), Red Dawn (1984), and Thirteen Days (2000) to teach about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War. While the active-learning literature validates the effectiveness of using movies like these, today’s college students may relate better to more contemporary movies. Do unconventional movies, from such franchises as Fast and Furious, Star Trek, DC Comics, and Marvel’s X-Men and Avengers, work just as well? My experience suggests that they do. When combined with activities derived from the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, I find that they are valuable tools for teaching important political science theories and concepts.

Although many students may have seen these movies by the time they enroll in my courses, I often leave this activity until the end of the term so that they have acquired sufficient knowledge of course material. The key to the assignment is that students are not told where the course content is portrayed in the movie. Students have to think more critically while viewing the film, and thereby apply what they have learned to a new setting. They use this worksheet to help make these connections. Continue reading “Unconventional Movies As Conventional Pedagogical Tools: The Dark Knight”

My Test Run of: ISIS Crisis Simulation

A few months ago I downloaded a game simulation from PAXSIMS Rex Brynan…. ISIS Crisis. The download contains the game board and all its pieces which is still under revision and development…but… I decided to give it a go with my summer section of Intro to IR students.

Counters for ISIS Crisis ©
Counters for ISIS Crisis ©

First things first…my students are not gamers and they do not know the conditions on the ground regarding ISIS, Syria, Iraq, etc.. So my purpose in conducting the game was to help them understand the sheer complexity of the situation by making each one of them a player in the system.

The role sheets and directions are pretty good but I STRONGLY recommend that the instructor play through the game once before attempting this in class. Ahem…I did not. ONWARD

Rough Spots

  1. Too many game pieces.. they often got in the way and confused the students. For the simple points I was trying to make, the teeny game pieces could be thinned out or thrown out altogether. Perhaps great for more advanced strategists to make the game more complex, but at the undergraduate civilian level…. not necessary.
  2. I attempted to have students read up and develop a working knowledge of their role before coming to the simulation day. This simply wasn’t enough. (my bad) A much better plan of attack for next time is to have students write a three page personal history in the voice of their role. This way students internalize deeper history in the first person.
  3. Picking methods for game play. The game kit offers several options for turn taking and scoring. Take the simplest one…get a few dice and get on with it! The students got bogged down in more complex systems. Pick the simplest path.

Awesome Spots

  1. By the end of hour 1 of game play it was almost painfully clear to each of the actors in the game that there were no simple answers to “getting rid of ISIS.” Most of this is built into the game through the rule structure which is quite cleverly leveraged to the advantage of ISIS (every time a double is rolled by an actor, ISIS gets to go again…muahahahahaha!…sad but true).
  2. The students were IMMEDIATELY dragged into the game. This, despite the fact that they had only light knowledge of the actual politics going on. (Again, my bad)
  3. The game is definitely in its infancy and will likely evolve to even more robust design. I will absolutely teach with it again. Its core structure seems also to be highly portable to other scenarios which is a triple thumbs up!