Simulating the Challenges of Climate Change Negotiation in the Classroom

It has become commonplace to categorize climate change as a “wicked problem”. It is “wicked” because, in addition to its profound complexity as an atmospheric phenomenon, preventing climate change from causing catastrophic damage will require unprecedented global cooperation.

Sadly, it is also commonplace to feel doubtful that world governments will succeed in this feat of diplomacy and policy. In a recently updated survey of Americans conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, only 6% of respondents agreed that “humans can and will successfully reduce global warming.” Meanwhile, 49% said that humans could “reduce global warming, but it’s unclear at this point whether we will do what is necessary.”

Handouts for each group of delegates lay out historical context and policy positions. Photo by Nathan Jandl.
Handouts for each group of student “delegates” lay out historical and scientific context as well as policy positions.

So, many Americans believe that we have the ability to fix the problem, but most of us don’t know how to come together to fix it. And as writers like Elizabeth Kolbert and George Marshall point out, simply broadcasting facts about climate change is insufficient to spur collective action. In the public sphere, scientific facts are too easily ignored thanks to psychological phenomena like “confirmation biases”—to say nothing of facts’ manipulability on the Internet and in the news media.

All of this suggests that innovative forms of education may be necessary to create a populace that is prepared to address the wicked problem of climate change. Ann Terlaak, who is an associate professor of Management and Human Resources at the Wisconsin School of Business, is in the midst of just such an experiment.

Professor Terlaak teaches a course called “Challenges and Solutions in Business Sustainability,” in which she runs the World Climate Simulation. The simulation is a “simplified international climate change negotiations meeting for large groups,” where Terlaak acts as a “UN leader” and students are divided into governments (USA, China, India, and so forth) and NGOs (like fossil fuel lobbies and environmental nonprofits). Over the course of about three hours, the class tries to come to an agreement on climate change mitigation, then tests the results by using interactive software that allows for real-time modeling of outcomes.

Student delegates begin the negotiation process, with "UN Leader" Professor Ann Terlaak overseeing the action. Photo by Nathan Jandl.
Student delegates begin the negotiation process, with “UN Leader” Professor Ann Terlaak overseeing the action.

The course fits with a larger trend in experiential learning on the UW-Madison campus, but Terlaak is especially inspired by the work of MIT professor John Sterman, who believes that climate change in particular must be taught experientially. Terlaak finds that Sterman’s insights bear out in the classroom.

“Students are listening to what is happening on the world stage and saying, ‘why don’t they get it figured out? What’s so hard about this? Those at the climate change conferences agree on the science, most often, so what’s the issue?’” Terlaak relates. “And I can tell them it’s hard, that there are historical responsibilities for those emissions, and there are developing countries with real economic constraints, and that it’s hard to find an agreement in that setting. And my students all nod their heads, but they don’t really get it.”

Whereas less developed countries get plain pretzels (and some must sit on the floor), rich countries like the United States are given candy bars and normal seating. This reinforces the unequal economic contexts each group must adopt. Photo by Nathan Jandl.
Whereas less developed countries get plain pretzels (and some must sit on the floor), rich countries like the United States are given candy bars and normal seating. This reinforces the unequal economic contexts each group must adopt.

The simulation, however, places climate change negotiation in a whole new light. Initially, excitement suffuses the room as students begin to fully inhabit their roles. Each group must represent policy and economic positions articulated in customized hand-outs, which put real constraints on how far they can negotiate. At the same time, interpersonal dynamics emerge that reflect each group’s distinctive identity. The USA students, as they act out their role, tend to exhibit nonchalance, perhaps a bit of swagger; the EU students try to walk a line between asserting their economic priorities and acting on scientific consensus; the India students gradually exert more agency as they realize their clout in the conversation. This is all by design: “in the instructor manuals,” Terlaak explains, “they’re very clear on the success hinging on you making it as realistic as you can.”

After the teams review their positions and engage in a first round of negotiations, Terlaak (authoritatively playing her role as “UN Leader”) calls the room to order and asks for the terms of the agreement. As each group chimes in, billions of dollars are pledged; deforestation is reduced; afforestation promised. Terlaak inputs the numbers into the software, which spits out results.

And, inevitably, it is a massive disappointment. Despite seemingly aggressive action, global temperatures hardly budge due to feedback loops and the thermal inertia of the oceans, combined with the difficulty of reducing carbon inflows to equal outflows (which is explained as the “bathtub effect.”) Coastlines become submerged as the timeline extends. The software mapping function permits an eerie level of detail as Terlaak zooms in to see which cities will succumb to the rising sea. In a dramatic twist that first elicits laughs but then quickly draws troubled expressions, Terlaak covers the students representing the less developed countries with a blue tarp to represent their disproportionate vulnerability to climate change: literally, they disappear. Yet the software clearly indicates that comparatively rich places—like Florida or the Netherlands—will suffer, too.

Not good enough: an early calculation shows a 3.7 degree increase in global temperatures. Photo by Nathan Jandl.
Not good enough: an early calculation by the interactive software shows a 3.7 degree increase in global temperatures by 2100.

The student “delegates,” at this point, get palpably more serious. Terlaak advises them to return to the negotiating table. In a flurry of conversation, the exercise repeats once or twice more, until a final result is reached. Thanks to the realism of the simulation, however, which requires that each group act with its own interests in mind, students find it very difficult to prevent major climate change impacts.

As participant Ally Burg relates of her simulation experience, “we never reached the 2.5-degree goal” in total temperature reductions, “and that was pretty disheartening.”

A student group relegated to floor seating--and eventually covered by a blue tarp to symbolize their country's flooding due to sea level rise--considers their options. Photo by Nathan Jandl.
A student group relegated to floor seating–and eventually covered by a blue tarp to symbolize their country’s flooding due to sea level rise–considers their options.

This, too, is by design. The simulation seeks to elicit feelings of real concern, so that students can discuss their emotional reactions to the complexities of climate negotiation and, ideally, generate opportunities for hope.

Professor Terlaak admits that she finds this aspect difficult—the realization, on the part of her students, that the system dynamics at play make substantial mitigation nearly impossible to achieve. For this reason, she was initially worried that students would not find the simulation useful. But “again and again,” she says, “I ask, ‘was it valuable, did you take something away, do you think I should do this again next year,’ and they all say, ‘Absolutely.’ It’s the highlight of the class, for some.”

Katie Piel, another student in Terlaak’s class, reveals the kind of insight students gain: “As a ‘delegate’ of the US in the climate simulation … it was very difficult to continually not reduce our emissions, even when all the other countries were begging us to do more. It really opened my eyes to how much power the US has to make a difference in the fight against climate change, and how much more the US could be doing with international mitigation efforts.”

Do such insights constitute “hope”? Perhaps not of the conventional definition—the kind that feels uplifting and freeing—but it seems that students gain a clearer, more motivated vision of where opportunities exist for improvement in our political systems. They improve their negotiation skills and dig into climate science. And, as business students, they glimpse how their professional pursuits might intersect with sustainability and social change. In Terlaak’s words, “If we accept the assumption that businesses more and more are stepping into policy roles and roles that in other countries the government fulfills, the course becomes super relevant.”

As the class nears its conclusion, students are highly active in their negotiations. Photo by Nathan Jandl.
As the class nears its conclusion, students become highly active in their negotiations.

“Social change always requires these decades of activism,” Terlaak continues, “which seems to be useless because nothing ever happens—until there’s this tipping point. So a lot of what I teach in class is about giving students the tools and understanding to actually make change as a professional and to some extent as a private citizen.”

On that basis alone, courses like this should give us reason to hope for a near future in which climate change becomes, perhaps, not quite so wicked a problem.


Text and photos by Nathan Jandl