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Communications Booster: Curbing Emissions

Nicole Colston, Oklahoma State University
Charlie Cottingham, Frederick Community College (MD)
Susan Spierre, Arizona State University
Paul Ruscher, Florida State University

This page builds on the CLEAN reviewed activity Simulation of International Negotiations to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions by David Hastings, Eckerd College. It incorporates suggested communications strategies for teaching challenging aspects of climate science.

These materials were created by faculty as part of the CLEAN Climate Communications Workshop, held in April, 2012 and are not yet part of the CLEAN collection of reviewed resources. This activity is part of the community collection of teaching materials on climate and energy topics.

Original Activity from the CLEAN Reviewed Collection

Learning Goals

Key Learning Outcomes

  • To examine possible policy solutions to mitigate climate change.
  • To determine how much reduction in greenhouse gases is feasible.
  • To determine which policy actions will result in a large (and small) reductions in greenhouse gases.
  • To determine the complexity and difficulty of climate change negotiations.
  • (added) To show the varying perspectives and interests represented from different countries in climate negotiations.
Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
  • Critical evaluation of policy alternatives to climate change—which ones are workable, which ones are "best", which ones are acceptable to the international community?
  • Critical thinking skills; synthesis of different ideas to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Other skills goals for this activity
  • Collaborating with other students.
  • Learning negotiating skills—how to most effectively accommodate interests which are different from the ones you represent?
  • Oral presentation of arguments.
  • (added) Demonstrate ethical reasoning skills (putting needs of group above individual interests).

Climate Literacy Context

  • Allows students to experience the type of negotiations that can lead to action in reducing climate change impacts.
  • These negotiations presume that human activities are impacting the climate and that climate change will have consequences for the Earth system and human lives.
  • Teaches students about the varying interests and perspectives among countries, and how the impacts of climate change and mitigation policies might affect countries differently.
  • The independent research that the students do on their country of choice will clarify the relationship between a country's energy demand, source of energy, and its contribution to global climate impacts.
  • The human response is a huge component of how the climate system will change in the future. Students need to know what types of mitigation options are available and which strategy might have the best potential to reduce emissions internationally. This provides students with knowledge about possible solutions, not just about the problem itself.
  • The activity shows students that international climate talks are not focused on whether or not climate change is happening, but that political leaders have accepted the reality of climate change, and are moving on to how to solve the problem.
  • Furthermore, knowing that countries have varying interests on how to address the problem is key to understanding the complexity of international negotiations.

Instructional Strategies

Recommended instructional strategies for teaching with this activity:
  • Allow ample of time for small group discussion and consensus-building are essential; role-playing to represent various stakeholders.
  • Reflect on what happened during negotiations and talking about why people acted or responded in a certain way.

Misconceptions and Potential Pitfalls

This activity can help to dislodge the following misconceptions:

  • Nothing we do as a civilization can do will have any impact on reducing emissions.
  • Reductions of emissions in one nation are just likely to be counteracted by increasing emissions elsewhere.
  • Consensus-building is just a way to water things down so that nothing really gets done.
  • My choices and behaviors have little or no effect on others
Potential obstacles in scientific understanding:
  • There are a variety of methods to estimate carbon footprints of individuals, families, communities, and nations, with lots of inherent uncertainty.
  • Different scales for addressing climate change
Suggestions for guiding students through the more difficult areas:
  • Point out the most common ways to estimate carbon footprints and be clear about their drawbacks. Transparency in calculations is key.
  • Show examples of mitigation efforts occurring at each scale or have students research the mitigation efforts occurring in each country that they represent.

Supplemental Materials

I suggest playing The Externalities Game (or TEG for short) to supplement this activity. It may work well as a warm-up to the climate negotiation simulation discussed above.

TEG is a game designed by my advisors and I at ASU (and funded by NSF) to teach students about environmental externalities. It allows students to experience the tension between individual interests and group benefit, the key to the climate change problem (and other collective action problems). Before playing the game, students are primed through some introductory reading assignments Intro to Game Theory, Collective Action, CLimate Change (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 526kB Apr9 12) and are given the game-rules TEG Rules (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB Apr9 12) and the 'game calculator' TEG Game Calculator (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 17kB Apr9 12) to experiment with before class time. A summary lecture can also be given prior to game-play.

The game goes like this: Students are assigned one of three production roles. Each role has a different linear production function that allows players to earn points. The Luxury players (about 10% of students in the class) earn the most points for each unit of production, Intermediate players (about 20-30% of players in class) earn a medium number of points for each unit produced and the Subsistence players (about 50-60% of students in class) earn the smallest number of points for each unit produced. The more they produce, the more points they earn. But, the tension is that production results in shared externalities. So players earn individual points for production but also produce externality points that are shared by all the players. The grades of each player are calculated by taking the individual production points minus the shared externality points.




Each student decides how many units they want to produce, the numbers are entered into the game calculator (which is a simple worksheet in excel) and each student gets a grade. Decisions are made by the players are confidential, so students can lie and cheat and make a decision that will benefit them but hurt the group.

The students can strategize and cooperate so that everyone can earn an A but if only a few students act independently and try to earn themselves a very high grade, the entire system can collapse and most players will earn very poor grades, and a few selfish players will earn very high grades. After the resulting grades are revealed to the class, the students then have an opportunity to share points. Students will low grades can plea to others with high grades for points. At the end of the sharing round, the students end up with a final grade that we incorporate into our class grading scheme. It usually ends up being a quiz grade, nothing that will really affect their overall grades that much but enough to make students be invested in the game outcome.


Most of the learning and the climate policy lessons occur in the reflection stage, during class discussions about what happened during game-play. The instructor can make the association between the different player roles and different countries: The luxury players represent developed countries, the intermediate players are the rapidly developing countries and the subsistence are the slowly developing countries. There are plenty of ways to talk about how the game simulates international climate negotiations because each player has their own interests in the game that comes at the expense of others. The students see the difficulty of creating an international mitigation policy. I like to discuss how in real negotiations, the transaction costs in cooperation and collective action are much higher, since political leaders speak different languages, represent competing economic and cultural interests, and have different ideas about the proper way forward. Sometimes we assign writing assignments that allow students to reflect on their game-play experience and to make these connections between the game and real climate negotiations.


Associated CLEAN Resources

Stabilization Wedges Game

World Climate (very similar activity but includes the use of computer models)

Climate Momentum Simulation

C-Learn Climate Simulation