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Renegotiating Kyoto: a computer-aided role play.


The outline of a computer-aided role playing exercise is discussed. The exercise is developed around an international climate change treaty, and serves as the climax in a course on environmental science and policy. Benefits of the exercise include an improved understanding of the scale and implementability of environmental interventions, enhanced understanding of conflicting perspectives, and a willingness to test novel ideas in search of win-win scenarios. The methodology discussed is widely applicable.

I. Introduction

In an effort to enhance the integrative experiences for students in Drake's Environmental Science and Policy Program, over the past four years I have taught a course on Global Climate Change (GCC). The course is directed at upper-level majors and honors students, although it often attracts a significant fraction of introductory-level students in unrelated disciplines, leading to a wide range of interests and abilities.

The course is designed as a semester-long case study on how to approach an environmental question, organized around the guiding principle that nearly all such issues involve complex interactions between science and policy. Hence, we must first delve into the science to get a firm understanding of the causes of the problem, the possible effects, the parameters over which humans have control, uncertainties, and risks of intervention or non-intervention. However, options are often limited by economic concerns and political realities, which must be understood both quantitatively and in terms of competing interest groups and stakeholder perspectives. This range of topics can leave students feeling overwhelmed and with little ability to place various aspects of the issue into perspective relative to the overall system of study.

I require a final paper where students are asked to demonstrate how much (if any) greenhouse gas (GHG) production needs to be curtailed in order to avoid serious damage (either in a cost-benefit or Precautionary Principle framework), and then to propose a politically and economically implementable strategy that will result in the necessary reductions. The first year that I taught this course I found that strategies were generally naive, either focusing on a relatively small-scale solution that would not have the necessary impact, or proposing sweeping societal changes without much understanding of how these might be implemented.

This result demonstrated to me that students needed an integrative experience where they would be able to gain an understanding of the scale of the task, test the effects of their ideas, appreciate the likely costs of various implementation strategies, and interact with a diverse range of actors under conflicting motivational constraints, in order to contextualize their understanding within a conceptual framework and test their preconceptions (see NRC, 1999, chapter 2). There is a significant literature on the benefits of active and problem-based learning, including the promotion of occupation preparedness, information retention, higher-order learning, and cognitive complexity (Knowlton, 2003, Magolda and King, 2004). In their report "Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College", the American Association of Colleges and Universities (2002) advocates for the inclusion of problem-based learning and integrative exercises within the curriculum as methods for the creation of intentional, life-long learners.

With this in mind, I developed a role-playing exercise based upon the negotiation of an international treaty to limit GHGs. My intent was to enhance students' understanding of scale, political and economic parameters, and the positions of different actors, as well as to encourage them to develop novel mitigation strategies based on their understanding of the issues presented. I chose to create a game with clear but complex (and sometimes conflicting) victory conditions established at the outset of the exercise, yet where students did not feel limited by artificial constraints that the demands of playability often impose. Many successful role-playing games attempt to steer students toward a specified solution (see, for example, Denby, 2000), but I wanted to avoid this result as I feel it promotes frustration among the game's pre-determined "losers". With these goals, I believe that I have developed an enjoyable and educational exercise with several novel innovations that will be discussed below.

II. The Game

The setting of the game is an international climate negotiation where players will develop the framework for limiting GHG emissions. We assume that the Kyoto process has been strategically limited by the failure to gain reductions from such important players as the US and the developing world. The nations of the world have thus decided to start from scratch to see if they can develop a new agreement. The nations are not alone; important interest groups are attending the meeting as well, and they will attempt to influence political leaders and public opinion in order to ensure that any final treaty is beneficial--or at least not harmful--to their long-term goals. At the end of the allotted period (three classes of 75 minutes each), one or several treaties will be presented, ratified by some subset of the nations. Interest groups can officially oppose or endorse the treaty, affecting the governments signatories.

I have created 15 roles, which is a typical enrollment for this course, and it is easy to double students up in key roles when necessary. Interest groups are named after Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) of prominence in the United States, as this allows students to research their organizations and add realism to their actions. I have attempted to choose a range of groups from across the spectrum, but tying an NGO to an artificial role obviously results in a misrepresentation of their real-world goals or tactics in some cases (this is also the case for nation-roles). In the end, I decided that the benefits of working with actual groups in terms of realism, learning, and fun outweighed this drawback. I have used nine countries or country groups: the Association of Small Island Nations (AOSIS), Brazil, China, France, Germany, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These nations make up the bulk of global greenhouse emissions, and represent a diversity of perspectives on the climate issue. In many cases (e.g. Brazil), the individual country's emissions are small, but for the exercise they represent a significant bloc of roughly like-minded emitters. The interest groups represented are: the Business Roundtable (BRT), the Farm Bureau (Farm), Greenpeace, Resources for the Future (RFF), the World Coal Institute (Coal), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

All players are given a list of goals and associated point values. For a nation, typical goals generally include: a decrease in global GHG emissions, avoiding GDP loss, obtaining support for their position from domestically powerful interest groups, obtaining important provisions on any treaty that they agree to, and so on. Developing countries can offset hardship by obtaining development aid from industrialized countries, which the latter might use as an inducement to pledge to emission cuts. Interest groups have treaty-specific goals, such as derailing any treaty (Coal), incorporating flexible trading mechanisms into any treaty (BRT), or pushing for the strongest cuts possible (Greenpeace). In addition, many have goals that are fairly specific to their interest, such as Farm wanting to avoid methane caps and to include credits for agricultural sinks. To encourage country/interest group interaction, most countries can give grants to interest groups if they choose, and some interest groups can give special bonuses to individual countries. For example, BRT can certify countries as "Business Friendly", while WWF can choose to site major projects in specific countries, improving public image and tourism.

At the same time, there are some "secret" levers or bargaining tools that various players have. Greenpeace can launch surprise protests against other players that it sees as impeding the process. The number of protests is limited, and their effect decreases each time (due to desensitization), but players have no sense of when another Greenpeace protest will occur. AOSIS can announce twice that a small, low-lying island has instituted an evacuation plan, as did Tuvalu in 2001. This has negative PR impacts in many countries, depending upon whether AOSIS claims they have been aiding or acting against treaty prospects. Coal can give secret funding to political candidates in some countries. What these people do not know is that if Coal chooses to leak the donations to the press, there will be a public outcry that the governments are beholden to "special interests". Thus, the threat of a leak after a nation has accepted money can be a powerful incentive to heed Coal's needs. Obviously, many of these situations are contrived, and an unfair representation of how the group works. However, in general students appear to understand that these are merely in-game tactics, and the announcements significantly increase both the drama and the fun of the game.

On average, players have about eight independent goals, plus secret conditions that may affect them. Complete descriptions and full goal sheets can be found in Microsoft Word format at

III Role of Computer Spreadsheet

Quantification of economic/emission results is important in order to determine how the results impact various actors, and what, overall, was accomplished. For example, the first time I ran the exercise (without a spreadsheet), the class agreed to what it felt was an extremely significant overall cut. In fact, the Greenpeace player expressed optimism about winning the game. As it turned out, because trading was unrestricted and cuts were related to 1990 levels, the big winner was Russia, with its large amounts of "hot air" (GHG credits resulting from the collapse of communism in the early 90s), and actual global reductions were minor. Generally, as evidenced by their papers, students do not have an intuitive feel for which changes are significant, and which are not. They typically spend a lot of time discussing things like exactly what fraction emissions should be reduced below either a given target year or baseline level, but much less time determining which target year to select. With 1-2% growth expected for most countries between 2000 and 2010, this difference can swamp other considerations. When I ran the exercise in 2004, countries had agreed to emissions cuts of roughly 10% below 2000 levels. At the very last moment, China got cold feet and asked for the target year to be changed to 2010. This change made for a huge difference in the actual amount of reductions, changing the situation from an easy victory for AOSIS and Greenpeace and giving it instead to the more moderate players of Japan and Brazil. I was surprised by how little discussion this change met with when it was proposed.

The first year that I ran the simulation, I simply provided students with equations for how to calculate GHG reductions and GDP changes. GDP changes are taken from the IPCC TAR (Metz, et al., 2001), and based upon the mean value of studies cited in Table TS.5. The authors provide estimates for the economic effects of emissions trading under various scenarios, allowing for an easy way to incorporate the benefits of market-based solutions. I assumed an exponential relationship between the severity of the cut and the impact on GDP (strongly increasing marginal costs), and adding this term greatly reduced student willingness to calculate the effects of their actions.

In part because of this, I introduced a multi-page Excel spreadsheet (downloadable from the website) that allows for the calculation of scores under many different scenarios. This both simplifies score calculation, and allows students to test the benefits of multiple options before coming up with a bargaining strategy. It also makes record-keeping far more efficient and less error-prone. Finally, the ease with which alternative scenarios can be explored with this spreadsheet appears to encourage students to consider alternative mechanisms and leads to a greater appreciation of the multiple options for compromise. I will say more on this topic in the next section.

IV. Innovation

The first time I ran the simulation, students assessed it as an overall success. On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being "completely agree", and 5 being "completely disagree"), the average response for "I learned a lot in this exercise that I had not understood before" was 1.75, and "The simulation was fun" was 1.58. Students rated "I feel that I now have a better understanding for the issues and conflicts involved in international climate negotiations" a 1.33, and "I feel that I now have a better understanding for the positions taken by various countries or interest groups that I disagree with than I did before the exercise" a 1.75. There were no areas where students reported net displeasure, according to this survey, although they were ambivalent (3.0) toward "I felt that I understood the formulas used". Comments generally indicated that students enjoyed the interaction and competing interests, although they found the game confusing at first.

However, I found the outcome slightly disappointing, because I had tried to develop a game where students would need to come up with innovative ideas that were outside of the obvious possibilities. Instead, the final solution was essentially a "weak Kyoto" where countries cut a given amount with respect to 1990 levels and either signed on or did not. The question "I felt that there was sufficient room within the rules to come up with creative solutions to the problems we were discussing" received a 2.83--the second lowest score of the 14 questions asked. In reorganizing the game for its second run, I attempted to address this issue. The first thing that I did was introduce the spreadsheet. This allowed students to get used to the idea that they could test scenarios easily. As players gain experience and understanding of the parameters through fast repetition and feedback, they gain confidence in expanding the realm of inquiry. Second, I added the role of RFF. As a think-tank, RFF's main goal is to develop good policy and promote its implementation. In the game, this is measured by the global cost of the treaty versus the "baseline" cost of a treaty that cut the same amount of GHGs, but did not include innovative solutions. If RFF can come up with solutions that save players money, and get them incorporated into the final treaty, then it can reap significant gains.

This aspect requires work on the part of the game master, who has to adapt the spreadsheet to the solutions proposed by RFF, and often has to make quick estimates of the efficacy of these solutions. This is alleviated somewhat but not entirely by requiring RFF to provide documentation of how the change is likely to affect economies and emissions. The key here is a willingness to make a back-of-the-envelope estimate of the effect, support it with an explanation that students consider convincing, and move on.

Having a player whose goal is simply to be "innovative" was a great improvement over the first iteration. After this change, nearly all students agreed that there was room for innovation, and the score on this question dropped almost a full point to 1.93. In fact, this was the only significant change between years (p=0.1), although nearly significant changes (p=0.2) on the questions "I learned a lot ..." (1.75 to 1.3) and "In retrospect, I felt that my side had a chance to do well" (2.8 to 2.2) indicated that changes were, if anything, improvements.

Finally, this experience appears to have addressed the problems that I identified in the introduction, both according to self-reports and from qualitative assessments of student papers. Seven of fifteen papers explicitly mentioned the exercise, indicating that it played a part in their processing of the information and thinking about climate policy parameters. More importantly, the appropriateness of suggested solutions to the scale of the problem, as well as their feasibility, has improved every year.

V. Conclusion

Adding a role-playing exercise to this course on global climate change enhanced student understanding of 1) the scale of problems and appropriate solutions, 2) political conflicts and parameters around this issue, 3) reasons for different perspectives. While such a game can certainly be accomplished without computer assistance, the benefits of adding a numerical spreadsheet to allow for scenario testing and easy calculation of outcomes were large and, it seems, entirely positive.

Computer-aided role-playing along the outlines given here can easily apply widely beyond the realm of environmental science. Any field which involves public policy issues or negotiation can benefit from exercises utilizing this methodology, as long as issues can be found which are quantifiable, involve multiple possible solutions, and for which different actors perceive different optimal outcomes. Indeed, role-playing is an important feature used by many business and public policy schools today (for example, Barnes, 1994). What spreadsheet modeling can add to these exercises is a more realistic and multidimensional complexity in the solution space, while retaining the benefits of quantification and at the same time allowing for ease of development by faculty (compared to specialized software, for example). The keys to success are: well-developed roles with clear goals and incentives, initial planning of the spreadsheet model, and a willingness on the part of the instructor to use approximate functional forms and parameter estimates in order to update the results based upon student innovation.

VI. References

AAC&U, (2002), Greater Expectations: A New Vision of Learning as a Nation Goes to College (Washington, DC).

Barnes, L.B., Christensen, C.R., Hansen, A.J. (1994) Teaching and the Case Method, 3rd ed. (Harvard Business School Press, Boston).

Denby, D. (2000), Evaluation of "Reacting to the Past", Submitted to FIPSE, U.S. Department of Education, May 15.

Knowlton, D.S. (2003) Preparing Students for Educated Living: Virtues of Problem-Based Learning Across the Higher Education Curriculum, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 95.

NRC, (1999), How People Learn, Donovan, S., Bransford, J.D., Pellegrino, J.W., eds., (National Academy Press, Washington, DC).

Magolda, M.B., King, P.M., (2004), Learning Partnerships, Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-Authorship (Stylus, Sterling, VA).

Metz, B., Ogunlade, D., Swart, D., Pan, J. (2001) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Third Assessment Report. (Cambridge University Press, New York) p. 57.

David Courard-Hauri, Drake University

David Courard-Hauri, PhD, is an assistant professor of environmental science and policy.
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Author:Courard-Hauri, David
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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