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The Climate Change Experiment

March 28, 2016

After reading the extra credit dilemma that went viral online, I decided to try it on my class of 35 Geography students to teach the topic of climate change.

climate change rules

The results: A third of the class voted for 6 points in Round 1. Half the class voted for 6 points in Round 2. Unfortunately for the students, none of these points were real.

More importantly, I wanted them to understand that this experiment is a simplistic reflection of actual climate change negotiations. If 35 students find it difficult to reach an agreement so that everyone benefits, let alone 197 nations.

In Round 1, some students voted according to their interests while others sacrificed. Since students had their eyes closed, no one could point fingers at anyone else. This is just like how some countries are more willing to make compromises than others. Yet, it is difficult to put the blame on a few countries because emissions reporting till date is not even standardised.

In Round 2, while most students continued to vote in their interests, a few others switched to vote for 6 points after they saw that the outcome would remain unchanged regardless of their vote. This result came as a surprise to me because I thought that since students could now identify the selfish individuals, peer pressure would help the class reach a unanimous decision.


In actuality, we would expect that greater transparency in negotiations would lead to a more favourable outcome. But transparency can be a double-edged sword as well. If each country openly displays their deck of cards, ideally, all countries may try to help one another overcome their weaknesses and ride on their strengths. However, since each country’s vulnerabilities are exposed, most countries may choose not to cooperate to protect their national interest.

The fact is that everyone knows cooperation would lead to the best possible outcome for everyone. If the students understand that concept, so would national representatives. Yet, things are never that simple because the stakes for each student and each country is different. An additional 6 marks to one student could mean the difference between being promoted or being retained, while to another student, it could just mean gaining more bragging rights. Similarly, climate change to one country could mean the difference between widespread famine and food security, while to another country, it could just mean paying more for an alternative food source.

Concepts like transparency, national interest and stake are not explicitly spelt out in the syllabus and may be too abstract for students to grasp. Nonetheless, in my perspective, climate change education entails going beyond the textbook to teach students to appreciate the intricacies of the climate change debate. This is so that they may develop a more critical mind and have a better understanding of current affairs.

To educators out there, do not underestimate what pops up on your newsfeed. You just may be able to turn the littlest things into the most valuable lessons.

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