Mock United Nations Climate Negotiations Exercise

Shangrila Joshi, Ph.D., Member of the Faculty, The Evergreen State College
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Initial Publication Date: September 10, 2017 | Reviewed: November 25, 2019


In this exercise students are assigned roles representing different countries participating in the annual United Nations climate talks. Students research the positions of their assigned country in order to best represent it during negotiations. While the mock negotiations could focus on a whole host of specific issues, I have used it successfully to debate the particular question of whether and to what extent the notion of historical responsibility – which translates to notions of climate debt or reparations – should inform a just climate agreement. Students will have read scholarly and policy articles debating these issues prior to the exercise.

I have used versions of this exercise that are more structured, and modeled after the ways deliberations unfold during plenaries at the Council of Parties (COPs). The version that follows is somewhat unstructured, and designed to facilitate debate, discussion and engagement with the core ideas, rather than to simply accurately emulate a plenary or negotiation session.

This exercise is modeled in part after a particular plenary session at the COP-15 in Copenhagen, where Tuvalu's proposal of amending the Kyoto Protocol's categories of Annex I/non-Annex I was being debated. The issue being debated here was whether the binary classification (based on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities that implicitly acknowledges historical responsibility) was meaningful in light of impending threats that harm the most vulnerable.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Learning objectives for the exercise include empathy with other countries' circumstances and perspectives; and critical thinking ability pertaining to the notions of historical responsibility and climate debt, including recognition of the significance of this approach for many countries in the Global South, as well as the limits of the North-South binary classification, especially in light of the emergence of new spatial categories and new alliances, and the limits of a state-centric approach to determining a fair burden-sharing agreement on climate change.

Context for Use

I have used this activity in upper level undergraduate as well as graduate classes. In each case, the course was titled Climate Justice, and it was a 4-credit offering. In each class, approximately 10-15 students were enrolled.

The activity took 2-3 hours of class time, and is anticipated to take an additional 4-5 hours of preparation time including time to conduct research and to draft a position statement. In the graduate course, the mock negotiations exercise was followed by a second round of negotiations where civil society had a place at the bargaining table in order to complicate the state-centric nature of international climate negotiations. In each course, students completed two written assignments: one in preparation for the exercise, and afterward, another essay responding to prompts based on the exercise.

The exercise works best if students have already had an introduction to the world of global environmental politics and global climate politics more specifically. It also works best if students have engaged in debate and discussion over various theories and perspectives on what constitutes a fair burden-sharing agreement for mitigating climate change, including specifically articles debating the 'historical responsibility' approach.

Description and Teaching Materials

The following version was last used in "Climate Justice," an elective in the Masters of Environmental Studies program at The Evergreen State College in Spring 2015. (see attached syllabus)


This assignment entails preparation for mock negotiations for the 21st session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-21) scheduled for November 30 to December 11, 2015 in Paris, France. Mock negotiations will take place among 15 countries during class on April 13, 2015.

The current international agreement on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, was in recent years extended to 2020. According to this agreement, Annex I countries (Global North) are assigned binding mitigation targets of various amounts. Non-Annex I (Global South) countries have no such targets but are encouraged to take non-binding nationally appropriate mitigative actions. In recent years, the Kyoto Protocol was extended after much negotiation, with the agreement that a successor to the Kyoto Protocol will be created in 2015 for the post-2020 period. This new treaty will include a burden-sharing arrangement for climate mitigation that seeks to assign more mitigation responsibility to the non-Annex I group.

This mock negotiation will focus on the subject of mitigation commitments in this new post-Kyoto era. Presumably, different countries will have different positions on this matter. Each student in class is assigned to one of the following 15 countries. Imagine you are the key negotiator for your assigned country. Your task is to represent this country at the climate negotiations and defend its interests – broadly defined – to the best of your ability.

Canada China
Qatar Tanzania
The Maldives

To perform this task well, you should conduct research on your country, including relevant information related to climate change impacts, official climate positions in recent years, relevant media coverage, and any other relevant policy documents from government or non-profit organizations, to the extent that any of this information is available online and through the library. You may also draw from your readings when possible to help strengthen your position. The UNFCCC website is a good resource for preliminary research on the climate negotiations framework:

You should come to class on April 13, 2015 with a clearly articulated country position on the subject of what a post-Kyoto burden-sharing agreement should look like, particularly concerning the appropriate roles / responsibilities of: your own country, Annex I countries, and emerging economies within the non-Annex I group. I will start the session by inviting a spokesperson for each country to give a 2-minute statement of their country position. Following statements from each spokesperson, caucus group discussion among coalitions will be entertained before all countries attempt to come to an agreement.


Following the mock negotiations exercise, each student should submit a write-up of their experience with this exercise. This report should include:
1. A summary of the country's original negotiating positions on the question of the North's historical responsibility.
2. Perspectives on the negotiations and plenary sessions (to what extent negotiator's interests / positions were addressed or not addressed).
3. View of the conclusion of the plenary sessions (whether consensus was achieved or not) and to what degree you, as the negotiator for your country, support the conclusion.
4. A final paragraph describing the experience of preparing for and participating in the mock negotiations exercise and what you learned from it.

In preparation for Round 2 of the mock negotiations, students wrote a response to the following prompt:

Imagine you are the director of a non-profit organization that advocates for climate justice. During a COP plenary session that is discussing the fate of the Kyoto Protocol and related issues, you have the opportunity to represent the civil society group. Construct a new position statement that: a. Critically examines the position(s) you took on behalf of your country in preparation for or during the negotiations, from the point of view of this organization's philosophy, and b. Makes policy recommendations to the UN that would support its climate justice vision, and provides a compelling argument for said policy recommendation(s).

Climate Justice Spring 2015 Syllabus (Microsoft Word 59kB Jul16 17)

Teaching Notes and Tips

In leading this exercise, I have found that it's best not to focus too much on strictly emulating the pattern of a plenary session at the COP; rather, I use the exercise to let students role-play representation of countries in diverse circumstances.

The number of countries chosen can be flexible, based on the number of students present in class, such that students can individually represent a country or pairs or bigger groups of students could be assigned a country, as needed. In any case, the selection of individual countries should be made strategically such that a wide representation of positions, and the creation of meaningful caucus groups in the exercise is possible.

It is important or useful to constrain students to the roles they are assigned. If not, the traditionally obstructionist countries such as the US are not represented accurately in the mock exercise, since students representing such countries tend to mock the country they are representing. This makes for ineffective negotiation dynamics, and makes it difficult to have a realistic debate and discussion, derailing the whole exercise.

I suggest discouraging students from getting out of their roles too soon. At the end of the exercise, I usually open up the floor for an open conversation and debate where I encourage students to get out of their assigned roles and to express how easy or difficult it was to play those roles and why. The ensuing discussion is usually quite engaging and revelatory.

Lastly, since I last used this exercise, the Paris Accord was created, that in important ways, unsettles the very premise on which this exercise was constructed. Modifications can be made to this exercise to reflect new realities in the climate negotiations landscape. Still, when one studies the individual country submissions to the Paris Agreement, it is clear that notions of justice and equity are far from relegated to the past, even as most countries have come on board to identify nationally appropriate mitigative action. In this sense, perspectives on historical responsibility as one of the tenets of equity and justice are still present. Thus, this exercise is still quite relevant even if it might seem otherwise given the emergence of a post-Kyoto era.


In the exercise and in the written assignment that follows, I seek to assess the extent to which a student has done their homework on the assigned country, and consequently, the extent to which they are aware of this country's positions on the question of Annex I's historical responsibility. It is important that the student be able to accurately reflect the assigned country's positions, without judgment.

Next, I seek to assess to what extent the student is able to draw on perspectives gleaned from the readings and other discussion prior to the exercise, to present a critical assessment of the position represented, from the point of view of those who do not have a seat at the table in the negotiations, and in light of the limitations of the negotiation framework.

References and Resources

Articles, books and web resources that would be useful to assign in helping students understand the context of global climate politics and negotiations over a fair burden-sharing agreement among nations:

Agarwal, A. and Sunita Narain. 1990. Global warming in an unequal world: A case of environmental colonialism. New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

Anand, Ruchi. 2004. International environmental justice: a North-South dimension. Aldershot, Hampshire ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Ananthapadmanabhan, G., K. Srinivas, and Vinuta Gopal. 2007. Hiding behind the poor: A report by Greenpeace on Climate Injustice - An Indian perspective. Bangalore: Greenpeace India Society.

Athanasiou, T., and Paul Baer. 2002. Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming. New York: Seven stories press.

Baer, P., John Harte, Barbara Haya, Antonia V. Herzog, John Holdren, Nathan E. Hultman, Daniel M. Kammen, Richard B. Norgaard and Leigh Raymond. 2000. Climate change: Equity and greenhouse gas responsibility. Science, 289(5488, 2287).

Baer, P., Tom Athanasiou, Sivan Kartha, and Eric Kemp-Benedict. 2009. Greenhouse development rights: A proposal for a fair global climate treaty. Ethics, Policy & Environment, 12(3), 267 - 281

Barnett, J. 2007. The geopolitics of climate change. Geography Compass, 1(6), 1361-1375.

Bhagwati, J. N. 1977. The New International Economic Order: The North-South Debate.

Biergmann, F., Klaus Dingwerth. 2004. Global environmental change and the nation-state. Global Environmental Politics, 4(1), 1-22.

Burkett, M. 2009. Climate Reparations. Melbourne Journal of International Law.

Byrd, R. and C. Hagel. 1998. Byrd-Hagel Resolution.

Caney, S. 2005. Cosmopolitan justice, responsibility and global climate change. Leiden Journal of International Law, 18(4), 747-775.

Caney, S. 2006. Environmental Degradation, Reparations, and the Moral Significance of History. Journal of Social Philosophy, 37(3), 464-482.

Castro, J. A. d. A. 1972. Environment and development: The case of developing countries. In K. a. G. D. D. Conca (Ed.), Green Planet Blues: Four Decades of Global Environmental Politics. Westview Press, Perseus Books Group.

Chakrabarty, D. 2009. The climate of history: four theses. Critical Inquiry, 35(2), 197-222.

Comim, F. 2008. Climate injustice and development: A capability perspective. Development, 15, 344-349.

Cox, R. 1979. Ideologies and the NIEO: Reflections on some recent literature. International Organization, 33(2), 257-302.

Doty, R. L. 1996. Imperial Encounters: The Politics of Representation in North-South Relations (Vol. 5). Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

FOE. Friends of the Earth. 2005. Climate debt: Making historical responsibility part of the solution.

G.C.I. Global Commons Institute. 1996. Contraction and convergence: Climate justice without vengeance.

Goeminne, G., and Erik Paredis. 2010. The concept of ecological debt: some steps towards an enriched sustainability paradigm. Environment, Development, Sustainability, 12, 691-712.

Harris, P. 2000. Defining international distributive justice: Environmental considerations. International Relations, 15(2), 51-66.

IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Isbister, J. 2006. Promises Not Kept: Poverty and the Betrayal of Third World Development (7th ed.): Kumarian Press, Inc.

Joshi, S. 2013. Understanding India's Representation of North–South Climate Politics, Global Environmental Politics, 13(2): 128-147.

Joshi, S. 2014. Environmental justice discourses in Indian climate politics. GeoJournal, 79(6): 677-691.

Joshi, S. 2014. North-South Relations: Colonialism, Empire and International Order. In Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, edited by Paul Harris, Routledge, pp: 272-283.

Kyoto Protocol. 1998. Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. United Nations.

Martinez-Alier, J. 2002. Green justice - Ecological debt and property rights on carbon sinks and reservoirs. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 13(1), 115-119.

Muller, B. 2001. Varieties of distributive justice in climate change. Climatic Change, 48, 273-288.

Najam, A., Saleemul Huq, and Youba Sokona. 2003. Climate negotiations beyond Kyoto: developing countries concerns and interests. Climate Policy, 3, 221-231.

Neumayer, E. 2000. In defense of historical accountability for greenhouse gas emissions. Ecological Economics, 33(2), 185-192.

Newell, P. 2005. Race, class and the global politics of environmental inequality. Global Environmental Politics, 5(3), 70-94.

Norberg-Hodge, H. 2008. The North-South divide. Ecologist, 38(2), 14-15.

O'Brien, K. L., and Leichenko, Robin M. 2003. Winners and losers in the context of global change. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 93(1), 89-103.

Paris Agreement. 2016.

Roberts, J. T., & Parks, B. C. 2007. A climate of injustice: global inequality, North-South politics, and climate policy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Salleh, A. 2011. Cancun and after: A sociology of climate change. Arena, 110, 4.

Schlosberg, D. 2009. Capacity and Capabilities: A Response to the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework. Ethics, Place and Environment, 12(3), 287-290.

Shue, H. 1999. Global environment and international inequality. International Affairs, 75(3), 531-545.

UNFCCC. 1992. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: United Nations.

Vidal, J. 2010. Confidential document reveals Obama's hardline US climate talk strategy, Guardian News and Media Limited.

Wainwright, J. 2010. Climate change, capitalism, and the challenge of transdisciplinarity. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 100(4), 983-991.

Williams, M. 2005. The Third World and global environmental negotiations: Interests, institutions and ideas. Global Environmental Politics, 5(3), 48-69.

Ziser, M., and Julie Sze. 2007. Climate change, environmental aesthetics, and global environmental justice cultural studies. Discourse, 29(2&3), 384-410.