A mock legislative debate to enhance and integrate student understanding of climate change science, policy, economics and ethics

This page is authored by Mari Titcombe Lee, Colorado College, based on planned activities for an intro-level environmental science and policy course. This activity is modified from an original activity created by Paul Higgins and William Hooke for the American Meterological Society's Summer Policy Colloquium.
Colorado College, Environmental Program
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Initial Publication Date: June 28, 2012 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


In this multi-day activity students participate in a mock-senate committee debate of a current piece of climate legislation. Students are split into the roles of either senator, special interest lobbyist, or testifying climate scientist and must debate the bill according to their assigned allegiance. Students, in their roles, must work to form coalition support for their view point, resulting in a final committee vote on the bill.

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Learning Goals

Students will have learned, though the course for which this activity is designed, the basics of climate change science. This activity is meant to push the students beyond the logic and rationality of science into real world considerations for creating sustainable public policy. The students must step outside the environmentalist perspective to anticipate legitimate challenges to the implementation of climate policy in our modern society. The students will be able to explore the political and economic considerations that significantly affect climate policy, and begin to formulate ideas for "workable" policy solutions. They will be required to prepare written arguments synthesizing the knowledge they have gained in the course, present these arguments orally, and work cooperatively to form a supporting coalition for a current piece of climate legislation.

Context for Use

This activity is designed for college (or post-graduate level) students as a capstone to an introductory course on climate change. Students can be from any major field, although many of the students enrolling in this course continue on to major in either Environmental Science or Environmental Policy. The students will have acquired a basic level of knowledge of modern and geological climate change, environmental policy, and environmental economics sufficient to form a lively in class mock-debate of current climate related legislation. The class size is 20-30 students, and depending on time, the debate can occur on a single day or over multiple days. Colorado College teaches on a block program, i.e. students take one class at a time, all day, for roughly four weeks per block. Thus there is sufficient time for students prepare in groups over one or two days (or as assigned homework out of class), and to conduct the mock-debate during a day of class.

Description and Teaching Materials

This activity synthesizes knowledge gained throughout an introductory climate change course, so background materials include a climate change textbook and/or relevant peer-reviewed published literature. This activity is planned for a course that I will be teaching this coming fall and so I do not yet have a definitive list of background materials. For the activity itself the students will be split into groups and assigned the role of (real) senate committee members, special interest lobbyists, or climate scientists. For example, climate legislation is likely to pass through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee. A quick online search provides the current committee members (Senator Bingaman et al.) and students can be paired up or assigned individually to represent a particular committee member. Further examination of committee members' personal websites will inform students on each senator's political career and policy leanings, as well as the likely influence of their represented state constituents. Current proposed climate related legislation can be found via topic searches at various sites including http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/. One such bill is S.2146, introduced by Representatives Inglis, Lipinski, and Flake in the 111th congress, which proposes the taxation of fossil fuel use to offset social security taxes. Students acting as climate scientists will utilize peer reviewed literature largely covered in the course. And finally, special interest lobbyists will be assigned based on the bill. For the above mentioned bill, students might be assigned to represent a large electric utility or even the AARP since the bill deals with social security.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity is in the planning stages for an upcoming course so at this time I do not have any special tips.


Assessment of student learning will be accomplished by grading formal written arguments used to summarize each students assigned, role-related, understanding of the topic, as well as oral presentations to the class and appropriate arguments presented/participation in the mock debate.

References and Resources

See online references listed in the "Description" section above.