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Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Role-Play Exercise

K.M. Theissen, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN
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When the science is so clear, why is it so difficult to make agreements that will reduce our impact on climate change? This exercise is designed to help students explore that important question in an active and engaging way. Students are cast into the roles of various important players in the climate change issue, including politicians, scientists, environmentalists, and industry representatives. Working in these roles, students must take a position, debate with others, and then vote on legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals


Climate change science and climate change policy-making


  1. For students to explore the complexity and subtle aspects of the issue of climate change and eliminate black-and-white thinking about this issue.
  2. For students to develop skills of taking initiative, communication, problem-solving, and working collaboratively.

Context for Use

This activity can be used as a lab or in-class activity in an introductory geoscience course with climate change content. I would recommend running the activity at the end of a unit on climate change, after students have learned some of the science behind the issue. I have had best success running this exercise with smaller groups of students (15-30) in a lab exercise format, but it can be done with larger groups as well.

Teaching Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

Time needed for preparation: The instructor will need to review current climate change science and policy. At minimum, the instructor should have read and considered the content of the two documents that are assigned reading for students (Copenhagen Diagnosis and Stern Report) before running the exercise. You will also need to make these two documents available to students (provide them with the web site address or upload onto a course website) prior to the first meeting.

Class time: When I run this exercise I have had best success using two two-hour lab sessions. The first two hour session is for students to be placed into their groups or "delegations" (preferably pairs of students or groups of three) and to begin doing some research to support the role they will be playing. The second two hour session is when the actual role-play takes place. The student handout (attached with this exercise) and the role-play agenda (also attached) give a good outline of activities for each session. Alternatively, the first part of the exercise (web research) can be assigned as homework and the role-play can be done over two one hour lecture sessions. However, the quality of student work is not as high in this format.

Teaching tips

  1. I always make sure to emphasize the importance of students playing the role they are assigned, even if they don't agree with it personally. This is critical to making the exercise run smoothly. I also encourage students to challenge their classmates in the exercise rather than passively accepting what they are told by presenters.
  2. I use the position statements that each delegation must write up as their "ticket" to participate in the Convention. Without it they can't participate. This provides extra incentive to be prepared. In the past I have given an individual writing assignment as well, but this is up to the individual instructor.
  3. During the actual role-play session it is nice to make the convention setting as realistic as possible. I create a PowerPoint with logo slides for the Convention as well as each delegation and I formally introduce the Convention and take the role of a host or moderator. Delegations are assigned to a specific area in the lab room with a placard for their group. I have found that students are more likely to take the exercise seriously if you do.
  4. During the actual role-play exercise the instructor is responsible for keeping a pretty tight schedule while also evaluating student work. Make sure to stick closely to time limits and to take efficient notes on student work. After each position statement is made you may need to encourage students to ask questions by throwing out some of your own. In most cases I have found that after one or two delegations have spoken, the questions begin to flow naturally.

For more details, see the teaching notes (Acrobat (PDF) 14kB Apr8 10)


A rubric that I use for grading student work on this exercise is included in the assignment handout (Acrobat (PDF) 39kB Apr6 10) file. If time permits, I also ask the students for feedback on the exercise. The response has generally been very positive.

References and Resources