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Drexel Students Try to Negotiate a Climate Change Accord

Students attempt to negotiate a climate change agreement.

May 22, 2017

The resolutions may not have been binding, and the negotiations may have featured more pizza and less politicking than real-world climate change discussions, but in less than three hours inside a classroom at 3101 Market St., a few dozen Drexel University students did something world leaders haven’t yet accomplished: commit to a plan that would limit the rise in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The May 12 climate change negotiation simulation, hosted by the A.J. Drexel Institute for Energy and the Environment, brought together graduate and undergraduate students studying engineering, architecture, environmental science and beyond to try their hand at developing a global agreement to address rising temperatures. Over the course of two rounds of animated negotiations, the group managed to come within shouting distance of the lofty goals set for the exercise and, in the process, learn just how challenging it is for countries to balance their competing interests and come together for everyone’s benefit.

“The global commitment needs to be far more serious,” said one student representing the United States, summarizing the day’s lesson after the negotiations had concluded. To avoid interference with the fast-moving discussion, students were identified only by the country they represented in the exercise. “If this is to really happen, it needs to be a serious commitment from every country.”

Along with the United States, students were split into groups that also represented India, China, the European Union, other developed nations and other developing nations. Each of the six parties had its own limitations and interests based on resources and economics, in line with reality. Mira Olson, PhD, an associate professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, served as the United Nations’ climate secretary for the day, overseeing the negotiations and using the groups’ commitments to run calculations in a computer simulation tool that delivered the results.

Olson was one of 10 Drexel faculty and students who attended last year’s real-life U.N. climate change negotiations in Morocco as an observer. The University is planning to send another cohort to this year’s negotiations that will take place this November in Bonn, Germany. Students and faculty interested in joining can contact the Office of International Programs by June 9 to apply.

At the mock negotiation, Shannon Capps, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, opened with an overview of climate science, setting the stage for the ensuing discussions. Each group then made decisions in three categories regarding its efforts to address climate change: when to peak emissions, when to begin reduction and the rate of reduction; how much to limit deforestation and promote afforestation; and how much to contribute to a global climate fund used for adaptation to and mitigation of the changing climate.

The results: a projection of a 2.2-degree rise in global temperatures by 2100 (compared with 4.5 degrees in the “business as usual” projection) and a climate fund stocked with $83 billion. It might have been a bit higher if not for a frustrated Chinese delegation yanking its planned $1 billion contribution amid a theatrically tense final round of negotiations. As one team member put it, “We’re the biggest problem [in terms of emissions] but we got the least amount of help in negotiations.”

 As the conversations progressed, the groups realized they couldn’t always make up the gaps between their desired contributions and their ability to help. For some of the developing nations, limiting deforestation and coal exports would be economically detrimental and could harm citizens, for example. But those countries are also at the greatest risk of harm from drought, flooding and other environmental disasters caused by global warming, as one of the group’s members pointed out.

“By the time the United States is affected, it’s far too late to save countries like us,” he said.

But Americans have a hard time recognizing the urgency of climate change, a Chinese delegate said, referring to the “sense of comfort” in the United States.

A member of the American team chimed in: “We just don’t have a sense of environmental cost. When we’re using these resources, we don’t think about the cost of it.”

The discussion didn’t leave out the perspectives of the people locked into using up the resources that are harming the environment, such as coal miners living in Northeast Pennsylvania.

“Everybody in this room has the luxury of living in a city … but if I live in Scranton, I’m worried about putting food on the table,” he said. “Climate change is all around us, but what’s right in front of us? Bills.”

Of course, there plenty of factors in real-world negotiations that didn’t come into play in the classroom. As one member of the American team noted, the unknown future of world leaders, such as those who disagree with the majority of scientists on the causes of global warming, constitutes a “supervariable” of sorts. At the beginning of the exercise, one of the American team members asked, “Are we supposed to be acting like Obama or Donald Trump?”

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