Flooded with evidence

By role-playing townspeople faced with decisions about an aging dam in their community, participants in the science outreach activity Climate Change Summit immerse themselves in constructive, meaningful conversation about water resource issues and planning for the effects of climate change.

Climate Change Summit is a 90-minute town hall-style game where players work together to solve a local climate issue. Our 2019 topic—dam renovation—divides players into characters representing six stakeholder groups, then helps them review data, discuss priorities, and make the best possible decision about what to do with the town’s century-old dam. Players can opt to leave the failing dam as it is, tear it down, restore it to its former glory, or remodel it to be environmentally sustainable.

Equipped with  over 40 pieces of data and supported by a small army of trained facilitators, players develop not only a deeper understanding of the role water resources play in climate change preparation but also a model for how to use evidence to evaluate complex situations.

After a test at the Bay Area Science Festival, Climate Change Summit: Dam Renovation moved to Iowa City, Iowa. NCSE Graduate Student Outreach Fellows Rachel Larsen and Christie Vogler worked with a Contemporary Environmental Issues class at the University of Iowa to dive into concerns about the building of dams by playing the game.

Young boy pours water.

Seeing how dams work at a recent Climate Change Summit event.

We specifically chose the issue of dams because there are environmental and economic concerns on both sides. Dams can decimate migratory fish populations, cause the build-up of harmful algal blooms, and lead to nutrient-poor soil downstream. On the other hand, dams can provide jobs, clean energy through hydroelectric power, and recreation possibilities. With water flow expected to become less predictable under most climate change predictions, dams also offer the ability to control floods and mitigate the impact of droughts. By exploring an issue that doesn’t divide neatly into environmentalists vs. everyone else, players have to move past their or their character’s preconceived notions.

In our game, as in real life, there are no easy answers. Many of the players have characters with specific, often conflicting, concerns, and finding options acceptable to everyone requires discussion and debate. Most players initially gravitate towards the most expensive “compromise” in which the dam is restored to minimize its environmental impact. However, they are soon dismayed to learn that the cost of this option will prevent local teachers from receiving a raise.

In our game, as in real life, there are no easy answers. Many of the players have characters with specific, often conflicting, concerns, and finding options acceptable to everyone requires discussion and debate.

The game challenges players to analyze data for themselves. For many people, being handed the data can be transformative. People who have a low affinity for science tend to underestimate the amount of scientific evidence they use to make decisions. They can therefore have a hard time feeling comfortable drawing conclusions from data, identifying gaps or flaws in existing data, or even recognizing evidence when they find it. To overcome this, our team spent months making data taken from peer-reviewed science journals, policy white papers, and city financial documents accessible to a range of audiences. Each player receives two pieces of data that they can share and discuss with their group. However, as in real life, there are biased and irrelevant data, as well as a lot of information that is still unknown.

Through conversation with our facilitators, players have to determine which pieces of evidence they feel comfortable using to support their viewpoint. After meeting within their stakeholder groups, players share their thoughts with the entire town, and an initial vote is taken.

While the game can initially provoke conflict, the second half of the game asks players to sit down with someone whose initial vote was different from their own and explain their viewpoint. The goal isn’t necessarily to change minds but, in a low-stakes environment where everyone is role-playing, to recognize another’s values. Each of the 30 characters is sympathetic and all of their viewpoints have validity, leading to the possibility of deep and meaningful discussions before the final vote. Regardless of the outcome, we think Climate Changes Summit helps participants build trust, in their communities, in science, and in their own ability to think scientifically.

Climate Change Summit: Dam Renovation can be a great way to get your community thinking locally about the global issue of climate change. The activity can easily be personalized to fit your area’s local dams and demographics. After our final round of field testing in January 2020, we plan to post all the materials and an accompanying lesson plan to our website for others to use. If you want access to this earlier, please email Emma Doctors. 

Kate Carter
Short Bio

Kate Carter is Director of Community Science Education at NCSE.

NCSE Program Coordinator Emma Doctors
Short Bio

Emma Doctors is Program Coordinator at NCSE.