It’s a sweltering June afternoon in Darwinville as a small crowd gathers in front of the local library. The lively conversation that started on the lawn continues as they are ushered inside. They are there to discuss and ultimately select one of five proposals to spend the town’s recent allocation of $100,000 from the general budget that will be going towards an environmental project.
Ruthie, a 17-year-old rising senior at Darwinville High, has come to the town hall to ask her fellow Darwinvilleans to use the money to fund climate change education in local schools. After a summer engaging in environmental advocacy, she is eager to continue her climate activism, and feels strongly that if her classmates learned what she already knows about climate change, they would be inspired to join her.
A few seats down from Ruthie sits Dani, Ruthie’s former sixth-grade teacher. While she isn’t opposed to increasing climate change education, Dani is really here to ask for more innovative and eco-friendly solutions for stormwater management. Just last year, the local creek flooded during a storm and overflowed into the middle school, ruining tons of student artwork and projects. If the town used its budget to invest in building rain gardens, not only could flooding be mitigated, but also Dani could give her sixth-grade class hands-on experience with runoff, infiltration, and evaporation.
Ruthie notices yet another familiar face across the room. It’s Tom, the owner of Tom’s Auto Body in town. He is at the town hall to argue for taking individual responsibility in the fight against climate change. He thinks the town should use its budget to subsidize solar panel installations for those who want to implement renewable energy solutions. While Ruthie is skeptical of this being the best way to spend the allocated funds, she is excited to see an older generation showing up to discuss climate change issues.
Ruthie, Dani, and Tom are not real people. But they represent real perspectives in the ongoing discussion about climate change. Along with twenty-seven other stakeholders, these three are playable characters in NCSE’s 2020 Climate Change Summit. Building the 2020 Climate Change Summit — an outreach activity from NCSE's Breaking Down Barriers program — along with a team of Graduate Student Outreach Fellows and volunteers, was one of the main areas of focus for my 2020 Spring internship at NCSE.
Climate Change Summit was successfully established as an NCSE activity in 2019. Our 2019 topic — dam renovation — divided players into characters representing six stakeholder groups, then helped them review data, discuss priorities, and make the best possible decision about what to do with the town’s century-old dam. NCSE ran this activity last year in different locations across the country; we were excited to help people engage with climate change data that is relevant to their own lives.
This year we decided to go in a slightly different direction. Instead of choosing one overarching topic with multiple implementation ideas, the 2020 Climate Summit imagines that all of the stakeholders live in a town that has budgeted 100k towards an environmental endeavor. Participants argue for the proposal that their stakeholder thinks is the best use of the limited budget, based on both scientific evidence and their assigned stakeholder’s values. We've also made the game an online activity.
In addition to investing in education, stormwater management, and solar panels, there are proposals to invest the money in disaster preparation and local tree planting. Each of the five proposals benefit different community members in various parts of the town and they also reflect differences in values about who should take responsibility for climate change (and whether adaptation or mitigation should be the priority).
Recently, NCSE staff tested the virtual activity during a weekly meeting time — kudos to NCSE staff for really getting into character. Everyone was assigned a stakeholder and three to four pieces of data before the meeting, and people really did their homework. The debate started with everyone in small groups based on the proposal initially supported by their character. Participants shared their data with each other and talked about their individual reasoning supporting their chosen proposal, whether it was to fund climate education, the installation of solar panels, or stormwater management. After sharing ideas with like-minded stakeholders, the participants were reassigned in a second round of small groups. In this second round, the groups included a representative from each of the proposed ideas. This allowed stakeholders to hear differing perspectives and give them the latitude to potentially change their mind.
Climate Change Summit encourages participants to use data to make the best possible decision for the town after discussion and debate. This may mean that, based on the discussion, certain characters change their minds about the proposal they want to fund. During the NCSE staff role-play, Ruthie, who was pro-education, Dani, who was in favor of innovative stormwater management solutions, and Tom, who wanted the town to fund solar panel installation (and presumably NCSE members playing them) saw the merits of each proposal. By hearing other perspectives, both the game's stakeholders and, potentially, even the real people playing them, may be more willing to change their minds based on the evidence presented. Climate Change Summit in fact was developed in response to the fact that people sometimes use data to corroborate their beliefs and values, rather than to openly engage with new information. We were curious to see whether having people role play when debating climate-change-related proposals would challenge participants to be more receptive to evidence which may conflict with their own personal values. Understanding how people use evidence to make decisions about climate change is important as NCSE attempts to meet its goal of reaching climate-change skeptics.
Ultimately, the final vote among NCSE staff favored funding the education proposal. Perhaps NCSE staff members are a little biased towards the necessity of climate change education. Or — and this is what I would prefer to imagine — the data simply support the fact that education has the power to deeply shift conversations and collective action in response to climate change. When you have the opportunity to participate in a Climate Change Summit, it will be up to you to decide.
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