Competition Challenges Students to Limit Global Warming

by |March 4, 2016

By Lisa Thalheimer and Alison Miller

Can the global community devise a solution to save the planet from the worst impacts of global climate change? Can disparate economic sectors comprised of multiple competing stakeholders come together to create an actionable, politically feasible plan? How about doing it in seven hours?

On Saturday, Feb. 27, students were challenged with exactly this in the NASPAA 2016 Student Simulation Competition. Over 50 master’s students from 20-plus universities across the Northeast convened on Columbia’s campus to participate in the day-long climate change simulation competition hosted by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA). Over the course of the event, teams of 15-20 students were challenged to create a comprehensive multi-sector policy plan to ensure that global temperature does not increase by more than 2°C by 2100—a globally recognized temperature limit to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and the Earth Institute served as one of eight regional host sites that NASPAA convened, bringing together students from across the country with diverse backgrounds to seek solutions to complex energy and climate change problems. The competition included seven regional U.S. sites and one international site in the Netherlands and had over 350 student participants from over 136 graduate programs.


Students discuss their policy position with their groups. (Photo: Lisa Thalheimer)

This represented the network’s second annual iteration of the simulation competition, designed for graduate students of public policy and public administration to come together in cross-university teams to analyze highly complex real-world public policy problems utilizing a computer model simulation. This year’s topic of climate change built on the events in Paris during the UN-sponsored negotiations in Paris in December 2015, and utilized Climate Interactive’s En-ROADS model. The En-ROADS model is a simulation tool to understand how different policy levers related to global GDP, energy efficiency, research and development, carbon prices, energy taxes and subsidies, agricultural and land use, fuel mix, and other factors change carbon emissions, energy access and temperature increase.

As part of the simulation, students put themselves in the shoes of a representative of one of seven sectors: Carbon Pricing, Population and Consumption, Agriculture and Land Use, Fossil Fuels, Sustainable Energy, Energy Efficiency and “Climate Hawks”–a term being used now to describe people advocating aggressive steps regarding climate change and “clean” energy.

In the simulation, the sectors had to negotiate with each other to come up with a single set of policy recommendations to the chiefs of staff to the G-20 leaders. Each sector, however, was beholden to its respective stakeholders and could make individual decisions only for their respective policy levers. Students had to think within and “play the part” of their stakeholder group, learning what matters most to them, what compromises could be made to bring others to the table and to come to consensus, and what impact their decisions would have. The competition gave students the opportunity to get first-hand experience on how to model policies to limit global warming and the challenges of policymaking around complex, global problems.

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Students during informal meet-and-greet on Friday night before the competition. (Photo: Lisa Thalheimer)

Before the competition started, students and judges met on Friday in SIPA’s Alice’s Café for a networking reception where they were welcomed by Dan McIntyre, associate dean for academic affairs at SIPA. Fueled by pizza and beer, participants got to know each other and their teams and began to prep for the long day ahead.

“It was a pleasure to welcome the NASPAA participants to SIPA on Friday night,” McIntyre said. “There were students from Cornell, Brown, Princeton, Syracuse and many other universities in our area. The reception was a wonderful opportunity for the students to meet their fellow team members, as well as the judges and special guests.”

Early Saturday morning, SIPA’s Kellogg Center was filled with a crowd of chatting students, judges and volunteers preparing for a day full of analysis, negotiation and collaboration. The three local judges for the competition, Anthony D’Agostino, PhD candidate in Sustainable Development at SIPA; Betty Cremmins, supply chain project officer at Carbon Disclosure Project; and Stacy Lee, senior policy advisor, NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, together with Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute and professor of practice at SIPA; Alison Miller, deputy executive director at the Earth Institute; and McIntyre provided support, answering questions and lending some real-world guidance during the competition.

“By the time they got to the negotiating table on Saturday morning, they were well acquainted with their roles,” said Miller, who served as the competition’s simulation leader and oversaw the day’s activities. “Students … quickly realized the difficulty of meeting the temperature goal, and worked tirelessly to generate innovative ideas to engage all sectors while keeping an eye on political feasibility and reality. It was not an easy task.”

During a short lunch break, the students were welcomed by SIPA Dean Merit Janow, who reminded students of the importance of global public policy and the role of practitioners leading this work in the real world. “Addressing a global challenge such as climate change requires an understanding of public policy, the ability to collaborate across sectors to achieve a common goal, and a recognition of the tradeoffs associated with different approaches,” Janow said. “The NASPAA simulation engaged each of these elements and helped participants understand the consequences of different outcomes in complex international negotiations.”

Throughout the day, students tested different scenarios and policy positions, negotiated with their peers to minimize the impact of climate change as well as the negative consequences to their respective stakeholders, and generated a consensus position. The teams were tasked with using the model simulator as a platform for conducting policy experiments, and judges pushed the students to explain in causal terms why they believed that their decisions had a good chance of actually working in the “real world” being represented in the En-ROADS model.

In the afternoon, once policy decisions were set, the students created implementation plans outlining how their policies could be carried out. The teams each developed a set of memos and a PowerPoint, and presented their work to their peers and judges.


Competition judge Stacy Lee and student discuss policy positions. (Photo: Lisa Thalheimer)

Despite tense negotiations and discussion, the atmosphere was full of energy. Some cheered and jumped up from their seats when their team reached the competition’s goal of 2°C, after hours of negotiation and simulation runs that had previously left them far short of their temperature goal.

For the final “winning strategy” most of the groups deployed a “silver buckshot” approach rather than a single “silver bullet” to solve the problem. The New York Regional Site Winning Team proposed a comprehensive policy package to limit climate change impacts while maintaining global economic growth.

The team recognized that strong GDP growth per capita was necessary to ensure political feasibility. They aimed for policies that didn’t cripple any of the sectors represented in the model. Among their proposals is a $100 per ton carbon tax and distributed 30 percent of the revenue to fossil fuels (15 percent to traditional fossil fuels and 15 percent to energy efficiency), 30 percent to sustainable energy and 40 percent back to the public to offset energy price increases.

Their plan would impose a tax specifically on coal and sets a goal of phasing out coal power plants by 2060. The plan heavily relies on renewable energy, including subsidies, and supported their argument with examples of investments by thought leaders in the industry such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

In the agricultural sector, they set a target to reduce non-carbon emissions by 80 percent. The set a goal of 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions from land use and forestry.

The team highlighted that the key to success is a collaboration that satisfies various constituencies, recognizing political realities and using a practical approach. The judges were impressed with all three groups at the Columbia site, and observed that the students took a thoughtful and nuanced approach to the challenge.

Steve Cohen, one of the global judges, observed, “the teams presented sophisticated and cogent analyses of one of the most intractable policy problems facing the global community. All of the regional winning teams presented evidence-based conclusions and demonstrated a sophisticated awareness of how to use a complicated and dynamic simulation model, despite many of them coming to the competition with little background in environmental policy.”

While recognizing the difficulty, each of the three New York teams managed to come up with policy plans that limited temperature rise to 2°C.

Lisa Thalheimer is a graduate of the M.S. in Sustainability Management program at Columbia University. Alison Miller is deputy executive director of the Earth Institute, and a graduate of the M.P.A in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University. 

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