Climate Change Negotiation Course: Building True Student Understanding

Advice on how to create powerful simulation courses, from the co-creator of an acclaimed climate change simulation course for management students.
Chelsea Hicks-Webster September 6, 2017
How can students best understand the complexity of climate change and other environmental issues? Simulations offer one approach. The co-creator of University of St. Gallen’s course “Model UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)” describes the model and provides recommendations.  

International management students at University of St. Gallen have ranked Model UNFCCC, a climate change simulation course, highest of all courses. The simulation experience touches students so deeply that they are occasionally brought to tears.

Course Context

Model UNFCC was co-created by Dr. Rolf Wüstenhagen, Director of the Institute of Economy and the Environment (IWOE-HSG) at University of St. Gallen (Switzerland), Melissa Paschall, now Director of Harvard’s Business and Environment Initiative, and Dr. Rafael Sarda, teaching sustainability at ESADE Business School Barcelona. The course is taught simultaneously at six international universities affiliated with the CEMS Global Alliance of Management Education, including University of St. Gallen, ESADE, University of Cologne, Warsaw School of Economics, Corvinus University of Budapest and Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

Course Structure

Lectures provide critical background information. Courses at each school start with a lecture series, including guest speakers from industry, academia and government. Lectures cover climate change science and policy issues, and the role of business in addressing these challenges. Lectures give students solid theoretical background on critical climate change issues.

Simulation helps students understand the challenges of international climate change negotiation. The course ends with students from all six schools meeting in person for an intense two-day negotiation simulation. In preparation, students are divided into groups of one to three and assigned a country to represent. Smaller countries are represented by smaller student delegations, mirroring negotiating conditions at the UNFCCC.

As with UNFCCC sessions, student delegates are divided between three working groups during the simulation: mitigation, adaptation and trade. Delegates negotiate new policies within their working groups. The entire group then reconvenes several times daily to build consensus around working group proposals.

A core simulation rule is that students cannot represent their own country. “This is a very challenging and emotional experience for students,” says Wüstenhagen. “For low-lying island nations, climate change negotiations are truly a live or die matter. Separating students from their home country helps control emotion.”

Evaluation Structure

Students write a mid-term exam to test on lecture content. This mid-term was implemented by student request after the course’s first year, to build students’ confidence in the material before negotiations.

Prior to the simulation, student groups also prepare the following documents for evaluation:

Finally, students write reflection papers two weeks after the simulation. Writing these papers allows them to digest and cement their learnings. “The simulation moves so quickly and becomes so intense that students can lose sight of what’s happening,” says Wüstenhagen. The reflection allows them to process insights in a controlled environment.

Powerful Impact on Students

Wüstenhagen has seen many students substantially change their career plans after taking ModelUNFCCC. For example, one former student transitioned from a career in the airline industry to working in Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy sector. Another student, who represented Brazil during her simulation, went on to write her Masters’ thesis on impact investing in Brazilian biomass projects at the University of St. Gallen’s Latin American hub in Sao Paulo.

Student surveys also provided evidence of impact. In 2012, students ranked the course 4.7 out of 5, earning it the distinction of the “Best Course in the CEMS St. Gallen Curriculum.” Over 90% of 2012 participants reported that the course offered a high quality learning experience and presented material in a stimulating way.

Advice for Creating Powerful Simulation Courses

Wüstenhagen describes what he has learned:

The full course outline is available here. It was also featured in the Journal of Management Education, available here.

More Information

Learn more about this simulation course or other activities of the Institute for Economy and the Environment or contact Rolf Wüstenhagen for more information.