Role-playing urgency: bridging climate change knowledge and action?

Role-playing urgency: bridging climate change knowledge and action?

Image looking up at a cathedral with the two halves of a globe hanging on either side of the rose window. Blue sky with ripples of clouds
Image: Adam Fleischmann

“What does it mean to know climate change?” ask Henderson and Long in a 2015 piece for this site’s Anthropologies #21. Researchers on science education, they ask this question to explore what we can do to ensure “knowledge of climate change” becomes “knowledge for social action.” This is no small task—for educators or anthropologists. It has largely shaped my own research, the preoccupations of those with whom I work and climate politics in North America writ large.

As Henderson and Long duly explain, for at least two decades anthropology, psychology, communications, sociology and related fields have agreed: socio-cultural community values and experiences, not merely information, are what shape people’s perceptions of and actions on climate change. This research dumps an assumption that has pervaded the mainstream discourse: that people who don’t care about or believe in climate change are just lacking information. If only we could inject more scientific knowledge into the public, they would understand and take appropriate action on climate change. This latter, defunct model of communication has been called the information or science deficit model.


In other words, “Research shows that showing people research doesn’t work.” This is a recent mantra of MIT professor John Sterman (e.g. Climate Interactive 2016). Sterman is a key figure of one of the organizations with whom I’ve done anthropological research in the realm between climate science and politics: US-based non-profit, Climate Interactive (CI).

This past winter and spring, I had the opportunity to work with CI, conducting interviews with the users of their tools from all over the world. The people at Climate Interactive know extremely well that new information about climate change alone doesn’t change people’s minds and hearts. Even before he was CI co-founder and co-director, Drew Jones tells me that he recognized a problem: the climate is a complex system in which cause and effect are distant in time and space. Instead of asking what it means to know climate change, Drew asks: “What are interventions that help people viscerally experience the delayed, distant impacts of their actions in ways that create new possibilities?”

He tells me that the best way he figured out how to do this at meaningful scales is computer simulations, and games built around them. Simulation-based role-playing games “offer the potential to compress time and reality, create experiences without requiring the ‘real thing’” (Ledley et al. 2017). Enter CI’s World Climate role-play simulation.

Designed for three to sixty participants, this United Nations climate negotiations simulation has been run a registered 800 times, with over 35,000 participants in seventy-four countries worldwide (Climate Interactive 2017b), from school children to Obama’s climate-change team. Although it is run similar to a model UN event, World Climate benefits from one major pedagogical and design advantage: CI’s C-ROADS (Climate Rapid Overview and Decision Support) climate policy simulator—a computer model. Deemed an “instant climate model” (Tollefson 2009), combined with their simulation-based exercises it is CI’s biggest innovation, Drew tells me. Compared to the massive supercomputer models of the global climate that take weeks to run, C-ROADS is free, interactive user-friendly and runs online or from any laptop in about one second.

Following my work with CI this last year, and after observing Sterman running the simulation with executive business students at MIT, I was able to participate and observe World Climate in action at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco during the Global Climate Action Summit.


On the last day of the Summit, I take the California Street Cable Car up the long, steep hill. Jerking all rickety and wooden like an old-fashioned rollercoaster, the car has fewer tourists and more San Francisco locals than I expect. I’m the only one that gets off at Grace Cathedral, my eyes drawn upward. The front-facing rose window of the giant Episcopal church has been cradled on either side by the two halves of an equally giant globe, the brilliance of our blue planet hanging in contrast to the sandy grey of the cathedral’s stone. My eyes track even higher. A bright blue banner of a sky hangs taut over the city, rippled in surreal ridges of opaque white.

The World Climate simulation is being held in an intimate room off the main cathedral. It is facilitated by Reverend Fletcher Harper of the interfaith environmental group, GreenFaith. The group of us, about fifteen or twenty people, range in age from late twenties to sixties and skew toward an educated, white, older, religious demographic. Moved into groups of two to five, with each group representing a country or grouping of countries, we prepare our negotiating approaches based on the provided position briefing. My group, the US, is made up of the three youngest people in the room and a white-haired man named Abe.

For each negotiating round, we move across the room, gather in groups. We make our demands and concessions then joyfully scuttle, whispering, back to our huddle of teammates. After each round, we go back to our groups and record what we’ve negotiated: 1) our intended reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, 2) our monetary contribution to the Green Climate Fund and 3) how much we’ll reduce deforestation and increase afforestation (planting trees). A representative announces the group’s proposals and Fletcher quickly enters the numbers into the instant climate model, C-ROADS. Changes appear in global temperatures, CO2 levels, sea level rise and more. Our goal is under 2ºC warming by 2100.

At first the negotiations are polite, not too urgent, playing into the stereotypes I’d constructed in my head about soft-spoken older religious folks. Soon, though, as participants realize how little their countries’ modest contributions are changing the results in C-ROADS, negotiations get nastier, more urgent. The representative from the European Union, a short haired middle-aged woman in sharp glasses, delivers a tough but impassioned plea for climate action; Chinas makes an articulate and very serious case for the US, EU and Other Developed Countries to contribute more to the Green Climate Fund.

The stakes continue to rise through the third and final round as participants attempt to successfully lower emissions below 2º. Heads huddle, quickly crunch numbers with their teammates, weighing options. Someone makes a plea to people of faith—“diverse faiths!” Someone else negotiates “woman to woman.” People run across the room, making in-game deals outside the parameters of the game—promises for the exchange of technology, contracts for domestically manufactured energy infrastructure. As the timer runs out, delegates negotiate urgent positions “in character,” with their country’s interests in mind, but aiming for the global temperature goal.

By the time the debrief comes around and we step out of our roles as delegates at the UN, everyone’s appealing to Fletcher to have another round. “I wanna get that number down!” the former EU delegate shouts. Heads nod in agreement across the room, faces creased in consternation. Someone formerly from the Chinese delegation says they could see this lasting all day. Participants talk about how they felt empowered or caught up by the role they were playing. Abe’s disappointed, he says, because he was playing to win for the position of the US. We go over what it would have taken to get down to 2º and Fletcher shows us in the model.


As an embodied, social and affective experience, the World Climate simulation at Grace Cathedral had us participants riled up. People were smiley, angry, stubborn, gleefully ornery and downright upset. A sense of urgency pervaded the room once we realized just what it would take to turn the temperature down. Recent research (led by a CI collaborator and Director of the UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative, Juliette Rooney-Varga) indicates that this urgency is part of what makes World Climate so successful. World Climate users experience statistically significant increases in knowledge about climate change, emotional engagement with the issue and an increased desire to learn and do more about climate change—even those with political ideologies linked to climate change denial in the US (Rooney-Varga et al. 2018). As a statistical construct describing participants’ feelings about climate change, gains in urgency were closely related to the desire to learn more and intent to take action; gains in knowledge were not.

World Climate acts as the common idiom for diverse participants’ experience of learning and feeling something so distant from normal human scales. The game is embedded in relations, built through playing a role with others in the compressed time of the in-game reality. For some, it acts as a bridging experience between delayed and distant cause and effect, between climate science and climate politics, between knowledge of something and knowledge for action.

The task Henderson and Long introduce to us–ensuring knowledge of something becomes knowledge for social action–has been a challenge not only for those working on climate change. Public anthropology blogs such as this one aren’t published simply for knowledge’s sake. Last month I asked what role anthropologists can play as the world warms toward 1.5ºC. After playing a role in World Climate in San Francisco, I have no prescriptive, right answers to that provocation. Yet as I walked away from Grace Cathedral, sky hung with the blue halves of our one Planet Earth, I remember wondering: what would it mean if anthropologists played the role not merely of translators, interpreters, advocates or witnesses, but bridges between parts of a whole?


Climate Interactive. (2017a). C-ROADS. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from

Climate Interactive. (2017b). World Climate Simulation Grows in 2017. Retrieved February 28, 2018, from

Climate Interactive. (2016). John Sterman addresses UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon [Vimeo upload]. United Nations, New York. Retrieved from

Ledley, T. S., Rooney-Varga, J., & Niepold, F. (2017). Addressing Climate Change Through Education. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science.

Rooney-Varga, J. N., Sterman, J. D., Fracassi, E., Franck, T., Kapmeier, F., Kurker, V., Johnston, E., Jones, A.P., Rath, K. (2018). Combining role-play with interactive simulation to motivate informed climate action: Evidence from the World Climate simulation. PLOS ONE, 13(8), e0202877.

Tollefson, J. (2009). Instant climate model gears up. Nature News, 461(7264), 581–581.

6 Replies to “Role-playing urgency: bridging climate change knowledge and action?”

  1. Adam, a genuinely thought-provoking piece. Thank you for posting it. One question, one evoked memory. First, the question: How was the energy in the room affected by selection bias in the way that participants were recruited? Second, re “bridges.” While still in high school I was invited to participate in the Telluride Summer Program at Cornell University. The topic that summer was labor relations in the USA. After discussion of the Haymarket Massacre, I naively asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if people tried harder to understand each other?” The professor teaching that session replied, “There are, you know, situations in which people understand perfectly clearly that their interests are diametrically opposed.”

  2. Hi John, thanks for the comment. First, couldn’t agree with your old prof more. There are certainly times when anthropologist-as-translator, -interpreter, -advocate or -witness is not an appropriate role to play, too.
    The Cathedral asked CI and GreenFaith to come run the simulation during the Summit. I worked under the assumption that most were members of that faith community, though I know a handful, like myself, were not. That being said, I don’t want to understate the contentiousness among opinions in the room during the simulation, even among that group.
    Others, CI staff, developers, volunteers world over, including Eduardo Fracassi, a co-author of Rooney Varga et al. 2018, have much more experience than I and have stories of what the game+model are capable among all sorts of folks and room energies. There were certainly skeptical voices in the room at the beginning when I observed Sterman run the simulation at MIT. I think you’d be interested in taking a look at Rooney Varga et al. (2018)—I’ve updated the references to reflect the correct, now-published source—which is a demonstration, via qualitative and quantitive surveying and statistics, of some of the power of this game+model, even among those with a traditionally negative bias toward anything climate change.

  3. Adam, my pleasure. Happy Holidays. When I asked about selection bias, I wasn’t denying the power of the game+model for participants in the exercise. I was remembering the years when I was an international officer of the Democratic Party Committee Abroad (DPCA), the U.S. Democratic Party’s overseas branch. The post involved attending several international meetings and three national conventions. All were events that combined careful choreography with intense competition and conflict. The organizational issues heatedly debated at the DPCA meetings (by-laws, delegate selection plans, relations with our parent organization, the Democratic National Committee (DNC)) were of little meaning or interest to the grassroots members of our country committees. The National Conventions were Durkheimian efflorescence to the max. The one in 1996 was followed by the election of Bill Clinton to a second term. The ones in 2000 and 2004 were followed by the defeats of Al Gore and John Kerry. Excitement at the events reinforced the commitment of participants but also sharpened temporarily suppressed divisions and aggravated old wounds. In 2000 and 2004 the election outcome was not what the shouts and applause on the floor anticipated.

    1. Thanks for sharing, John. That’s interesting, in my experience with this game there was a sort of uniting force for both those who already cared and others who were just coming to realize the gravity of it all.

  4. Adam presents a disturbing argument for accepting that climate change is a major threat to civilization: Since climatological models are complex and hard to understand, simply accept that they are accurate. He takes this argument directly from an advocacy publication article by the popular science writer Michael Barnard: “Believe in Climate Change the Way You Do in Gravity.” Noting that our understanding of gravity is usually rudimentary while the phenomenon itself is complex, Barnard asks, “So what do we do?” And answers his question, “Well, don’t demand that people understand it all, just ask that they accept it.”
    Embracing that argument, Adam writes:

    “The scientific consensus, such that such a thing can exist, for anthropogenic climate change has now been deemed statistically and figuratively equivalent to the consensus for gravity! Isn’t that wild? What theories, if any, in, say, the paleo-sciences have an equal amount of consensus as gravity? Are they still considered valid until the next best alternative comes along? What about gravity?”

    What about gravity? Wild, indeed. Validating climate change on the basis of scientific knowledge of gravity is perhaps the worst analogy one could possibly make, since a scientific “consensus for gravity” is non-existent. In fact, the nature of gravity is a fundamental and vitally important issue. As the astrophysicist Ethan Siegel writes in “The Greatest Unsolved Problem In Theoretical Physics: Why Gravity Is So Weak,”

    “That’s a description of the way our Universe works, but we don’t understand why. Why is gravity so much weaker than all the other forces? Why is the “gravitational charge” (i.e., mass) so much weaker than the electric or color charge, or even than the weak charge, for that matter? That’s what the Hierarchy Problem is, and that problem is by many measures the greatest unsolved problem in physics. We don’t know the answer, but we’re not completely in the dark on this.”

    Searching for an answer takes us into the thickest weeds of astrophysics, where completing solutions invoke a parallel universe, string theory, super symmetry. Faced with these formidable choices, asking us to “believe in gravity” is nonsensical.
    As if that were not enough, gravity lends itself to prediction only in special cases. One such case is the solar system: astronomers can predict the more-or-less exact position of the planets hundreds of years in the future. But that’s only because the sun is so massive that its gravity overwhelms, cancels out that of the planets. But what if three comparably sized massive bodies interact gravitationally? Or ten or twenty? Well, then we have the three-body problem or the n-body problem. And there prediction is impossible. Wild!
    Concluding thought: climate change is an n-body problem.
    Please note: <500 words