Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Climate Solutions Lab
Threatened Pine Trees

Climate diplomacy and international negotiations seminar engages students in real-world simulations

Senior Fellow Alice Plane focuses on the various stakes that climate change poses to the planet’s ecosystems, including human societies, with a specific perspective on equity. The MPA seminar she led this Fall, Climate Diplomacy and International Negotiations in Practice, culminated in final papers that centered on current and future “success” of climate diplomacy. 

Plane has worked in France, Madagascar, and Afghanistan, both as a humanitarian and aid worker, as a consultant and as a diplomat. From 2016 to 2020, she was the Head of Climate unit within the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, coordinating France’s international climate negotiations.  

WI: Can you explain the key highlights of the MPA seminar, Climate Diplomacy and International Negotiations in Practice? 

We spent the semester evaluating what was at stake, understanding the perspectives of each and every member country participating in COP 27 [the 27th United Nations Climate Change conference, in November 2022 in Egypt], and learning about loss and damage, climate finance, and other concepts that may seem abstract but actually impact us all. 

In addition to guest speakers, oral practices, lectures, and discussions, the course included a written assignment at home, taking the perspective of a negotiator of the country of their choice, as a “note” to their government: Was COP 27 a success? The final exam question built on this work to ask students what would it take, from their own analysis, for COP 28 in Dubai next year to be deemed a success? These assignments enabled students to apply to real world professional situations what they learned in class and to question the very notion of “success” when it comes to the systemic and global issue of climate change.

We are sharing a selection of the assignments here to help our students begin to exert their voices and influence on this issue. 

WI: Tell us how the seminar incorporates both negotiating skills and an understanding of climate change.

By using what I’ve learned from my experiences as a climate negotiator for France, I give them both negotiating tools and a sense of how it feels to be negotiating through two different exercises.  

Adapting notes from the French negotiating team in 2015, I devote one full class to a simplified mock negotiation of the Paris Climate Agreement. In that session, students are assigned to represent a specific participating country and are provided with some background about the country’s desires and goals as well as the “red lines” that can’t be crossed. To raise the stakes – using some game theory to mirror actual events – scores rose collectively if all parties could agree to a written text, but fell individually if a country representative crossed a “red line” in their negotiations. 

The second approach involved oral practices to strengthen their active empathy skills. There, a student, representing an actual person engaged in climate change issues, presents their views to an audience of their choosing, such as scholars, politicians, or journalists. Students are permitted precisely three minutes for their presentation, and are expected to remain in character to answer questions from individuals representing very different assumptions and perspectives. While this can be very challenging, students have identified these exercises as the most enjoyable part of the course. They learn how to speak in public, hold their ground and interact with potentially hostile audiences in the safe and playful environment of the class.  

I want them to understand that climate change will not be solved by some greater “other”; rather, they have to commit to doing something about it to affect change - and that it will not be easy!

WI: What has surprised or impressed you about the students’ learning? 

What I want most from the students is commitment; I want them to care about the climate crisis that we’re collectively experiencing and I expect to see that displayed in their behavior in class. By the end of the semester, they’re practically leading the class themselves. They’ve read the news, they have questions, they challenge one another and openly share their vulnerabilities and emotions about it with the class. 

I’m amazed and humbled to hear students say – in the final session of the class – that they want to address climate change in the context of their chosen career path. Some MPA students come from countries where climate change is not being discussed, or taught, as part of their education. It’s rewarding to me that the students come to truly understand that all of us must take responsibility for addressing climate change. 

In his opening speech at the COP27 opening in Dubai, UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change) Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said, “Climate action is about everybody, everywhere in the world, every single day, doing everything they possibly can to address the climate crisis." 

We need a radical change of society, though no one wants to hear that and no one knows yet what that might require. 

— Nancy Kirsch

Samples of student responses to Plane’s questions about the success of COPs: