Fostering Dialogue about Local Climate Change Risks and Adaptation through Citizen Role Plays

CBI partners with MIT and NERRS to study the effect of role-play simulations on activism and planning around climate change adaptation

Background and Challenges

Adapting to climate change presents an unprecedented and increasingly urgent planning challenge for small coastal towns, particularly as these communities are already beginning to experience the effects of a changing climate.  Decision-makers face difficulty in gaining support for the tough choices and tradeoffs that adaptation can require, especially when there is a lack of public concern and knowledge about the reality, immediacy, or severity of climate change risks. When this is the case, raising awareness and educating the public about climate change threats are key first steps to building public support for adaptation.

In 2012, CBI partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Science Impact Collaborative (MIT SIC) and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) on a two-year action research project to explore the potential of “serious games” to raise awareness about climate change adaptation in four coastal New England towns. The New England Climate Adaptation Project (or NECAP), which is supported by a grant from the NERRS Science Collaborative, has engaged over 500 people in role-plays that simulate a collective problem-solving scenario focused on climate adaptation. Each of the partner cities and towns  (Cranston, RI; Wells, ME; Dover, NH; and Barnstable, MA) has been extremely supportive and is using the momentum created by the research project to promote actual adaptation measures in their municipalities.

The CBI Approach

CBI and partners run tailored community role-plays and analyze research findings to understand citizen responses to simulated climate action scenarios

During the first year of the project, the NECAP team worked with climate change consultants at the University of New Hampshire to generate localized climate change projections for the four partner municipalities and to translate these projections into Summary Risk Assessments.  At the same time, CBI staff worked with MIT graduate students to conduct a stakeholder assessment in each town, using in-depth interviews with key stakeholders to develop an understanding of local attitudes about climate change risks and perceived barriers and opportunities for adaptation.  This information was used to create tailored, science-based simulations for each site.

The adaptation simulations were also created with the intent of getting participants thinking and talking about some key ideas, including:

  • The impact of near-term decisions on long-term costs and resiliency
  • The importance of credible scientific information to the decision-making process
  • “No-regrets” actions that will likely benefit the community in any future climate scenario
  • The need to work productively with a diversity of stakeholders
  • The potential for a consensus building approach to aid community progress on planning and preparing for climate change
  • The importance of credible scientific information to the decision-making process

In the second year of the project, the NECAP team engaged 110 to 170 people in each town through a series of role-play simulation workshops. In the simulation, game participants took on an assigned role—such as a government official, environmental advocate, representative of the business community, or a neighborhood association member—in a hypothetical community that has many of the same characteristics and faces the same sort of climate-related challenges their city or town faces in reality. Assuming their assigned roles, participants engaged in a 60-minute mock decision-making process about how this community should manage local climate change risks. During the workshops, NECAP researchers asked participants to fill out a short questionnaire before the game and another questionnaire directly after the simulation and follow-up debriefing. About five weeks after each workshop, researchers conducted in-depth follow-up interviews with about 30 percent of all workshop participants. The NECAP team also conducted a randomized public opinion survey before the games began, and plans to do a similar post-intervention survey in early June 2014. The team is also monitoring local media and public opinion to help determine whether the simulations have had any effect on broader attitudinal shifts in the towns.


Towns build a sense of community and raise climate change awareness non-divisively through NECAP role-plays

Although data analysis is ongoing, it is clear the simulations succeeded in more positively and effectively framing the dialogue around climate adaption.  Participants not only enjoyed the role-play exercise, but also report that they left the workshops with an enhanced understanding of local climate risks, the need for local adaptation efforts, the importance of public engagement, and the general benefits of collaboration.  Through the simulation, workshop participants also developed a sense of empathy for the different interests and perspectives in their community; we believe will help our partner cities and towns move forward with more collaborative adaptation efforts.

The NECAP team’s next step is to discuss the results of the work to date with officials, business leaders, and residents in the partner municipalities and to help these communities decide where to go from here.

Visit the NECAP website to learn more about the project. 

Additional information on NECAP can be found on the following articles:

•    “Helping Coastal Communities Prepare for Climate Change”
•    “Collective Climate Adaptation: Can Games Make a Difference?”

Photo credit: Wells Reserve