Role-Play Simulations and Managing Climate Change Risks

Climate change risks are an increasingly important consideration in many decisions with long-term implications, such as choices around economic development and infrastructure investment. It does not make sense to invest in projects that will be destroyed by sea-level rise or undermined by sustained drought. The enormous uncertainty associated with climate change makes it difficult, however, for decision-makers to plan ahead. This is particularly true in developing countries, where pressing needs like poverty reduction often trump long-term considerations about sustainability.

Role-Play Simulations: A Useful Roadmap for Decision Makers

Role-play simulations are one tool that decision-makers can use to learn how to incorporate climate change risks into short-term and long-term decision-making. They can be used to bring actual policy-makers and other key stakeholders together to discuss climate change risks, raising the profile of these often-neglected considerations. By providing participants with realistic, but fictionalized scenarios in which difficult choices have to be made, simulations provide a useful roadmap for making sound decisions. Moreover, by providing decision-makers with a “safe” opportunity to experiment with collaborative decision-making, simulations can help leaders realize that engaging stakeholders will help them produce wiser and more politically credible decisions, even in the face of great uncertainty.

One CBI project that demonstrates the value of role-play simulations was developed in partnership with the World Resources Institute (WRI) in 2010. WRI was in the process of preparing its influential global report on “Decision Making in a Changing Climate”, which is part of its World Resources Report series. WRI wanted a window into how government officials in developing countries would likely respond to emerging climate threats. After consulting with CBI, the organizations established a partnership to develop a pair of simulation exercises to play with actual decision-makers in Ghana and Viet Nam.

The exercises simulated the kinds of challenges and difficult trade-offs that decision makers may face in the near future as a result of climate change. The ways in which participants grappled with these decisions, the choices they ultimately made and the subsequent debriefs foreshadowed how decision-makers may respond in the future. The results informed WRI’s research and final report. The exercises also provided a unique learning experience for participants and many of the benefits we typically see when running simulations – an opportunity to “unfreeze” participants and efficiently convey lessons in a non-threatening way.

The Ghana Case

One exercise, the “Bepo Dam Plan,” was based on the real situation in Ghana, where hydroelectricity is a key source of energy but potentially faces serious threats due to the potential of drier weather and more erratic precipitation. In fact, Ghana has already faced significant power shortages due to low water levels over the last decade. CBI interviewed 24 people and used the most current climate data and literature to make the game as realistic as possible. The scenario is, however, fictitious, taking place in the fictional country of Suna and based on situations that countries like Ghana may face in the future.

In the exercise, Suna is planning to construct a new hydroelectric dam (the Bepo) to overcome its current supply deficit and meet its rapidly growing electricity needs. Rainfall patterns and instream flows have, however, been erratic in recent years, and a new scientific report based on climate projections is suggesting that they may become increasingly so. The report presents three different scenarios – one in which Suna becomes much dryer, another in which rainfall is more concentrated into a rainy season and a third in which the traditional patterns persist. The first scenario would render the dam virtually useless, the second would significantly reduce its installed capacity while still allowing for some electricity generation and the third would allow the dam to perform as planned.

Decision makers need to weigh the alternatives and decide how to proceed in the face of uncertainty. The alternatives are to stop the project, pause it in order to conduct more research or proceed as planned. Participants must also consider a series of corollary questions, including how such decisions should be made and who should be involved; how to weigh the project relative to the alternatives; and how the future should be weighted against the present. Each participant plays a role different than that they fill in the real world and is provided with a set of ‘confidential instructions’, which are designed to draw out the various issues at play and interests at stake. For example, the Water Authority is concerned about the overall and long-term health of the watershed, and thus would like to see the proposed dam stopped or at least reevaluated. Conversely, the Association of Industries is desperate for the electricity and thus opposed to any delay. If a delay is unavoidable, however, they do see some opportunity to capitalize on the growing renewables sector.

Ghana Decision Makers Reflect on Their Own Situation

The Bepo Dam Plan exercise was facilitated in Ghana in November of 2010 in partnership with the Ghana Energy Commission, UNDP and WRI. More than 25 senior government officials and other key stakeholders participated in the full-day workshop, playing the game and then debriefing to reflect on the lessons learned and connect them to their own situations. The exercise and subsequent discussion underscored the challenges decision-makers will face when balancing competing priorities and grappling with the uncertainty associated with climate change. Despite the potential risk that the project would fail to be viable in the medium- to long-term, all three role-play groups decided to proceed with the project with no delay, or a very brief delay for further research.

Many participants emphasized that meeting current development needs is a priority that cannot be sacrificed to address uncertain future risks. This generated valuable discussion around how much risk is acceptable. Many participants noted that risk is inevitable within any large project, and the 10% risk of total failure presented in the scenario seemed reasonable to them. In addition, a single report highlighting climate risks did not seem sufficiently reliable or convincing to hold up a national development priority, participants said. Equally important, however, several groups explored low-cost options that would make the project more resilient in the face of multiple climate scenarios. These “no-regrets” solutions to addressing risk appear to be a viable pathway forward for countries that feel a crushing short-term development imperative. More information on the workshop and its outcomes may be found on the World Resources Report website.

The Viet Nam Case

Like the Ghana game, the Viet Nam simulation was developed with significant input from local, national and international interviewees. It is based on the real situation in Viet Nam, where the densely populated, low-lying Mekong Delta is an important source of food production and economic activity. It is also seriously threatened by climate change, particularly sea level rise.

The simulation, “Agricultural Planning in the Bien Gio River Delta,” explores the risks the Mekong Delta faces from sea level rise and the government’s priorities around adapting to climate change risks. It presents a situation in which an international donor has offered funds to a fictional developing country, Rinsap, in order to assist its Bien Gio River Delta in preparing for climate change. The simulation asks a group of government officials, scientists, and farmers to prioritize funds among a variety of adaptation measures: protecting at-risk areas with man-made and natural infrastructure, identifying new agricultural technologies, developing alternative livelihoods, and resettling at-risk populations.

To implement the game, CBI partnered with the prestigious Can Tho University (CTU), located in the Mekong Delta’s largest city. CTU provided key input on the simulation, to ensure it was realistic and appropriate for a Vietnamese audience. They also invited participants and hosted a one-day workshop during which the simulation was run. Approximately 50 people attended, including national and provincial government representatives, scientists, farmers, and representatives of two international organizations (UNDP and IUCN). CTU staff members facilitated four separate groups that played this eight-party negotiation game at the same time.  The use of facilitators was particularly important since none of the Vietnamese participants had been involved in a multiparty role-play before.

Vietnam Game Debriefing Is Key to Organizational and Individual Learning

All four groups recommended protecting existing land and ways of life as the top priority, and therefore allocated most of the money to adaptation measures aimed at protection. On the other hand, during the debriefing of the game results, participants noted that the inclusion of climate change risks as a key element in the simulation drove them to think more creatively than they otherwise would, for example by allocating funds to the development of new agricultural technologies and not just to protective infrastructure. They also noted that the simulation forced them to consider controversial measures like resettlement, that are not actually on the table in real life.

Participants found the simulation’s emphasis on perspective taking, and the idea of collaborative decision-making, innovative. At first, several participants wanted to know why we asked them to play roles that were different from the positions they held in real life – they argued that, for example, scientists could best play the scientist roles in the game. As the day went on, however, many participants began to delve deeply into their roles, taking on perspectives and interests to which they were not accustomed. During the debriefing, some participants emphasized that they had learned from taking on other roles, and highlighted the importance of ensuring that decision-makers (and donors) understand the real needs “on the ground” from various standpoints. One participant even pressed a national government representative who was participating on the need to more directly engage local stakeholders on climate change adaptation decisions in the Mekong Delta.  CBI often finds that a carefully tailored simulation can create opportunities for real life stakeholders to talk productively in ways that would not otherwise be possible in the usual political forums. More information on the workshop and its outcomes may be found on the World Resources Report website.

Best Practice Lessons Learned

CBI’s experiences in Ghana and Viet Nam, as well as with other similar role-play learning efforts, have underscored three ways in which role-play simulations can be particularly useful in helping decision-makers think about the complex public policy choices that they face.

First, the workshops made clear that, with help from influential conveners, simulations can be used to bring senior-level policy-makers and leaders of stakeholder groups together to talk about tough political choices that are rarely discussed in other forums.  The help of well-respected local conveners was key getting the right people in the room. Once participants were together, the role-play simulations provided excellent vehicles for meaningful conversation about climate change risks. They allowed participants to discuss the topic in a fictional, and therefore less threatening, context, at first, while the debrief discussions created a space for connecting the results of the simulations to actual policy-making opportunities. 

A related lesson, which we saw particularly in Ghana, is that a fictionalized – but realistic – simulation makes it easier for participants to see the value of a “no regrets” approaches to major decisions. These approaches allow policy-makers to hedge uncertainty and take into account the concerns of different stakeholders. Because role-play simulations present fictional decision points, participants tend to be more open to thinking through various perspectives and future climate change scenarios than they would be in real life. This often leads them to look for solutions that would hold up in a variety of future scenarios and for most of the interest groups at the table – in other words, “no regrets” options. At the same time, since the fictional decision points involve real risks and interests, and since the simulation is connected to participants’ real contexts during the debriefing, they can begin to think about actual “no regrets” options associated with the upcoming choices that they face.

Finally, role-play simulations encourage participants to consider a variety of perspectives and provide participants with a chance to try collaborative decision-making, which might not reflect current political realities.  In these ways, they can help decision-makers see that it is possible to engage stakeholders in a consensus-building effort even on a question as complex as climate change adaptation. We saw this clearly in Viet Nam, as participants for the first time played a role that was unfamiliar to them, and then emphasized the value of stakeholder engagement, something that is not usually given high priority, during the debriefing. As one participant in the Viet Nam exercise said, “not any single institution or agency can deal with climate change…so participation is important.”

These exercises also introduced the concept of scenario planning. In general, scenarios are a useful way to approach uncertainty. They present a set of alternative but entirely possible futures against which proposed interventions can be measured. The best interventions or pathways forward are those that are sound under multiple scenarios.

Addressing the risks associated with climate change will not be easy given the uncertainty and competing priorities, especially in the developing world, where resources are all the more scarce. Role-play simulations are a powerful way to introduce decision-makers to the potential challenges ahead and provide some preliminary ideas on how they may proceed. Simulations must, however, acknowledge the competing priorities and limited resources. Furthermore, they should encourage stakeholders to work together and consider new ways of making decisions while recognizing existing decision-making structures. Finally, working with local partners is essential to make the scenario believable and ensure that the right people are in the room to participate.

The simulations used in these cases are designed for use outside of Ghana and Viet Nam. Both role-plays are available from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School Clearinghouse (see sidebar) at very modest cost, and include teaching notes with guidance for running them in a variety of settings.