Author: David G. Victor, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
Publication and Teaching Notes
By David G. Victor
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Climate Change Council Policy Initiative (CPI) was designed, in part, with collegiate teaching in mind, and it may also be useful in some advanced high school classes. This note offers some suggestions for using the CPI in four types of courses:
- general courses on environment and environmental policy;
- general courses on international relations;
- specialized courses on climate change and global environmental change;
- specialized courses on international environmental politics.
General Courses on Environmental Policy and International Relations
The climate issue is an ideal way to close a general course because it addresses a key issue in environmental policy and international relations. Climate is a complex scientific and political issue. Students (and government officials) must weigh the economic and moral trade-offs between policies that adapt climate change and those that seek to stop or diminish it by controlling emissions. Climate change also raises the question of the effectiveness of international treaties and institutions—and especially whether the United States should have withdrawn from the Kyoto Accord. As a result, the CPI can help students in environment classes to think about the larger economic and political context in which environmental policies are made. It can also help students in an international relations class evaluate the relative merits of unilateral action (what is called “bottom up” in the CPI) versus multilateralism.
Instructors in courses on environmental policy may want to supplement the CPI with additional material on the science of climate change. The CPI focuses on policy, but numerous sources listed in the first section of Appendix E and on the 'Related Links' section of this module offer accessible sources on the science. If you want just a brief introduction to the science, Appendices B and C, along with the material in the main text of the CPI, should do fine.
The “Memorandum to the President” that begins the CPI provides useful background reading for a lecture that you give to the whole class. The “three speeches” format is ideal for small group discussions. The discussion leader can use the three speeches to prompt student discussion on three key topics:
- How do the speeches differ in their assessments of the severity of the threat posed by climate change?
- Do any of the speeches claim that climate change is not a problem? How do the speeches differ in their assumptions about whether the United States can adapt to climate change? If the United States can adapt easily but other (especially poor) nations can not, should Americans worry?
- How do the speeches differ in their assumptions about the possibility that our climate might change abruptly? Why do judgments about the possibility of abrupt climate change matter?
- How do the speeches differ in what they recommend the United States do about climate change?
- Should the United States let the European Union(EU) experiment with possible responses to climate change so it can learn from the EU’s mistakes before acting?
- Why are some American states trying to control their emissions even though their emissions are a tiny part of the global total? Maine, for example, emits practically nothing, yet is one of the leaders in emission-reduction efforts.
- How do the speeches differ in their visions about the role for international politics and diplomacy?
- Should the United States and other countries first work out a common strategy and then codify it into an international treaty? If so, what should be done about laggards—including, perhaps, the United States?
- Why do most poor countries refuse to participate? If they oppose reducing emissions because it costs too much or will hurt their economic growth, what should rich countries do to change their views? Note: If you want students to focus on this issue, have them read Appendix A, which excerpts from the famous Byrd-Hagel resolution calling on poor countries to help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
- Would it be better to abandon the Kyoto Protocol process and just have the most powerful countries—whether rich or poor—hammer out a compromise?
- Is climate change different from the issues such as protecting the ozone layer or regulating the trade in endangered species that were covered by earlier internationalenvironmental treaties? If so, are there other international agreements [e.g., the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WHO)] that provide the best model to follow?
In a specialized course, the students will know much more about climate change or international relations, enabling them to play a larger role in class discussions. In addition to the suggestions outlined above, the CPI can be used in the following ways:
Choose a focused topic, choose small teams, and conduct a normal debate with three to four minute opening arguments, three to four minute rebuttals, five to seven- inutes of questions from the floor (the rest of the class), and three to four minutes of closing arguments. The whole debate should last half an hour. If you can hold two to three of these debates in each class (each on a different topic), then students will cover most climate-change issues. You can end the debate with a class discussion that addresses the questions identified above.
Here are some ideas for possible resolutions to start the debate:
- The State of [insert your state] should adopt an aggressive, binding target for controlling its emissions of greenhouse gases.
- The United States should refocus its climate policy on adaptation to expected effects and abandon attempts to control emissions.
- The United States should work with other major countries to identify practical strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
- Lawsuits against major emitters are a highly effective way to spur efforts to control emissions and should be applied more widely.
- The United States should raise its mandatory fuel economy standards for new cars and trucks to 40 miles per gallon (mpg) on average over the next decade.
- The United States should rejoin the Kyoto Accord.
Assign your students to write an op-ed on some aspect of the climate issue. The standard to meet is importance of the topic, clarity in presenting a specific point of view, and brevity (650-750 words). Because the op-ed is short, it requires different writing skills from a conventional term paper—the point must be made within the first or second paragraph, the writing style is usually more argumentative than in term papers, and the writing must be simple even as the ideas advanced are sophisticated. Students will need help in focusing the argument—which is best done before writing—because most students choose arguments that are either too sprawling or esoteric for good op-eds. Circulate half a dozen examples of good op-eds to give students a template to emulate.
3. Mock Cabinet Meeting
Assign your students to write a memorandum to the president. The memorandum should give an overview of the climate change situation, lay out the pros and cons of each policy option, and recommend a course of action. You can then have your students reenact a Cabinet meeting: Assign them different roles and have them defend the positions outlined in the Climate Change CPI.
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