Can Role Play Help Us Adapt To Climate Change?

Starting in 2012, the New England Climate Adaptation Project (NECAP) began a new and exciting trial to attempt to draw local citizens and leaders’ attention to the effects of climate change. They began by selecting four coastal towns across the US and started researching how each town will need to adapt its way of functioning to become more resilient to climate change. But how to get citizens and politicians to become aware of these issues and motivated to take action? What they did was get officials and local citizens of these towns to engage in role-playing games about climate change, whilst simultaneously conducting local polling about public awareness of the threats posed by the forthcoming changes in climate. The results were astounding!

Firstly, their polling found that residents of these coastal communities were far more concerned about the consequences of climate change than local politicians had previously realised. As Susskind, the project’s director and head researcher explained: “People in official positions really underestimated the extent to which [citizens] were worried about what climate change might mean to the town.” In their polling, elected officials thought ten percent of people in their area would believe climate change is a problem right now, actual polling was around sixty percent! They also found that role-playing activities is a great way in which scholars and researchers can make people become better informed about climate response and climate adaptation, which could have major consequences for future academics wishing to spread awareness of their work.

In one of the selected towns, Dover in Delaware, the role play helped clarify the need to act on local concerns about flooding from the town’s river and about the capabilities of the town’s storm drains. Since then, dredging the river, updating the drains and installing more generators are higher in official’s priority list. This was all made possible by a few hours of work! Susskind says that the secret to making this successful is to tailor role play to different localities so citizens really know and understand the risks in their area. But has this been put into action in the real world? How would it play out in different nations? Hungary has the answers…

Hungary has begun to adopt this programme in the form of their Klímaválasz (Climate Response) programme. The Klímaválasz program helped Hungarian local governments to promptly adapt to the harmful effects of climate change impacting their municipalities. The program had two stages: a survey assessing the local population’s and local governments leaders’ awareness of climate change, and training programs for municipality leaders. More than 140 municipal and civil participants have successfully finished the training program. They report that the total population of municipalities where the local government is now ready for action to mitigate the impacts of climate change is over 1,600,000 people! 

What can we learn?

We can learn two things. One is that people in general are much more concerned about climate change than politicians seem to believe which has important implications for policy change and adherence to the will of citizens. Secondly, the programme devised by NECAP is a great way to address these challenges and enable citizens, businesses and politicians to address and understand the decisions that must be made in order to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Time is of the essence, and getting people in authority to understand the need to address climate change is urgent, this study provides a potential opportunity to do this.


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