Climate talks come early for UChicago students

University of Chicago law students will hold a simulated climate negotiation as part of their “Law and Policy of Climate Change” seminar.

While international negotiators will meet in Paris in December to hash out a plan to confront climate change, University of Chicago law students will be duking it out in the weeks before the much-anticipated talks. As part of a simulated negotiation for David Weisbach’s seminar, "The Law and Policy of Climate Change," the 20 students will form teams to represent six countries or regions and the United Nations. As with the talks in Paris, whether or not the students reach an agreement is all up to them, says Weisbach.

“Many of the students are concerned about the environment and very much want the world to agree to a strong climate treaty. It will be hard for the students who represent a countries like the U.S. or China to represent them sufficiently aggressively because these countries will be reluctant to agree to strong or binding emissions cuts,” says Weisbach, the Walter J. Blum Professor of Law, “They don’t have to worry about voters at home who will throw them out of office because they’re shutting down coal plants. It will be easier for them to reach an agreement than it will be in the real world.”  

Still, that doesn’t guarantee an agreement will be reached. Fortunately, the students aren’t graded on how tough they are while in the negotiations or on the outcome, but on how well they know their positions. As preparation, they must turn in Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) for their country or region, as well as any other relevant information they want to circulate to the other negotiators to support their positions. In the case of teams like the US, EU, China and India – countries that have publically released their INDCs – the students will use these real plans. The team representing the UN is in charge of deciding the agenda for the conference and issues that must be addressed.

"This to me is really exciting," third year law student Alexander Gross says. “I think it puts a real frame of what the issues are. It’s way more complicated than to stop making coal powered plants—there’s a lot of socioeconomic differences that don’t get talked about a lot.”

Weisbach has taught a similar seminar twice before, but brought it back this fall because of the timeliness. The subject of climate change to him is “inherently interesting” and “one of the most important problems in the world.” 

“I think it’s important at this point to have lawyers think about climate change because we’re at a stage of implementing and drafting and doing things,” Weisbach says. “That’s where a lawyer’s expertise comes in.”

Along with learning what it’s like to negotiate a climate agreement, students focus on other important problems such as the ethics and inequalities surrounding climate change. They also learn about the science and impacts of climate change, and various mechanisms to confront the challenge, such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade. They even spend a two-hour class talking about the ins and outs of the Clean Power Plan.

"I really do appreciate the realistic nature [of the course]," Gross says. "I don’t think this course is a course for dreamers, I think it’s a course for realists who want to see action."

While Weisbach hopes the big picture nature of the class will encourage students to follow career paths on this topic, there are practical skills the students can acquire.

"I imagine this course will teach me stronger negotiating tactics, as well as how to develop innovative compromises that maximize the benefit to all concerned parties,” says third year law student Michelle Hayner. "This course feels unique in that rather than focusing on the law of a particular area, it focuses on how the law might be used in conjunction with other mechanisms to bring about large-scale societal change.”

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