A Classroom Game for Teaching Climate Ethics

by David R. Morrow

I’d known, in some sense, that games could be effective teaching tools. But, appropriately enough, it took playing a game at a conference to really drive the point home for me. The game had been organized by Pablo Suarez, the Associate Director for Research and Innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Center. Pablo’s team has developed a large set of games for teaching various lessons about climate change and other issues. (You can find them here.) Their web site also explains the advantages of using games in your teaching: they encourage participation and active learning; by forcing students to make decisions and get feedback on their decisions, they encourage students to think critically and reflect on the material; and not least of all, they’re fun. In my own experience, students respond well to games, and the games help hammer home key points in ways that lectures, reading, and discussion rarely do.

With that in mind, I designed a game to pair with Catriona McKinnon’s accessible paper, “Runaway Climate Change: A Justice-Based Case for Precautions” (Journal of Social Philosophy 40 [2009]: 187–203). McKinnon’s paper argues that justice requires precautionary approaches to climate change to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points, such as the thawing of vast methane deposits in Arctic permafrost. Such threats of catastrophe are real, but they’re distant in almost every sense of the word. To get students to feel the need for precaution, I wanted something that would bring the threat to them.

I called my game “Extra Credit Catastrophe.” In brief, it works like this: The students represent global society. Each one receives a bag of small candies—Skittles, in my class—representing their wealth. For each of eight rounds (representing the remaining decades of this century), each student must decide how much wealth to “spend” on “mitigating climate change.” I then roll a die to determine how much the planet will warm in that round, subtracting a larger or smaller amount depending on how much “global society” has spent. The class’s ultimate goal is to prevent warming from crossing the threshold for a catastrophe. That threshold is somewhere between 1.5ºC and 3.0ºC, but they don’t know exactly where. If they stay below the threshold, everyone gets extra credit. If they surpass the threshold, catastrophe strikes and no one gets the extra credit. To complicate things, however, each student has another opportunity for extra credit: anyone who has at least ten candies at the end of the game gets some individual extra credit, giving each player a personal incentive not to mitigate.

In my own class, the game generated excellent and insightful class discussion, which covered not only the main point of McKinnon’s paper, but also a range of important issues in climate ethics, including distributive justice, procedural fairness, transparency, priority for the worst off, climate finance, and more.

You can download a complete description of the game here, as well as a spreadsheet useful for preparing and playing the game.


David R. Morrow is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy at George Mason University, a Faculty Fellow at the School of International Service at American University, and a parent to two small children who would really appreciate it if we could avoid those catastrophic climate tipping points. He previously taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Hunter College. In addition to his work on climate ethics, he is the author or co-author of three textbooks: Moral Reasoning: A Text and Reader on Contemporary Moral Issues (OUP, 2017); Giving Reasons: An Extremely Short Introduction to Critical Thinking (Hackett, 2017); and A Workbook for Arguments (Hackett, 2015), co-authored with Anthony Weston.


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