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In the Classroom: ‘Environmental negotiations are tough’

Students in assistant professor Laura Kuhl’s “International Environmental Policy” class got a taste of what it’s like to participate in a multi-stakeholder negotiation of a water crisis.

On Tuesday, March 20, students participated in a negotiation simulation involving two fictitious developing countries, Pablo and Burford. The nations share a contaminated watershed and face water quantity issues due to inefficient irrigation.

Students were tasked with developing a sustainable solution that met the needs of each stakeholder. Some students represented government agencies, while others acted as representatives of NGOs, international organizations and industry groups. Each student was given a confidential packet of materials which included their position and interests, as well as data and financial resources.

Brett Borer, who is majoring in Environmental Studies and Political Science, said the negotiation felt more like dodgeball, as students started rattling off their positions. But it also shed light on the challenges of a real-life negotiation, he said.

“Our negotiation demonstrated that environmental negotiations are tough, especially on the topic of sustainable agriculture,” he said. “Farmers are worried about crops; technology groups are worried about innovation; environmental groups are worried about contamination; and government is worried about people. Trying to appease all these interests is a difficult task, and a solution has to revolve around compromise in order to gain a positive result. The hard question these groups face is: ‘when are they willing to compromise?’”

Students in assistant professor Laura Kuhl’s “International Environmental Policy” class participate in a multi-stakeholder negotiation of a water crisis.

Emma Thornton, a student in the Environmental Science Program, said the simulation allowed her to understand what it’s like to participate in negotiations through the lens of an organization that cares more about capital than the environment, or people’s health and safety.

“This exercise makes me realize that the result of negotiations can depend, at least partially, on the order of topics since there is a sense of obligation: if another speaker gives up something for you, you should return the favor and be flexible,” Thornton said. “It brings in a human aspect to negotiating that I did not originally consider and makes me think about the personal relationships and timing which must alter the path of negotiations.”

“PPUA 5390: International Environmental Policy” explores key environmental challenges from an international perspective. Throughout the semester, students learned the history of global environmental governance, examined international environmental politics, and covered policy options related to water and agriculture.

According to professor Kuhl, consistent themes throughout the course include the tensions between developed and developing countries, economic and environmental interests, and short-term versus long-term priorities, all of which were at play in the negotiation.

“The negotiation gives students an opportunity to practice mutual gains negotiation strategies and develop solutions that meet diverse stakeholder needs and provide insights into the challenges of negotiating complex agreements,” Kuhl said. “The negotiation is a great example of the challenges of decision-making under uncertainty and with poor data, both of which are common issues for international environmental policy.”

Professor Laura Kuhl leads a discussion of students’ experience participating in the negotiation simulation.

During the three-hour negotiation, students focused on creating value for stakeholders within the simulated communities, reaching six passed agreements. Yet the challenges of competing state interests were crystal clear, they said.

“It helped me understand how difficult it is to come to an agreement and the plethora of interests that come into play when you have to resolve these issues,” said Yvette Niwa, a fourth-year student with majors in International Affairs and Environmental Studies.

As a representative for Precinct 4 in Walpole, graduate student Justin Haner has seen the human element of negotiations, which, he said, became increasingly clear as students neared the deadline for the simulation.

“At town meeting … our meetings often run late into the night. While the agenda items that are brought up early are debated thoroughly, votes pass with much less opposition as the hour gets late and the representatives are thinking about when they need to get up for work the next morning,” Haner said. “The same was true for our simulation. In the beginning, the issues were fiercely debated. But as the simulation went on, common ground was easier to find, and votes started passing.”

Published On: April 9, 2018 |
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