Winning Public Support for Addressing Climate Change

Olivia Campbell/Maryland Department of Natural Resources

In Brief

State officials in Maryland realize that efforts to adapt to climate change require local support. They also understand that the uncertainty and complexity surrounding climate change make it hard for localities to reach agreement on what to do. Larry Susskind and Evan Paul of MIT worked with state officials to design a role-play simulation—that other states can now use— to help local leaders figure out how to manage climate change risks.

With 4,300 miles of coastline, most of Maryland sits within miles of the Atlantic Ocean or the Chesapeake Bay—and a third of the state lies between the two bodies of water. With sea levels rising, storms growing in power, and patterns of rainfall and summer temperatures changing, residents have already seen the resulting ill effects: coastal areas are losing large chunks of land to erosion, endangered species and habitats are threatened, and farmers fear that saltwater intrusion into agricultural land along the coast will ruin productivity. Each year, the edge of the water creeps closer to homes and businesses.

While many people around the world are grappling with how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next 50 years, those living in coastal areas like Maryland are pushing hard now to find immediate ways to cope with the current effects of climate change before their communities are destroyed.

In early 2007, Maryland’s governor, Martin O’Malley, signed an executive order establishing the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, which was charged with developing a state Climate Action Plan. The Plan, one of the first of its kind in the country, not only addressed how to reduce Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions but also offered some initial thoughts on how to adapt to the effects of climate change. However, Maryland’s commission and action plan were only the state’s first steps on these issues. Tough questions like who should make what sacrifices, and how they should be paid for, are multimillion-dollar decisions that weren’t yet addressed and rarely engender consensus. When interests clash around these kinds of trade-offs, public officials are often inclined to let the issue in question slide, and a stalemate ensues. Even in cases where parties want to find agreement, they often don’t know how.

At MIT, we are experimenting with using gaming to help coastal communities address the risks of climate change and broker local agreements. The Maryland governor’s office (and the state’s commissioners of environment and agriculture) invited the Consensus Building Institute (CBI), a nonprofit mediation firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded by Professor Susskind, and the MIT-USGS Science Impact Collaborative (MUSIC) to help stakeholders learn how to negotiate tough agreements related to climate change adaptation. Would a game that engaged large numbers of people who have conflicting interests make it possible to build a political constituency for action? Could a game really be the way to save these communities from the drastic effects of climate change? We believe our experience working with Maryland has found some promising results and may be instructive to others working to engage their communities in adaptation planning.

Twenty-six other states have created Climate Action Plans. However, most states have focused on policy changes that state governments are able to implement themselves, like setting energy efficiency standards or increasing a state’s use of renewable energy. Only a few states have included changes requiring cities and counties to take action, which is one of the strengths of the Maryland plan.

The state’s Commission on Climate Change recommended a range of community-level climate adaptation strategies such as reducing risks to the built environment, protecting the state’s natural resource–based industries (e.g., farming and fishing), and strengthening coastal forests and wetlands as natural defenses against future storm surges. Its report also emphasized the need for state-level research and environmental monitoring.

Making such changes requires support from a diverse set of local actors. In Maryland, as elsewhere, there is conflict between state and local governments about who will control local development. Municipal officials bristle at state efforts to supersede local land-use regulation in the name of environmental protection or “smart growth.” For a state to act, local fears need to be addressed so that resistance to state-imposed mandates can be overcome. Farmers, for example, may fear that new land-use restrictions might be imposed or that their right to use their land might be diminished. Insurers may try to control planning efforts to gain support for higher fees to insure coastal properties.

Many of the commission’s proposed solutions to protect Maryland’s coastal cities have previously been debated and rejected. Protective sea walls, for example, are incredibly expensive and impractical given the length of the state’s coastline. Buildings in flood-prone areas could be redesigned to allow water to flow underneath them, but many owners might oppose having their homes, shops, and factories rebuilt. City planners could try to rebuild or move existing bridges, roads, communication towers, power plants, water-pumping and sewage-treatment facilities so they wouldn’t be destroyed by storm surges, but that too would be incredibly expensive. Planners might be able to induce some landowners to swap locations, moving coastal agriculture and other businesses inland. At the very least, local governments could halt further construction in flood-prone areas, but people waiting to build would be outraged. All of these steps are controversial—they involve spending a lot of tax revenue, telling people what they can and can’t do with their property, and ignoring some risks entirely because all possible solutions are just too expensive or intrusive. And yet, as we argue, the water will keep rising.

One seemingly simple solution would be for the state or federal government to mandate local climate change adaptation planning, but even this is not a silver bullet. Unless all actors are onboard, cities and county officials will submit meaningless documents just to make sure higher authorities leave them alone. They won’t produce an actual agreement among relevant political stakeholders because they don’t know how. And, even when the state offers grants to help communities figure out how to adapt to climate change, most cities and towns will say, “no thanks.” Local jurisdictions are afraid of raising a complex problem that they can’t solve, and they don’t want to give the state a greater hand in telling them what to do.

When it comes to implementing complex change, all of the key stakeholders must at some point work together. While Maryland had the political will to form a commission and an initial plan, it didn’t yet have a strategy to bring the various parties together to work through inevitable problems with adopting and implementing adaptation strategies. That’s where we came in.

With support from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we developed a multi-stakeholder negotiation game focused on climate adaptation in coastal communities. The purpose of the role-play simulation was to introduce local officials and citizen stakeholders to some of the choices they will need to make over the next few years given climate change. By engaging large numbers of people with conflicting interests in this short but powerful educational exercise, we thought it might be possible to build a political constituency for action. In the process of developing and running this game statewide in Maryland, elected and appointed officials could also learn a lot more about local reactions to various adaptation measures.

The role-play simulation that CBI and MIT designed is not a computer game. It is a kind of theater exercise in which people are assigned roles, given the background information they need to play a certain part, and asked to jump into something that looks like an improv skit.

To prepare for the game, Nathan Lemphers and Evan Paul, two MUSIC research fellows, interviewed local stakeholders in Maryland to gauge reactions to different options and to identify the likely costs and benefits associated with each possible adaptation policy. The tensions the team identified were similar to those that arise in other planning and policy-making contexts—how to strike the right balance between individual choice and collective decision making, how to select between incentives and mandates, and what emphasis to place on present versus future concerns. In the Maryland case, these tensions were complicated by both the scientific complexity of the ecological systems involved as well as the uncertainty of when and how these systems might respond to changing climatic conditions. Localities are ill equipped to fully assess these issues on their own.

Lemphers and Paul collaborated with the staff at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the members of the state’s Coastal Watershed Advisory Council (many of whom had served on the climate adaptation working group for the Climate Action Plan). Lemphers and Paul also worked closely with the MUSIC program and CBI to develop the background narrative for the game, refine the scorecard of policy options, and prepare confidential instructions for each game player. In addition, they wrote instructions for the person who would facilitate the negotiations called for in each game. The game was tested in Cambridge and Maryland in the spring of 2009, and revisions were made to ensure that it aligned as closely as possible with the situation in Maryland.

The game that was developed is set in a fictional county on the Chesapeake Bay side of Maryland. The nine roles established in the game are a county commissioner, a county planner, a developer, a chamber of commerce president, an environmental advocate, a state agency biologist, an emergency manager, the head of the farmers’ association, and the head of a local residents’ association. Each player receives confidential instructions (based on interviews with real people in those everyday roles) so that they can stay in character. A mediator facilitates each negotiation, and he or she has specific instructions.

In the game, the goal of the negotiation is to agree on a set of adaptation policies for the county, chosen from the policy scorecard. The group has to achieve a minimum “effectiveness score” without exceeding a maximum cost in order to qualify for various state subsidies. Each of the players can only support certain policies. With the help of the mediator, the players have two hours to work through the different categories on the policy scorecard, and at least eight out of the nine players must agree to a final package for it to be acceptable. A unanimous agreement is preferred but not required.

On April 27, 2009, in Annapolis, more than 130 coastal stakeholders played the game, including real-life mayors, county commissioners, environmental advocates, emergency managers, business leaders, developers, and Maryland state officials. Maryland’s Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office (MACRO) recruited nearly 30 professional mediators to work with the groups of players. The secretary of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and the mayor of Annapolis kicked off the event, and several news outlets filmed the participants playing the game (the television coverage by WJZ, the local CBS affiliate, is one example; see

In the game, players in the different roles went through tough negotiations to balance interests to protect real estate values, support the local economy, make sure that agriculture and basic ecoservices weren’t depleted, and preserve the historic character of local towns—all within strict budget limitations. In real life, even when a professional mediator leads a group, it is very difficult to reach unanimous agreement. When the game was played in Annapolis, almost all of the 16 tables of players were able to get eight of nine people in their group to reach agreement, with a couple tables achieving a full consensus.

When the game was over, participants said that the experience helped them understand the policy choices they face and an approach that could help them navigate these choices. Given the diversity of perspectives at their tables—both in real life and in the game—participants also came away with a clear sense that collaborative decision making, though difficult, was possible. Professional mediation made a clear difference to them. Most of the tables were able to reach agreement in the time allotted, although a few were not.

After playing, many participants wanted to take the game back to their organizations and use it to engage their members and fellow residents. CBI and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources have been providing the technical and logistical support that local organizations will need to run the game themselves (game resources will be posted to the Building Coast-Smart Communities Website, At the Annapolis event, the state DNR also announced a grant program to support climate adaptation planning in coastal communities; cities and towns that want to play the game can apply.

The game itself is also available free of charge at the Building Coast-Smart Communities Website ( We encourage coastal communities in Maryland and across the country to use it as a tool to raise awareness about the risks localities face from climate change and the adaptation measures they can take to protect themselves.

In addition to its new grant program, the Maryland DNR is also offering technical assistance to communities that decide to develop adaptation plans. To do this at the necessary scale, the Maryland legislature will probably have to appropriate additional funds.

Getting coastal communities to adapt to the risks associated with climate change won’t be easy. In each city and town, there are those who believe that more immediate problems should always take priority over less certain risks. As with other kinds of natural disasters, like earthquakes or hurricanes, it usually takes a cataclysmic event to get the attention of those who have not yet been affected and to motivate them to take preemptive measures.

But we have hopes that dialogue and consensus-based approaches will be used in the critical first steps on adaptation. Many of the people present that day in the spring of 2009 have taken the game back to their communities to help their fellow residents understand how they might all respond effectively to the short-term climate change risks they face together. It is only a matter of time before one of Maryland’s coastal communities decides that it needs to undertake a similar consensus-building process on adaptation for real.


State of Maryland. Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change. In Climate Action Plan (2008). (accessed May 18, 2009).

Susskind, LE & Cruikshank, JL. Breaking Robert’s Rules: The New Way to Run Your Meeting, Build Consensus, and Get Results. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006).

Susskind, LE, McKearnan, S & Thomas-Larmer, J, eds. Consensus Building Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Reaching Agreement. (Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1999).

University of Washington Climate Impacts Group. Preparing for Climate Change: A Guidebook for Local, Regional, and State Governments. (September 2007). (accessed Month Day, Year).