Learning the Complexity of Political Negotiations

The Graduate School of Political Management hosted a climate change simulation workshop for students from GW and other universities.

Climate Change Simulation 2022
GSPM professor Michael Cornfield leads a discussion at a Climate Change Simulation. (William Atkins/GW Today)
March 26, 2022

By B.L. Wilson

At a Climate Change Simulation workshop, George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management students joined students from other universities in testing their negotiating skills to address the issue of carbon emissions reduction in the United States, Mexico and Canada trade agreement.

GSPM Associate Professor of Political Management Michael Cornfield said the idea was to learn “about how to negotiate strategically within and among teams [and] gain knowledge about climate change/energy policy and the policymaking process in two different types of political regimes.” 

In the University Student Center ballroom Thursday afternoon, teams of students from GW, Texas Southern University and the University of Navarra Spain—about 30 students in all--broke into groups representing the interests of the Biden administration, the Republican Party, the current government of Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopes Obrador, Mexico’s Opposition Alliance, the American and Mexican petroleum industries, investors, lobbyists and environmental activists. The status of climate change in the United States, Canada and Mexico was among five issues the students negotiated.

The Mexican and U.S. teams were tasked with determining whether the current United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement should include a provision on climate change that brings the countries in line with pledges made in the Paris Agreement. The Mexican teams had to face questions regarding the cost and impact of oil production and reliance on a refinery in Texas and how much to invest in renewable fuels. The United States groups considered whether to suspend a gasoline tax and where to find more than $500 billion to subsidize the advancement of renewable energy.

In the initial phases of the negotiations, the parties involved appeared to be getting along and willing to compromise. The Democrats representing the Biden administration and the Republicans agreed to extend the 45-day suspension of taxes on gasoline after prices were driven up by inflation and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A representative of Pemex, Mexico’s government run oil company, seemed to think it had an agreement with the American Petroleum Institute allotting them $13 billion over the next 15 years to rebuild its refineries.

Cornfield said as often happens in simulated exercises, things were going along too nicely so he decided “to ratchet up the conflict with the crisis of a looming hurricane in Houston” that would affect both the United States and Mexico. By the final round, only the investors, the industry lobbyists and United States government seemed happy with the outcomes.

“The American people are resilient, and the hurricane would be an accident, not a disaster,” said Alicia De Haro Acosta, speaking for the group representing Republicans.

The Mexican government whose main interest was increasing production of oil and natural gas couldn’t come to terms with the United States on the trade agreement or attract investors.

Din Hu Cruz, a University of Navarra student who was representing Pemex, said the deal with the American Petroleum Institute fell through because the impending hurricane added operations costs for the company. In effect, Mexico walked away empty handed.

GW graduate student Robert Bertha’s role in the simulation was as an industry lobbyist. Bertha said his group found that Pemex was trying to cut deals with multiple organizations, including groups investing in reducing carbon emissions.

“I’m looking at it from what API and the oil industry was looking for and their own business model, Bertha said. “They would prefer a longer transition to more sustainable green energy.”

The Mexican opposition parties complained that they couldn’t get anyone to negotiate with them, and someone could be heard blurting out “corruption.”

The environmental activists took the stage and called for a moment of silence, saying, “It is very sad to see you rejecting us…. The Biden administration and all the others. You really have to think about what you’re doing with our planet and our people.” And then as a group, they walked out.

A fact sheet released before the workshop noted that more environmental activists have been killed in Mexico than any other nation in the world except Colombia.

GSPM student Renna Ba found the exercise challenging especially as a representative of the Mexican government which had little interest in reducing its oil and gas operations and cutting emissions. “No one from other groups came to me,” Ba said. “It was me going to other groups seeing where we could come to agreement. I think I could have been more effective if I was assigned to a group I believed in, an environmentalist, and made a more passionate argument.”

Mary Crannell, a GSPM adjunct professor, said she appreciated how the students were able to step out of their normal identities and then asked the groups what they had learned from the exercise. One student responded, “Your agreements are not always respected. There is a difference in what is said privately than what is said publicly.”

Texas Southern graduate student Vicky Adams, who was part of the Climate Action 100+, businesses that are pouring 65 trillion dollars into reducing emissions concluded, “People with money rule the world. That’s basically it. We were kind of in control of everything. Everybody was coming to us.”

At the end of the exercise, Cornfield also emphasized how impressed he was that students were able to step outside of themselves: “Students identified some of the recurring difficulties: not knowing the other people at the table, how people change when sessions become public, and how having multiple issues on the agenda can facilitate trade-offs, compromises, and substantive accomplishments.”



Learning & Research, Politics and Society