Students Trek to the White House to Take on Global Warming

June 8, 2000
Frank A. Micciche

Eight Kennedy School students find themselves engaged in a heated debate on global warming policy in a park directly across from the White House during the last week of May. We excitedly, sometimes testily, exchange the knowledge we’ve accumulated in our quest to address one of the most pressing public policy issues of the day: global climate change.

"The United States has to show that it is serious about reducing its own emissions before we expect less developed countries to agree to targets and timetables," says one. Others of us, however, feel adamantly that an international agreement on emissions reduction needs to come first before the world can make any real progress.

Another protest gone bad? No, in this case we are not dissidents. We are first year Master of Public Policy students participating in the Kennedy School’s Spring Exercise, a public policy "moot court." We have been chosen to brief Gene Sperling, head of President Clinton’s National Economic Council, on how to combat global warming.

During the Spring Exercise ritual, core classes are suspended so that we can digest nearly 1,000 pages of briefing material on a particular policy issue. The first week includes seminars led by prominent scholars and practitioners. We prepare an individual memo, this year focused on how to address the intransigence of China and India in agreeing to reduce emissions. In the second week, randomly assigned groups are responsible for compiling a 25-page briefing book and 20-minute presentation to be given to a "mock" cabinet-level official. The students with outstanding memos and the group judged to have given the strongest presentation, travel to Washington DC to present their findings to the Administration.

So just a day after completing final exams, we find ourselves in a park in our nation’s capital, scrambling to put the finishing touches on our presentations to Sperling. We will recommend a strategy for the US delegation to COP-6, the sixth round of negotiations on an international plan to combat global warming.

A few hours later, the tension of our wait is eased by a drive-by "hello" from General Colin Powell. Then all of us -- Sophia Chang, Dan Erikson, Brian Min, Catherine Wiesner, Hilary Holbrook, Adam Mocciolo, Taiya Smith and I -- find ourselves splayed around a nondescript conference table in Sperling’s decidedly low-key White House office. Our host proves supremely knowledgeable on the multifaceted climate change debate. We all feel a little intimidated.

But then somewhere in the middle of our meeting -- which unexpectedly extended to an hour and a half -- we discover that the Clinton Administration has struggled for the last eight years with the same ambiguities and misgivings that we did during Spring Exercise. It seems even those with decades of diplomatic and scientific experience can not package a global warming proposal amenable to all sides. Similarly compelling is Sperling’s revelation that the President pushes the "clean growth" message that we had made the center of our presentation to every head of state he encounters.

As we depart 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, our heads still swim with the surreal nature of being a stressed-out graduate student one day and White House advisors the next. And we agree that we will never forget the moment when we found ourselves at the White House with the same answers, and many of the same questions, as the real-life "cast" of the West Wing.

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