Teaching Activities (Free)

The Climate Crisis Trial: A Role Play on the Roots of Global Warming

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. Rethinking Schools. Who — or what — is to blame for the terrible effects of the climate crisis? This trial role play helps students understand the complicated factors involved.
Time Periods: 20th Century, 21st Century
Themes: Climate Justice

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Our response to the climate crisis depends on who or what we think is causing it. This trial role play helps students understand how complicated it is to assess “guilt.” It’s an engaging activity in which students defend entities charged with causing the climate crisis, as they point the finger at others. Ultimately, it asks them to consider how different factors are linked together, and, depending on their assessment of blame, to propose what justice looks like. The climate crisis is no laughing matter, but this activity provides a lively and playful way to explore the issues.

In groups, students will represent five different “defendants” in a mock trial: The “Market”—the System of Global Capitalism; the U.S. Government; U.S. Consumers; the Governments of China, India, and Other “Developing” Countries; and Oil and Coal Companies. Explain that in this trial role play, each group is charged with causing the climate crisis and all its ravages: the destruction of cultures, extinction of species, putting at risk the lives of people all over the world, and even threatening the lives of people in future generations.

Descriptive indictments for each defendant are included in the lesson for students to study and refer back to. Groups of students will prepare a defense for their role and you as teacher will play the prosecutor.

Water rushing through trees (photo) | Zinn Education ProjectExplain that students’ responsibility will be both to defend their own group and to explain which group or groups they think are guilty, and why. If students are puzzled by any of the defendants, tell them not to worry: The charges are explained in each indictment and, in any event, it’s your job as the prosecutor to argue the charges against them. Tell them each group will receive a written copy of their indictment.

In their groups, students will read the indictments and will prepare a defense against the charges. Select several students to be jurors, and will swear them to neutrality. As prosecutor, you will begin by arguing the guilt of one group. The students in the accused group will defend themselves and will offer their thoughts on who is the guilty party or parties. The jury then questions the accused group, and others may question the group and offer direct rebuttals.

Climate Justice More Resources Ad | Zinn Education ProjectThis process is repeated until all groups have been accused and have defended themselves. The jury then deliberates and makes its decision.

Note: Especially if this trial role play is taught at the end of a unit, it lends itself to a writing assignment. The trial deals with the question: Who or what is responsible for the climate crisis and all the misery it brings, and will bring—and what does that mean for what should be done? Ask students to write an essay that “answers” this question and that also proposes what should be done about it.

Classroom Story

I recently used the Climate Crisis Trial in my Economics of Social Issues class. The trial setting, in which students had to defend themselves against criminal accusations, made this activity highly engaging. It also points out the complexity of the climate change problem: all of the defendants in the activity are guilty to some degree. I assigned the role of prosecutor to a student who is involved in mock trial and he did an amazing job. I will definitely use this activity again.

—Emily Cooper
High Social Studies Teacher, Fort Collins, Colorado

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Lesson originally published by Rethinking Schools | Zinn Education ProjectThis lesson was originally published by Rethinking Schools in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth.


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