Global Climate Change Policy (NSC)

Educator Overview

Case Overview

Fictional, set in the present day. Developed countries, including the United States, have been releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. In recent decades, rapid economic growth in major developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil has led to significant increases in their own greenhouse gas emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the federal government, have concluded that the warming observed in recent decades is a consequence of human activity. The effects of this global warming or climate change pose risks not only to the environment, but also to the security and livelihoods of people in the United States and around the world, both now and in the future. Various international responses are possible, but the questions of how to cut emissions and prepare for climate consequences, and who should bear the costs of doing so, have few simple answers. The U.S. government has convened a National Security Council (NSC) meeting to consider what goal to pursue at an upcoming international climate summit that the president plans to attend. NSC members will need to weigh the options, bearing in mind the potential impact of climate change, the potential effects of proposed measures to limit or prevent it, and the need to secure international support for the U.S. approach from both developed and developing countries.

Decision Point

A major international climate summit is approaching. At the UN climate summit in Paris in 2015, world leaders pledged to reduce or limit their countries’ emissions and to monitor progress toward these goals. However, a new scientific report warns that governments will need to make urgent and unprecedented changes beyond their commitments under the Paris Agreement to avoid serious and potentially irreversible environmental consequences. Despite this alarming information, countries have taken relatively few additional steps toward meeting ambitious targets and in some cases have even retreated from their climate commitments to the Paris Agreement. 

Most heads of governments, including the president of the United States, are attending the upcoming summit. All eyes are on Washington to see if the United States will present a new U.S. negotiating strategy in light of the report. The president has called a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) to decide if and how the United States will propose creating a more robust climate agreement that can prevent the most devastating consequences of climate change. NSC members will need to consider the potential results of climate change as well as the potential effects of proposed measures to mitigate it. Members will also need to consider the need to secure international support for the U.S. approach from both developed and developing countries.

Learning Goals

CFR Education simulations use a variety of pedagogical tools to create an effective, meaningful, and memorable learning experience for students that builds their global literacy. Students will develop crucial skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students will complete authentic assessments that feel relevant: instead of five-paragraph essays and book reports, students will write policy memos and participate in a role-play of a meeting of a foreign policy–making body. There are no right or wrong answers in actual policy deliberations, and there are none here, either; students will walk away from this experience with an appreciation for the complexity of policy questions.

In this simulation, students will learn about the National Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand threats posed by climate change as well as the international attempts to address it through international agreements such as the Paris Agreement.
  • Students will consider the national security risks posed to the United States by climate change.
  • Students will evaluate the strategic goals of the United States as it pertains to the Paris Agreement.

Concepts and Issues


  • International environmental policy
  • International economic policy
  • Multilateralism
  • International development


  • Intersection of economic and foreign policy concerns
  • Interests and responsibilities of developing and developed states
  • Uncertainty of threats and of policy effects
  • U.S. strategy at international summits, including top-down versus bottom-up approaches

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

This section presents context, potential benefits and drawbacks, and other information about the policy options outlined in the case that you may find helpful as you guide the role-play and assess students. 

The NSC’s task is to determine the United States’ strategic goal at the upcoming summit. This entails determining how or whether the United States should change its international approach to climate change following the Paris climate agreement. The decision requires attention to both environmental and economic concerns and to the interests of the other countries at the summit.

Policy Options 

Although climate change has been a prominent political issue since the 1980s, the U.S. government has failed to adopt comprehensive climate change legislation. Congress’s most recent attempt to pass a comprehensive bill was in 2009. In the absence of congressional action, President Barack Obama sought to address climate change through executive action by implementing stricter fuel efficiency standards, and through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by releasing a new set of standards for existing power plants with the 2015 Clean Power Plan (CPP). The Trump administration sought to roll back many Obama administration climate regulations, including the CCP and fuel efficiency standards, claiming that they impeded economic growth. President Biden, on the other hand, has pledged to remove carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2035 and to be on a path for net-zero emissions by 2050. He has also directed federal agencies to review and reinstate over one hundred regulations that had been weakened or removed during the Trump administration. 

President Biden has designated climate change a U.S. priority for national security and foreign policy. The Biden administration created a new executive branch position dedicated entirely to climate policy—the special presidential envoy for climate. Biden appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry to fill the position and join National Security Council meetings when relevant. These actions signal to the world that the United States aims to not only strengthen its climate ambitions but revitalize its position of global leadership on climate. 

However, the United States has lagged among developed nations in establishing comprehensive national climate policies. Despite the Biden administration’s stated position, the United States has not adopted legislation on greenhouse gas emissions reductions as doing so would require approval from a divided congress. Canada, France and the United Kingdom have already passed legislation on net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Germany currently relies on renewable energy sources for over 45 percent of its electricity. Denmark plans to source 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050. Iceland already does so. The relative lack of American achievement in this area makes it difficult for the United States to lead calls for concerted international action in multilateral negotiations. Finding a way to achieve significant, sustainable emissions reductions at home could give the United States greater credibility in negotiations abroad.

The task of the NSC is to determine the strategic goal of the United States at the upcoming summit. The decision requires attention to both environmental and economic concerns. It also requires awareness of the interests of domestic U.S. political groups as well as those of the other countries at the summit.

Three potential strategic goals have been presented to the NSC for decision: 

Renegotiate the Paris Agreement, requiring high-emitting countries to contribute to assistance programs to help countries reach stricter emissions targets.

By providing climate-related assistance to developing countries, the Paris Agreement could encourage countries to reach and increase their emissions targets while investing in climate adaptation. Without aid to climate-related initiatives in poorer countries, many signatories are less likely to agree to stricter emissions targets which could  halt the most devastating consequences of climate change. 

This option could entail renegotiating the agreement with a component that requires high-emitting member states to provide financial, technological, or professional assistance to poorer countries. This support would help poorer countries mitigate their emissions, develop or adopt new technology, or adapt to climate change. The United States and other signatories could adopt the goal of building one or more of these initiatives into the Paris Agreement.

Climate-related assistance is subject to debate. Advocates often argue that it is morally necessary because many poor countries have done little to contribute to climate change. Likewise, poor countries are likely to suffer some of its worst effects. Although this option provides the greatest possibility of immediate action on reaching stricter emissions targets and protecting global stability, gaining support for the agreement could be difficult because it puts the responsibility and cost of programs on high-emitting countries. 

Renegotiate the Paris Agreement, implementing market-based measures to mitigate climate change. 

Though virtually all legislation addressing climate change in the past has failed in Congress, market-based approaches have been considered and hold some political support. These approaches could form the basis of U.S. proposals for a renegotiated Paris Agreement. Two main options are discussed in this regard:

  • Cap-and-trade system: A cap-and-trade system directly limits emissions and creates a market price for them. It caps emissions at an agreed-upon level and issues or sells emissions permits adding up to that cap to major emitters. Those emitting less than their allotted amount can sell their extra permits to others emitting more. This creates a financial incentive to emit less. Over time, the cap is lowered, increasing the value of the ever-scarcer permits and ensuring that emissions decline. A global cap-and-trade system would set national limits on emissions. It would also establish an international market for permits. Under such a system, wealthy countries unable to meet their targets could also fund an emissions-reduction project in a developing country as compensation, a practice known as offsetting.
  • Carbon tax: A carbon tax does not directly limit emissions. However, by setting a price on CO2 emissions (usually per ton), it creates a financial incentive to reduce them. To the extent that the tax is factored in the price of consumer goods and electricity, it could make these items more expensive. Any companies are already instituting internal carbon prices that could mitigate the total effect of a tax. This option could, however, encourage individuals to consume goods associated with lower carbon emissions or to consume fewer goods and less energy overall. A tax would also raise revenue that governments could use to lower deficits, provide new services, or decrease other taxes. A global tax could be agreed to at the international level. In most cases, including in the United States, imposition of such a tax would also need to be approved by national legislatures.

Either variation has a high chance of mitigating climate change but also has many obstacles. Although both options could reduce emissions, whether these measures could cut emissions to the extent that experts say is needed remains unclear. For this reason, many countries could support a market-based approach because it provides a path toward maintaining industries that rely on carbon emissions for a longer period of time. Both cap-and-trade systems and carbon taxes are also politically controversial in many countries. In the United States some industries fear that these policies could decrease demand for their products. Likewise, consumers worry about possible higher prices. NSC members should therefore weigh the difficulties of achieving this goal against the estimated severity of the threats from climate change. 

Prioritize domestic climate measures and lead by example, keeping the Paris Agreement as is.

The Paris Agreement does not require parties to take any specific action to reduce emissions. Instead, countries make voluntary pledges that increase in ambition over time. The NSC could decide to continue this approach using the requirements and arrangements agreed to in Paris. This strategy would offer continuity and stability for other countries and U.S. industry. However, it could also mean that neither the 1.5°C or 2°C goal of the Paris Agreement is met. This would expose the entire globe to worsening climate consequences and irreversible environmental change. These changes could increase the national security risks for the country.   

If the United States decides to pursue domestic initiatives rather than renegotiate the Paris Agreement, it could seek to advance its innovations in climate change mechanisms and technology. Doing so could help regain international trust in U.S. domestic climate commitments.