“The Big Melt” on Primetime

Summer 2019

Arctic Role-Play Exercise Showcases Debate

Kennedy School student Laura Merryfield, playing the role of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, speaks “to camera” during a simulated Anderson Cooper 360 broadcast on the future of the Arctic.

Kennedy School student Laura Merryfield, playing the role of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, speaks “to camera” during a simulated Anderson Cooper 360 broadcast on the future of the Arctic.

In a role-play exercise that was the capstone for a Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) spring course, “Controversies in Climate, Energy, and theMedia: Improving Public Communication,” students played the roles of world leaders and activists speaking on a fictitious cable television program titled, “The Big Melt: The Future of the Arctic.”

Carrying a “School Strike for Climate” sign (in Swedish), Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) student Katie Segal—playing the role of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg—gave a passionate plea for international action to help save the Arctic: “I’m just one voice but I represent the voice of the youth who cannot speak.” The fictitious program was modeled after a CNN Anderson Cooper 360° primetime show.

“The Arctic exercise improved my understanding of the many stakeholders who influence the future of the Arctic and especially helped me learn how to communicate my message in a short amount of time,” said Segal, an MPP student and research assistant for the Arctic Initiative. In the tightly scripted 75-minute cable television simulation, 20 students played international leaders in government, business, environment, climate science, Indigenous rights, and journalism.

HKS student Laura Merryfield, as CNN host Anderson Cooper, opened the show with a warning: “Temperatures are rising twice as fast in the Arctic, and glacial melting is already causing drastic changes to the region.” The broadcast featured a series of imitation press conferences from Reykjavík, Iceland in which students gave two-minute opening remarks before taking tough questions from reporters, played by their classmates.

“I chose the Arctic as our student role-play topic to dramatize challenges in communicating the urgency of the climate change crisis to the global public,” said HKS Adjunct Lecturer and Environment and Natural Resources Program (ENRP) Senior Fellow Cristine Russell. A science journalist, Russell has joined ENRP staff and HKS students at the Arctic Circle Assembly meetings in Reykjavík since 2015. “The Arctic climate story needs to be better told by all parties, from politicians to the press,” she said.

In the first faux press conference, following a hypothetical Arctic Summit, Iceland’s President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson (played by HKS student Nikhil Kumar) diplomatically welcomed American President Donald Trump (played by Amy Chyao, Harvard Law School). Trump promptly struck a divisive note: “I don’t really care about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge if I’m being honest,” pushing instead for oil drilling off the pristine Alaskan coast.

The Arctic simulation, noted Kumar, showed students how “working with a U.S. president uninterested in compromise or facts prevented us from making a dent in the United States’ position. Moreover, all of the journalists’ questions were directed at President Trump, which perfectly illustrated his real-life ability to dominate any conversation and the news media’s inability to sufficiently challenge his false narrative about the Arctic.”

In other segments of the “CNN” class broad- cast, Chinese and Russian representatives promoted new commercial shipping routes through Arctic waters. Indigenous leaders called for a greater voice in the future of their native lands. American climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe (played by Thomas Han, Harvard College) said “the most dangerous myth about climate change is that it doesn’t affect you personally....We need to engage people in their hearts” and convince them Arctic climate change impacts people as well as polar bears.

During the exercise, a live in-class blog of the broadcast scrolled on a classroom screen, written by auditor Jason Dearen, an MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow and former AP correspondent. Several students voiced a familiar refrain: “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

"'The Big Melt' on Primetime: Arctic Role-Play Exercise Showcases Debate." Belfer Center Newsletter. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (Summer 2019).