Last week I spent a remarkable day guiding high school students from Waccamaw High School in South Carolina through a role play simulation designed to teach collaboration and thoughtful planning to reduce risks from flooding. These 14- to 17-year-old students had just returned to school the day before from a forced evacuation because of Hurricane Florence, and now they were sitting around tables in their environmental science class taking on the personas of diverse community leaders debating options to protect their community from climate change. The irony was not lost on them.

In roles such as mayor, small business owner, and school superintendent, the students’ task was to prioritize eight possible projects that we presented and come to consensus on the top three that would hypothetically receive federal funding. Each proposed project has direct and indirect beneficiaries, and I was extremely impressed with the sophistication of some students’ arguments. One memorable exchange between two students focused on whether to prioritize a coastal beach restoration project that would benefit well-to-do, mostly white coastal property owners and the tourism industry, or to improve storm water infrastructure in the rural, majority low-income, black communities in the county. When the beach restoration advocate made her argument that they had to get the dollars from tourism into the economy first and then they would be able to fix the pipes in the rural areas, the student playing the rural advocate shot back something like: “That’s what you people always think, but those dollars never make it to the people who need them!”  When the students shared their results in the post-simulation discussion, they saw that each table in the room had come up with different conclusions, in spite of playing the same roles and being given the same instructions. We emphasized one of the key learning points of the exercise: when it comes to making public policy, there is rarely one “right” answer, and the people at the table make a difference.

Just a few hours later I attended a Georgetown City Council meeting. It was the first the council had convened since Florence made landfall six days earlier, just 100 miles north in Wilmington, North Carolina. Georgetown had been relatively lucky during the storm, but as the City Administrator informed the council, their troubles were about to begin. Georgetown is at the confluence of five rivers, three of which flow down from the region in North Carolina that Florence had nested over for days. The water was coming their way, he reported, but due to the peculiar characteristics of this storm, combined with a lack of data about the riverine and run-off systems that were contributing to flows, they did not have a hydrodynamic model that could accurately predict impact. They just knew water was coming and it could be very bad. The City Administrator reported that various municipal operations were prepared for another evacuation. Just last night, 11 days after Florence hit the coast, CNN reported that Georgetown is on the brink of flooding and Accuweather reports the latest. Schools are closed again. People have been told to leave, again.

This is not the first time Georgetown County has flooded and it will not be the last. In the coming months the community will be in recovery mode, and conversations will be happening at dinner tables and in council rooms about what to do. My partners on the project, Dr. Pamela Martin from Coastal Carolina University (CCU) and Dr. Jennifer Plunket and Maeve Snyder from the North-Inlet Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR), are working with local partners to host simulation events in which dozens (and hopefully hundreds!) of people in Georgetown will participate. Those who engage in the simulations will have the chance in a hypothetical setting to discuss what should be done in their real lives. We have learned from many years of using simulated role plays that they are powerful tools for building understanding of complex and sensitive issues, practicing collaboration, and creating empathy for the perspectives of others. My colleagues at CCU and NERR will administer surveys and run debriefings and interviews with people to learn what surfaced through the simulations and what people would like to see realized in their communities. Early next year they will produce a report and share it with local county, city, and town governments, detailing the interests, questions, and ideas that surfaced in the post-simulation discussions. Most important, we expect that the participants will talk about the experience over drinks and meals, on social media, and in their homes, sparking an increase in the demand for collaborative policy discussions and action.

These simulations are never just games. They are engaging tools to prompt serious discussions and influence policy. But in this case, the immediacy of the challenges highlighted in the game are sobering. As the flood waters rise in Georgetown today, my thoughts are with those feeling the impacts of a changing climate and the legacies of past policies.

This project is possible because of a generous grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Scientists from South Carolina University also contributed to the development of the role play simulation.