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Teaching Carbon Regulation in the High School Classroom

Originally appears in the Summer 2009 issue

The Earth’s climate is warming, and across the world governments are taking action to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. In the United States, President Obama has identified climate change as “one of the greatest challenges of our generation.” Prime Minister Harper of Canada, while taking a cautious approach to climate change legislation, has indicated a strong interest in joining with the Obama administration on crafting a global solution.

But how will we tackle the issue of climate change on a global scale? Possible solutions range from passing laws, to “geoengineering” a cooler Earth, to storing carbon dioxide deep underground. Currently, there are two primary mechanisms being considered to reduce CO2 emissions: a “cap-and-trade” system and a carbon tax. But how do these systems work? What are their economic impacts? And how do you teach them in the high school classroom?

This article presents a classroom activity in which teams of students play the roles of utility companies who must reduce CO2 emissions at their coal-burning power plants under different regulatory regimes: traditional “command-and-control” legislation, a carbon tax program, and a “cap-and-trade” system. By actually having to “operate” a power plant under these programs, students learn how they work and the advantages and benefits of each system.

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Bruce Taterka teaches IB Environmental Systems and AP Environmental Science at Mendham High School in Mendham, New Jersey. He lives at the Schiff Nature Preserve in Mendham.