“Climate change is a defining issue of our time,” says Kortni Wroten. The Clark University graduate student, pursuing a dual MBA/master’s in environmental science and policy, recently returned from the UN’s Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, where she and twelve fellow graduate students observed negotiations, networked, and engaged with climate groups and activists from all over the world — including Swedish teen Greta Thunberg.
Wroten attended the 2018 conference as well. “We want to apply the skills we have gained at Clark in research, communication, and understanding social justice. Clarkies are committed to extending their impact to the international community,” she said. “We are enthusiastic about contributing meaningful research to the challenges of climate change.”
Professor Elisabeth Gilmore and Wroten, who expects to graduate in May, led the Clark delegation to the conference. Also attending were Aswira Pasha, August Welles DeVore, Ryan Kopper, Isaac Stone, Katarina Hou, Caitlyn Abbey, Priyanka Shrestha, Katherine Christopher, Ruhua Jing, Doug Dillon, Raina Hasan, and Tsanta Rakotoarisoa.
The students immersed themselves in international climate policy alongside the world’s leading activists, researchers, and experts, and furthered their understanding of current processes and how to best communicate the voice of youth hoping to influence climate policy.
In preparation for the conference, the students worked with teams from other institutions, with whom they shared the analysis and research efforts they completed in relation to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and campus climate initiatives. Their work was part of a graduate course researching the SDGs, which serve as a call to action for countries around the world, taught by Gilmore in collaboration with Gillian Bowser of Colorado State University and Sarah Green of Michigan Technological University.
The students’ presentations showed how universities could incorporate SDGs throughout the curriculum and encourage youth-led action; they also proposed toolkits for campus and community engagement. Discussions focused on strategies to communicate climate change and engage others in mitigation and adaptation efforts, as well as provide suggestions on how other interested students could become engaged in international science policy negotiations.
After presenting, the Clark students spent the rest of the conference observing negotiations and connecting with representatives from global climate groups.
“Walking around you never knew who you were going to end up meeting; it was such a melting pot of so many different kinds of people, and delegates were just sitting amongst everyone else,” said Pasha. Some of the delegates wanted to hear the students’ ideas, while others passed on their own viewpoints, she noted.
Learning about practical responses to issues and the differing perspectives countries have toward sustainable solutions was an important takeaway from the conference. Some countries are at the top of the curve and are looking for ways to integrate resources they already have, while others are exploring options, Wroten explained.
“It was very interesting to see what different stages of development look like in terms of youth, money, resources, and education. City and local governments are looking to get things done by partnering directly with universities to capitalize on mutually beneficial relationships,” she said, noting the importance of giving students hands-on experience.
Clark’s reputation and strong curriculum is a big influence on the career paths of the students who attended COP25. “A Clark degree enables graduates to hit the ground running and make an immediate contribution in any potential job,” said Wroten. “There is a real sense of the value of Clark and its programs among COP attendees.”
As the students were pulled into delegation meetings, they saw first-hand the importance of networking and were able to make connections for their futures. “I learned how important it is to communicate my passion for climate change efficiently and clearly to people who share different opinions and ideas,” said Shrestha.
Pasha added, “It was awe-inspiring to see the beauty and joy of passion in action. The voices of the protesters often overshadowed the voices of the delegations.” Activists were frustrated by the lack of urgency in the negotiating rooms and some of that frustration spilled over into multiple protests. The largest of these protests, a 500,000-person march through the center of Madrid, was led by Greta Thunberg.
Seeing Thunberg was inspirational for Pasha. The young activist, a powerful speaker, was able to articulate feelings of the conference’s disjunction that are keenly felt by the students. “The sense of urgency that scientists have warned us about is still needed and felt outside the room by those worst affected by climate change, but the urgency seems to be missing from the negotiating rooms,” Pasha said.
It was an eye-opening experience to see how various countries come together to make decisions and negotiate for the future. “I expected more from the negotiators and parties because of the global youth movements and scientific studies that clearly show we need to take action now. When listening to the negotiations, I was disappointed to hear the frustrations of many countries that wanted to achieve more ambitious targets, but were hindered by certain developed countries,” said Christopher. Any policy proposal has to be decided by consensus so often the end result is a watered-down version of the original, she noted.
Although seeing the reality of the slow crawl of policymaking procedure was daunting and a bit discouraging, the students ultimately saw rays of hope that steps are being taken to combat the global crisis. “We can’t rely only on certain parties, but all need to step up. It can’t just be a temporary trend; we need to keep the pressure on,” said Wroten.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the international response to climate change. The treaty sets out the basic responsibilities of the 196 Parties plus the European Union to fight climate change. The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the supreme decision-making body of the Convention. The Parties meet annually to review progress in the implementation of the Convention. In the conference, UNFCCC parties come together to discuss, assess and review the progress made in the promotion of effective implementation, along with dealings with climate change.