Undergraduate students in a first-year class, Navigating the Global Climate Crisis, recently got the chance to hear from two experts about the workings of the annual U.N. Climate Change Conferences, known as COPs.
Justin Sylvester, a senior program officer in the Ford Foundation’s Southern Africa Office, provided insight on COP27, held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November. Anthony Bebbington, Ford’s international program director for natural resources and climate change and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, attended last year’s COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland. The COPs — Conferences of the Parties — are annual meetings of signatories to U.N. agreements.
In the Nov. 29 class, Bebbington — who is on leave as Higgins Professor of Environment and Society and professor of geography at Clark — provided an overview of the COPs, starting with the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, where countries pledged to collaborate on sustainability issues and meet annually to address climate change.
The COPs, he pointed out, include three parts: negotiations by a small, privileged group of countries and interested parties — like the 600 oil and gas lobbyists in Egypt; the general conference; and “a venue for street politics — the public sphere,” which often draws protesters.
“Those different parties do not have equal access to all those arguments. The negotiations happen in a tightly controlled space,” Bebbington said.
The Egyptian government, Sylvester said, held COP27 in a tourist area far from Cairo, which is home to a larger population and potential protesters. However, he noted, the conference resulted in the announcement of developed nations’ commitment to pay for loss and damages incurred by smaller countries due to human-induced climate change.
The smaller countries and island nations believe that they didn’t cause this crisis, so they shouldn’t pay for it, he explained. “That is the main argument that developing nations use at the COPs, and that determines a lot of how the politics play out.”
Therefore, he added, the COPs become “a space where smaller nations, island states, and developing countries are trying to access finance — finance for adaptation, finance for loss and damage, and finance for just-energy transition.” “Just-energy” is a term used to emphasize that all stakeholders — including, for example, mine and power-plant workers, labor unions, and communities — should be not be forgotten in the move toward clean energy.
Civil society organizations, with support from the Ford Foundation, have worked behind the scenes for years with governments to secure agreements, according to Sylvester. At COP27, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union announced the Just Energy Transition Partnership, an agreement to pay $8.5 billion to help with South Africa’s just-energy transition, replacing coal with renewable energy.
“That $8.5 billion is supposed to cover the cost of shutting down the power stations,” Sylvester said. “But the question is: What happens to the 100,000 workers?” They live in areas dependent on coal energy and cannot afford to move to western South Africa, which is a better area for solar and wind stations, he noted. “How do you reskill, retrain, and provide social services and protection to these workers in an industry that will be closing down over the next 25 years?
“That raises the question around a just transition in the sense that there are winners and losers in this process,” he said. “How we grapple with that question is what many civil society organizations, countries, states, stakeholders who go to the COP are all debating. A lot of these arguments they’re speaking about are: How do we understand ‘just’? What is the ‘just’ part of an energy transition? Just for who? And just how?”
Sylvester and Bebbington were just two of the climate scholars who spoke in the semester-long First-Year Intensive class, taught by Denise Humphreys Bebbington, research associate professor in International Development, Community, and Environment, and James McCarthy, Leo L. and Joan Kraft Laskoff Professor of Economics and director of the Graduate School of Geography. Scholars from other colleges and nonprofit organizations also visited the class.
Clark’s Graduate School of Geography is hosting a special celebration of its 100 years as a transformational force in geography, April 13–15. Learn more about the centennial event and how to register for the luncheon, dinner, and receptions.
CHALLENGE. CHANGE. PODCAST
Geography Professor Anthony Bebbington, international program director for natural resources and climate change at the Ford Foundation, breaks down the role and significance of extractives — typically referring to the oil, gas, and minerals removed from the earth — in the world of environmental science and international development.
Navigating the Global Climate Crisis, one of more than 35 First-Year Intensive courses, provided incoming students with the opportunity to rub shoulders with well-known climate scholars from Clark, other colleges, and nonprofit organizations.
The class was taught by Denise Humphreys Bebbington, research associate professor in International Development, Community, and Environment, and James McCarthy, Leo L. and Joan Kraft Laskoff Professor of Economics and director of the Graduate School of Geography.