UConn@COP

The UConn@COP Fellowship Program strives to build future leaders in climate science and policy and to promote UConn’s leadership on climate change and sustainability issues through four main pillars:

1) Student Engagement
2) Experiential Learning
3) Interdisciplinary Group Discussion
4) Cultural Immersion

Participating fellows are selected through a highly competitive application process that considers GPA, relative extracurricular involvement, and a 700 word essay that speaks to their interest in the program.

The following blog articles have been written by past and present UConn@COP fellows, faculty, and staff, as well as by students who have attended events recapping the UConn@COP experience on campus.

The Power of Storytelling @ COP24

Editors note: One takeaway shared by many COP fellows was the power that a single story can hold. It’s easy to become overwhelmed or numb when looking at climate change and environmental degradation from the global perspective. Listening to another’s story and empathizing with them is vital to finding solutions to the problems we face. Below are four blogs from some of our COP fellows that discuss this idea. This is the first in a series of blogs that will be posted in response to UConn@COP24.

 

Communicating Climate Change – Delaney Meyer

The Talanoa Dialogue is Making People Care! – Kat Konon

The Emotional, Psychological, and Mental Impacts of Climate Change – LeAnn McLaren

Personal Connections: Making Climate Change Hit Home – Luke Anderson

The Media’s Role in Communicating Climate Science – Delaney Meyer

Providing Platforms to Broaden Perspective – Luke Anderson

 

Communicating Climate Change

By Delaney Meyer – Junior, B.S. Civil Engineering

During one of our morning discussions while attending COP24, we analyzed the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. This indicator is determined through a series of questions, which are designed to determine a preference between four comparisons. The comparisons include; extroversion versus introversion, sensing versus intuition, thinking versus feeling and judging versus perceiving. Each of the student fellows in the UConn@COP24 group used the indicator in order to determine where they would fall when compared to other groups of people. Based on data provided by UConn@COP faculty member, Scott Stephenson, the results of the group members’ distribution for indicator codes proved to be similar to results nationwide. Examining the data, the most glaring difference when comparing these two groups was based on the sensing versus intuition comparison. Nationwide the ratio was 73% to 27% while the fellows’ ratio was 31% to 69% respectively.

As a group, we dove into possible reasoning behind this difference and analyzed how this indicator could be used to improve the portrayal of climate change information. As students, we naturally prefer intuition to sensing. This is because of our curiosity and desire for explanations to problems. We do not accept our reality for what it is, we want to understand why it is the way it is and in the context of climate change, fix it. Thus, we can take statistics given to us and apply them to our reality.

Nationwide, people fall on the opposite side of the spectrum and seem to simply focus on their current reality and accept it for what it is. In this context, statistics cannot provide these people with an accurate depiction of what reality is like for others. In order to change this, climate change effects will have to become more personal to those all over the world. During our discussion, we asked ourselves how this could be done and turned to our experiences at COP24 for guidance.

One way in which effects of climate change have effectively been portrayed at COP24 has been through storytelling. Through a story, people are able to convey experiences and emotions to others. When listening to a story it is easy to put yourself into the story teller’s shoes and experience their reality as your own, which would be beneficial to those who focus on their present reality.

The stories that I have experienced while at COP24 have triggered a range of emotions. I experienced a woman firefighter from Greenpeace speak about how wildfires have impacted her. She spoke of her home in Indonesia and a wildfire, which destroyed much of the land that she knew as her home. She broke down in tears while telling this story showing vulnerability and causing many of us in the audience to begin to cry. Through this experience, I was able to better understand the impact of wildfires on communities. I was also able to connect with this woman through the feeling of intense loss that she had allowed us to experience with her. We were able to experience stories such as this one repeatedly throughout our week at COP24.

COP24 taught our group how to better convey information about climate change to the public. Through the use of storytelling as a technique to portray the impacts of climate change to the general public, we believe that people will develop a better understanding of the reality that others are facing due to climate change.

 

The Talanoa Dialogue is Making People Care!

By Kat Konon – Junior, B.S. Chemical Engineering

Most people, especially in light of the most recent IPCC report, know something about climate change. Some people focus on the science behind it, others focus on the consequences, and still others decide to ignore it altogether. It can be hard to process all the warnings, statistics, and charts that we learn about in school or see on the news. Because of this, Fiji introduced the Talanoa dialogue at COP23, which aims to give people a platform to “share stories, build empathy and to make wise decisions for the collective good.” This concept carried over into COP24.

I attended many different talks covering topics such as policy, renewable energy, plant-based diets, and youth action, but the ones I continue to think about the most were people from around the world simply sharing their stories. One speaker from New Zealand talked about how each year, summers in her community are magical. There’s fresh fruit, beautiful weather, and an overall lightheartedness. However, in recent years, summertime has also brought overtones of anxiety and fear as wildfires, a product of extreme record-breaking drought, grow more and more destructive. If that isn’t bad enough, her low-lying community’s land will be underwater by the end of her lifetime. As she talked she emanated sadness and frustration, but her drive to prevent others from having the same fate spoke the loudest. She called for climate justice and climate equity, phrases I heard over and over at the conference. Together, these ideas convey that global warming is an ethical and political issue, and it generally poses the greatest threat to those who are the least responsible. Therefore, developed countries need to provide aid to those in less developed countries who are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

Another speaker from China talked about how 10 years ago, when she was a child, she could see the stars. Now, she looks up and they’re not there because of pollution. If you can’t imagine wildfires or floods destroying your home, try to imagine this. It just makes me feel so sad.

There are a ton of reasons to care about climate change. So many, in fact, that it can be overwhelming. So start here. Start with the people who have to face it every day. Show some empathy and do your part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You’d hate to be in their shoes someday.

 

The Emotional, Psychological, and Mental Impacts of Climate Change

By Leann McLaren – Senior, B.S. Political Science and History

During my time as a member of the UConn@COP24 cohort attending the United Nations’ Conference on Climate Change in Poland, I had the opportunity to participate in an event titled “Intergenerational Inquiry: Youth Stepping Up for Climate Action.” The event showcased multiple speakers from the UN Secretary General for Youth to delegates from Ghana and students from many different countries.

What I found especially provoking was the testimony from a youth activist from the island of Jamaica. He described his struggle of being exiled from his community as a kid due to his LGBTQ identity. From his story of homelessness he described how the impacts of climate change took an emotional toll on him in addition to his family problems. In Jamaica, he described how as a developing island nation, much of the national disasters have the ability to wipe out entire nations of people. The harsh effects of climate change disproportionately affected people who were not primary contributors of GHG emissions.

Similarly, with another student from India, he described how his motivation to become an activist for climate justice stemmed from his childhood. Memories of morning runs with his father in India became progressively dangerous as temperatures increased to over 125º degrees Fahrenheit. The harsh effects of climate change affected not only his health but also his emotional connections with his father. He explains how these changes impacted his psychological development and contributed towards his activism. 

Overall, the students and speakers in this event resonated with me. The narrative of their personal stories allowed me to see how climate change produced much more than physical effects, but negative emotional and mental health side effects as well. This event made me more aware of the totality of impacts caused by climate change and more motivated to take action as a result of these realizations. I now aim to reduce my personal emissions and raise awareness to promote behavioral change among others, not only for the sake of preventing the catastrophic increase in global temperatures, but also for the mental, emotional, and psychological well-being of others all over the world.

 

Personal Connections: Making Climate Change Hit Home

By Luke Anderson – Junior, B.S. Nutritional Sciences and Anthropology

Emotionally, UConn@COP24 was a very impactful experience. We began our first full day in Poland with a tour of the concentration camps from World War II, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. This set the tone for the sort of raw emotional vulnerability that made my personal experience at COP transformative.

I’ve heard many stories about others’ sobering experiences visiting Auschwitz, but to approach our guided tour through the lens of climate justice made the history of dehumanization and devastation surrounding the Holocaust surprisingly more relevant to the circumstances of the world today. I saw this in climate-induced refugee displacement of those in the developing world and the intersectionality of the people who are so heavily affected by xenophobia and other forms of hatred and the universal impacts of climate change.

This is where I drew connections to my own life and where this trip really helped me rekindle my passion to push for change.

 

I was able to connect with people through their stories. Pictured to the right is Laura. She is a volunteer firefighter with GreenPeace from Indonesia who very emotionally shared the story of how her village has become devastated by the haze of wildfires, which both exacerbate and are exacerbated by atmospheric carbon emissions. She’s among the many worldwide whose lives have been threatened by diagnoses of upper respiratory and cardiovascular infections and chronic diseases as a result of these conditions. As she shared about the loss of friends who she’s lost to fires and the health effects wildfires have had in Indonesia she began to cry and was comforted by other volunteer GreenPeace firefighters from other areas of the world.

Throughout my childhood I had always considered myself well-off and disconnected these sort of impacts of climate change and how they disproportionately affect people of poorer communities. However, when I suddenly lost my father to a heart attack last year I was forced to face how rapidly public health crises, such as those caused by climate around the world, can impact any of us and how we have to interact with the world. My mother hasn’t worked a full-time job since I was born and after my father’s death, we became dependent, in many ways, on his life insurance and the healthcare benefits we were fortunate to still be able to receive through his employer. Hearing Laura’s story and stories like hers made me viscerally acknowledge how common stories like mine are and will continue to become. With the acceleration of climate change, this will happen first among minority populations and those in the developing world, then for the rest of us whose lack of exposure allows us to remain inactive in fighting for climate action and justice.

 

The Media’s Role in Communicating Climate Science

By Delaney Meyer – Junior, B.S. Civil Engineering

Having had a little over a week to reflect on my experience while in Poland for COP24, I am overcome with the abundance of information that I was presented with. However, I am stuck thinking about one particular experience that I had while at the climate hub. From this particular experience, I was able to gain important statistical knowledge and further understand how the media can spread messages about climate change more effectively.

The second day that I attended the climate hub, Greenpeace had several sessions about wildfires planned for the day. When we first walked in, there were visuals of firefighters and wildfires set up in addition to fire fighting gear on display as can be seen in the pictures attached. These images had an immediate impact on me and put the intensity of these fires into perspective.  I sat down with a few other students to listen to one of the Greenpeace firefighters discuss his job as a volunteer and introduce another woman to discuss the impacts of wildfires on climate change.

It was emphasized continually throughout the presentations that we witnessed that fires are a contributor to climate change and are a part of a continuous positive feedback loop. This feedback loop consists of an increase in temperatures leading to drier conditions that are prone to fires. The fires release huge amounts of carbon and methane into the atmosphere, which are both potent greenhouse gases. This release of gas leads to worsening global warming. This loop is continuous and becomes worse and worse as time goes on.

Although warming temperatures are a large reason that many of these fires have the fuel to begin, humans are also making this worse through the use of palm oil. Many peatlands, which are naturally wet and would be highly unlikely to catch on fire, are drained and burned in order to produce palm oil. Palm oil can be found in the majority of products that people use on a day-to-day basis including cosmetics, detergents and many different foods. It can be difficult to determine whether palm oil is present in many products because there are dozens of different terms that can be used to describe palm oil in a list of ingredients. The use of palm oil does not need to be stopped completely, however it is important that the general public becomes aware of the impacts that unsustainably produced palm oil has. When shopping it is important to look for the RSPO label and the Green Palm Oil label, which both ensure that the palm oil for that product has been sustainably produced.

After we had been given all of the facts about how fires can have such a large impact on climate change, another volunteer firefighter from Indonesia took the stage to share her story. She explained that the draining of peatlands near her home lead to a large fire which destroyed much of her community and killed many of her close friends. As she shared her story, she had to pause to compose herself, which portrayed just how much of an impact these fires had on her life. By the end of the story, much of the audience was in tears along with this woman and had a deeper understanding of how a small choice of what product to eat or use can impact someone’s life across the world.

This experience emphasized how important story telling is when attempting to make a point. This was a theme that many of us saw throughout the COP and feel should be used in order to effectively portray climate change to people across the world. Testimonials evoke an emotional response out of people, which they are more likely to act on than when exposed to a bunch of statistics and political discussions. When educating others about climate change we need to appeal to people’s emotions to spark motivation for change.

 

Providing Platforms to Broaden Perspectives

By Luke Anderson – Junior, B.S. Nutritional Sciences and Anthropology

Despite having a long way to go in terms of whose interests are served and what actions are taken, COP is a place where people from all backgrounds can have a platform for their voices to be heard and to get involved in combating climate change. One of the reasons for this is because environmental issues, and climate change in particular, impact every aspect of each of our lives.

Climate issues require remarkably interdisciplinary solutions. As someone who is frequently asked about how my studies in Anthropology, Nutritional Sciences, and Mathematics are connected to climate change, attending COP24 really appealed to me as an opportunity to explore these connections.

And COP24 did not disappoint.  Because of the interdisciplinary and multi-cultural nature of the COP, I was constantly surrounded by people whose lives encompass vastly different experiences from my own. I was empowered by the incredible enthusiasm of the people I met for getting young people involved in their work to combat climate change and minimize its exponential impact on future generations.

The picture [to the right] is from a panel discussion, which was followed by audience (and UConn student) participation, about the role of intergenerational engagement in the Talanoa Dialogues, a COP platform focused on humanizing the effects of climate change and informing policy making through storytelling. At the event we were able to connect with other students, policy advisors, activists, and people involved in the United Nations Human Rights Council, among others.

Fellow UConn@COP delegate Emily Kaufman and I were invited to this event by Jean Paul Brice Affana (second from right), a policy advisor on climate finance and development from Bonn, Germany, after a moving panel the previous day. We came to this panel dispassionate and drained from the lack of meaningful personal connections we had been able to make exploring the COP venue that morning. The panel featured Jean Paul, director of the documentary on youth activism in the climate movement “Youth Unstoppable” Slater Jewell-Kemker (front left), Fijian Minister Inia Seruiratu who was instrumental in helping establish the Talanoa Dialogue at COP23, and 15-year-old activist and global climate strike leader Greta Thunberg. After a passionate and blunt address on the reality of climate change from Greta and an emotionally impactful screening of the trailer for Slater’s film, Emily and I approached Slater and Jean Paul in tears thankful for the stories shared on the importance of passionate young people in the climate movement.

In political dialogue, in the United States and elsewhere, we see a lot of apathy, especially around issues as vast and daunting as climate change. However, this apathy, and a lot of our inability to act on pressing issues, is rooted in a lack of connection and subsequent inability to empathize with the stories of those who are most affected. Platforms for sharing stories such as documentaries, sitting down with a traveler from Norway in the Kraków market over some kielbasa and mulled wine, or formalized panels under the Talanoa Dialogue help to bridge these gaps and broaden perspectives to a point where most people come to realize that, regardless of cultural barriers, all over the world we are fundamentally the same. Without these platforms it’s too easy to lose sight of the values and life experiences that bind us.

In the words of chef Anthony Bourdain on his career traveling the world connecting people through their stories, “If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

I wholeheartedly believe that the world would be better off if our ambitions were more firmly grounded in our values than our résumés. And traveling with UConn@COP across the ocean has helped cement that sentiment.

Coffee and Climate Change

UConn@COP23 fellow and OEP intern Wawa Gatheru explains the topic of her poster, power in resistance.

After a frustrating series of snowed-out Wednesdays, the cohort of students who attended COP23 were finally able to host the annual Climate Change cafe, held recently at the Student Union. UConn@COP23 fellows shared their experiences at this year’s U.N. International Climate summit, held in Bonn, Germany.

Students from a wide variety of academic majors visited the event and learned about different aspects of the fight against climate change. Topics covered included the power of art as activism, businesses on the forefront of climate change, feminism within the movement, and the role of sub-national entities in lieu of the federal government.

 

With the advent of the new U.S. administration not supporting the Paris Climate Accords, sub-national entities were a big topic during this year’s trip.

 

“I find the “We Are Still In” movement to be an amazing representation of how our country plans to progress the mitigation of climate change.”

– Erika Shook, Animal Science Major

 

“Hearing that America as a country has not yet completely abandoned the fight against climate change was heartening, and progress can still be made even if its not on a national scale.”

– Matthew McKenna, Environmental Engineering Major

 

“I didn’t stay for very long, but I took out a flyer made by the office of environmental policy all about UConn’s efforts towards sustainability, and found it super interesting. I actually ended up sharing it with friends.”

– Nina Haigis, Accounting Major

 

“I was inspired by seeing this clear intersectionality of fields that are so heavily affected by the detriments of climate change reflected in the posters on exhibition at the Climate Change Café.”

– Luke Anderson, Anthropology/Nutritional Sciences Major

 

“I came to the Climate Change Cafe knowing that I was interested in going on the trip, but after talking to people and viewing the posters that were made I left super excited to apply and confident that the trip would be an experience that would be both fun and super educational.”

– Delaney Meyer, Civil Engineering Major

 

“Talking to the students at the Climate Change Cafe was an engaging and informative experience. You could tell that this trip fostered their passion for the environment, and that participants were inspired to make changes within our own community.”

– Megan Boyer, Biological Sciences Major

 

UConn@COP23 fellows were inspired by the many powerful art installations they saw while in Germany.

 

Norm Reform @ COP23

The following blog posts, written by student members of the UConn contingent to COP 23, emphasize the shifting norms of climate and environmental policy that took place at COP23:

Carbon Sequestration, Forests, and Higher Education Colby Buehler

A Presentation on Nuclear Energy Benjamin Hawkins

Norm Reform: The Power of #WeAreStillIn Mary Donato

Harmonizing Climate Action Priorities Rebecca Kaufman

 

Carbon Sequestration, Forests, and Higher Education

Colby Buehler, Chemical Engineering

The idea of preserving forests has always made good sense to me, for a long list of reasons. But add to that list, the notion of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and I had to learn more. That’s why I attended a COP23 session at the US Climate Action Center about carbon sequestration, called The Big Sink: Large-scale Land Management to Meet Climate Goals. An expert panel of representatives from Washington, Oregon, California, the University of Maine, and the World Bank got together to specifically address the successes and challenges of using forests for carbon sequestration.

From left to right, Vidar Helgesen (the Norwegian Minister of Climate and the Environment), Chris Davis (Senior Advisor of Energy and Carbon Markets for the Governor of Washington), Ruchi Sadhir (Energy Advisor for the Governor of Oregon), Aaron Strong (Professor of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine), Louis Blumberg (The Nature Conservancy), and a representative from the World Bank. Photo taken by Colby Buehler.

The representatives from the three west coast states focused on the challenges of protecting forests through careful planning and limiting of urban sprawl, and by using specific incentives, like the California Cap-and-Trade program and forestry offset initiatives. I was especially interested in Dr. Aaron Strong’s discussion about the University of Maine’s leadership in utilizing their forests for reducing carbon levels and boosting educational opportunities.

Dr. Strong started with a description of the University of Maine as a public land grant university and noted that they oversee the protection of 5,500 hectares of forests near campus. These forests play an important role in meeting carbon footprint reduction efforts under the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (since renamed the Carbon Commitment) because of their value as emissions offsets and carbon sinks. This Carbon Commitment challenges universities to reach net-zero carbon emissions at their campuses by 2050 – several hundred college and university presidents signed on as far back as 2007. Currently, UMaine forests sequester 10,000 tons of carbon per year and eight companies utilize their land through the Californian Cap-and-Trade program. While this represents only a relatively small portion of UMaine’s total carbon footprint, every bit matters to them in order to reach their carbon neutrality goal.

While the forests play a key role in helping reach carbon goals for UMaine, they also serve as living laboratories for environmental education and research in fields such as ecology, environmental engineering, and natural resources and the environment. Dr. Strong emphasized the importance of getting students involved in forest research projects. He argued that if students can get outside to experience nature firsthand during their coursework they would be more likely to continue with environmental careers, research and activism after graduation.

UMaine continues to actively seek out opportunities to enhance their forest management program and collaborate with other organizations. Recently Dr. Strong assembled a group of higher education institutions and businesses to discuss different ways to enhance climate action initiatives by utilizing forests.

We can learn from UMaine’s accomplishments. I would love to see a dialogue between UConn and UMaine to strengthen forest management programs at both institutions. Environmental leadership includes collaborating and exchanging information with your peers for mutual benefit. COP23 and the U.S. Climate Action Center featured many talks by business and governmental leaders that incorporated the role of universities. As a COP23 fellow, I look forward to bringing these discussions back to UConn.

 

A Presentation on Nuclear Energy

Benjamin Hawkins, History and Human Rights

UConn COP cohort listening to Nuclear Power discussion. Photo taken by OEP Director, Rich Miller.

We started our first full day in Bonn, Germany, visiting the U.S. We Are Still In (WASI) tent. Unfortunately, it turned out the center was closed to the public for a business conference. While our group lingered outside to consider alternative plans for the day, we were invited to view a talk on nuclear energy. Apparently, the presentation group was scheduled to present at the same event we originally planned on attending, but was uninvited at the last minute. Their explanation for the removal was that the U.N. determined nuclear energy should not take part in sustainable energy discussions.

The abridged 15-minute presentation was, in a word, interesting. It was one-sided since there was a clear objective to persuade the audience that nuclear energy is an excellent carbon-neutral choice over coal and other fossil fuels. Given that time was limited, details and facts were largely missing and we instead experienced flashy rhetoric. Beyond that, it was fascinating to see how they argued that nuclear is a “sustainable and pragmatic” choice.

I am largely uninformed about the pros and cons of nuclear energy but I thought their points had at least superficial merit. Nuclear power can reliably provide the amount of power the world currently uses, while quickly reducing the global harmful emissions that COP23 is intending to eliminate. They stressed that emission reduction goals were not feasible with only conventional alternative energy since it is more expensive and is reliant on unpredictable factors (e.g sun and wind). Furthermore, they criticized Germany for recently investing in brown coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel.  In particular, they objected to Germany’s approval of a new strip mining operation on the outskirts of Bonn that had resulted in the evacuation of a small farming village. Obviously, there are valid concerns about radioactive nuclear waste, which the group did not address.  But I am still intrigued as to why nuclear power has such a small role in today’s energy discussions. It seems like it should at least be considered at the U.N.’s international climate summit.

A highlight of the 15-minute presentation was an opera singer’s rendition of an anti-coal message. For an environmental opera singer (looks like those exist), I enjoyed his voice! His performance might have not persuaded anyone through hard science and statistics, but it did get our group’s attention.

 

Norm Reform: The Power of #WeAreStillIn

Mary Donato, Natural Resources and the Environment

On the final day of presentations at the U.S. Climate Action Center, near the official COP23 “Bonn” and “Bula” Zones, our UConn@COP group of students and faculty attended a talk by Todd Stern, Special Envoy for Climate Change in the Obama Administration, and Susan Biniaz, a legal adviser for US climate negotiations. This talk, on the last day of the “We Are Still In” (WASI) events, was interesting to listen to, as it brought the perspective of those who really led the charge of climate negotiations in past years.

One of the “Trash People” by HA Schult. Photo taken by Mary Donato.

One particular quote by Todd Stern stood out to me. In explaining how the United States will move forward in light of the announcement that the federal government intends to pull out of the Paris Agreement, he stated that “politics is the killer.” As soon as he said it, I realized how many of the things I had seen throughout the week proved the statement true. So many people and groups showed up to represent their passion and share their stories and ambitions. Movements from humble beginnings, individuals affected by storms and sea level rise, representatives from companies huge and small, and groups of students, all attended the conference in numbers that reflect the interest and willingness of the people to move forward.

The many WASI speakers and panels at the U.S. pavilion were a huge reflection of the intention of subnational entities to move forward with climate action. It was rightfully brought up at the closing panel that this sort of subnational movement is complicated and can become cumbersome. However, it is refreshing to see coalitions like WASI, which includes cities and states, businesses, NGOs and higher education, continue their commitment to climate action, despite political leaders at the federal level. There was no inkling of politics “killing” climate change movements from the hundreds of people representing the coalition who showed up at COP23. Despite any roadblocks politics may present, there is already clear evidence, at the subnational level, of a determination to overcome.

Any Conference of the Parties is by nature a political gathering. Despite this fact, Todd Stern made a powerful statement that helped me realize why the WASI movement is so important. He talked about the idea that creating norms is more powerful than creating laws.  For example, renewable energy technologies are cheaper and more efficient than ever, and will drive the more widespread use of cleaner energy instead of carbon-intensive fossil fuels.

As these and other costs of being environmentally friendly get lower, and as diverse groups become more engaged, so to will climate action become a norm throughout the United States and worldwide. My experience at COP23, as a representative of the WASI coalition, assured me that we have the power to create positive norms for future generations.

 

Harmonizing Climate Action Priorities

Rebecca Kaufman, Political Science and Human Rights, Public Policy Minor

It’s been a few weeks since I returned from COP23. Even after arriving home and discussing my experience with friends and family, I still have trouble distilling what I learned and the myriad emotions I felt into an ‘elevator speech’ (which, frankly, is all people really want to hear).

I feel frustrated that the numerous disciplines studying climate change—from sociology, to political science, to human rights, to chemistry, to engineering, to ecology are ‘silo-ed.’ In my conversations with my peers, I recognized a dissonance between what each of us thought should be prioritized in the fight to mitigate climate change. After attending a panel hosted by the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and Tuft’s Fletcher School, called “The Engine of Ambition: University Research and Engagement to Support Climate Action,” I realized this dissonance I felt was not unfounded. While the panel was focused specifically on the research in public policy programs, the message carries over to all researchers and academics: If we are not taking it upon ourselves to make sure that our research is understandable and accessible to the general public and policy makers, what’s the point? This means extra work.

Photo taken by Dr. Mark Urban.

Obviously, more complex reports are necessary to ensure that our research can be expanded upon by others in our fields. However, the increasing specialization of academics necessitates the production of summary documents, like white papers, that explain research in language understandable to those outside of our fields of expertise. Beyond that, both natural and social scientists are constituents. It seems obvious to me now that we can’t just make our work accessible. As members of a democracy, it is our civic duty to actively bring our research to our policy makers and help them understand its urgency.

A quick Google search of the question “what is the responsibility of a politician?” produces countless iterations of the same thing—the responsibility of a politician is to secure and protect our unalienable rights. When it comes down to it, the fight against climate change is the fight for the right to live—a clean and healthy place to live is the foundation upon which all other institutions are built. What is more unalienable than the right to life?

My experience at COP23 left me feeling a lot of things, but most tangibly, I feel motivated. As a political science and human rights student, it’s easy to feel hopeless and dissatisfied. Having the opportunity to collaborate and learn from a group of people whose academic and life experiences are so fundamentally different from mine, reminded me of my purpose, as a minuscule person in a gigantic universe.

UConn@COP23 – Bonn Climate Change Conference

Bonn

Trip Description

COP 23 is the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and will be hosted this year by the small Pacific island state, Fiji, and held in Bonn, Germany from November 6 th to November 17th, 2017. The event will bring together diplomats, business executives, heads of government and other delegates to discuss action on climate change. COP 23 will highlight the voices of countries most vulnerable to climate change, and will focus on action.

In the words of Fiji Prime Minister and Chair of COP 23, Frank Bainimarama, he will be “guiding the deliberations of almost 200 countries as [they] gather in Bonn, Germany, in November to continue to seek a more decisive response on the part of the industrial nations….And to set aside funds to enable developing countries such as Fiji to adapt to the changes to their way of life that have been caused through no fault of [their] own.”1

The University of Connecticut will be providing full funding, excluding meals other than breakfast, for a select group of undergraduate students to travel to Bonn from November 12th – November 18th to attend events associated with the conference. Airfare, housing, and city transportation will be provided. In addition, students will have the opportunity to experience the beautiful city of Bonn, Germany.

Application

The application must be completed and submitted to sarah.munro@uconn.edu by 11:59pm EST on Monday, April 3rd in order to be considered by the Selection Committee for the trip. Only complete applications will be considered. Applicants will be notified of the Committee’s decision via e-mail on Monday, August 18th. Decisions will not be released prior to then.

For more information on past UConn@COPs, click here.

1 http://www.fiji.gov.fj/Media-Center/Speeches/HON-PRIME-MINISTER-BAINIMARAMA-2017-NEW-YEAR-S-MES.aspx

UConn Talks Climate at the Climate Change Cafe

IMG_1808
Margaux Verlaque-Amara talking to an attendee about her experiences at COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco.

In early February, the UConn contingent to COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco, hosted its Climate Change Café, an opportunity for the UConn community to learn about their experiences at the UN Climate Change Conference. Through conversations and a series of posters made by the students, those in attendance were able to learn more about climate change, global politics, and human rights, and how they are all connected. A number of attendees wrote thoughtful reflections describing their experiences at the Café. Below are some highlights from the reflections:

The idea that every country can get together to talk about the future of sustainability shows that this is bigger than a political issue. It is a human issue. –Joshua Tellier

Attending a conference like COP would help me get a better grasp on the impact of climate change both in America and in other countries, and this would help me in my studies and my career. –Matthew McKenna

Poster
One of the posters on display at the Climate Change Cafe. Written and designed by Kristen Burnham.

The best aspect of the Café…was the students who were there to explain their posters and talk firsthand about the issues surrounding climate change. –Weston Henry

“36 of the 50 countries most affected by climate change are in Sub-Saharan Africa”. This fact was posted on one of the 15+ informational posters in the room. Although a region with mostly developing nations, of which only contribute “4% of global carbon emissions”, this area of Africa experiences some of the most severe effects of environmental degradation. –Kelly Finn

Attending this event was deeply inspiring, and gave me hope for the future. –Sophie MacDonald

UConnatCOP22
The UConn contingent to COP22 outside the Green Zone.

It was awesome to learn that such an opportunity exists to travel somewhere completely different, so far away and with such a unique culture, to interact with fellow students and activists who have the same mission. –Emma Belliveau

The continuation of the COP22 event and the positivity and hope exhibited from delegates and world citizens alike, prove that resistance, even in the direst situations, is both possible and relevant. –Wawa Gatheru

The future is truly bright green, and the continuing support of UConn to give students the resources and experience to be future pioneers of this change reaffirms this. –Colin Mortimer

UConn@COP22 Green Zone

The UConn contingent attended a number of panels at the COP22 Green Zone, each of which discussed unique, current topics associated with climate change action. As detailed below, the students noticed a few recurring themes throughout the panels, such as economics, human rights, culture, as well as voice and representation:

“We are only trustees for those that come after us.” Wyatt Million

The American Approach Stephanie Hubli

Collaboration Among Nations Eddie McInerney

The World Won’t Wait Ben Breslau

The Privilege of Prevention and Necessity of Mitigation Kristin Burnham

The French Influence Hannah Casey

Climate Change Policy and Human Rights Discussion Klara Reisch

When Climate Action Conflicts With Human Rights Usra Qureshi

Trade Unions: The Champions of Renewable Energy Kristin Burnham

 

“We are only trustees for those that come after us.”

Wyatt Million, Student, Biological Sciences

The conference theme for our group’s first full day in the Green Zone at COP22 was Financing, featuring numerous concurrent sessions about topics like funding alternative energy projects and the price of carbon. While such topics are not the first thing I think about as an environmental scientist, I realize that money is the driving force behind most things, and that financial considerations are critical factors for combatting climate change and achieving sustainability goals. However, I found myself wandering away from the economic jargon at these meetings and exploring what the rest of COP22 had to offer.

EEB COP 22 Marrakech
Representatives from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Marrakech’s Atlas Mountains

Turning a corner, I heard a presentation about the effects of sea level rise on cultural identity. The International National Trust Organization (INTO) out of Great Britain was hosting an event highlighting the heritage loss that is associated with climate change. The fate of island nations such as Kiribati, whose elevation is less than three meters on most islands, are most at risk from increasing sea levels. In addition to losing the land and homes these indigenous people need to survive, the culture that is tied to their homes will be drowned out. The presenters showed INTO’s research on the importance of cultural identity to a person’s health and wellbeing and the significant sociological impacts of cultural loss.

This aspect of climate change is often overshadowed by the scientific and economic topics, but I found it compelling to more holistically consider the services supplied by the environment. The presenter went on to quote English novelist and poet from the 1800s, William Morris, stating, “They are not in any sense our own property to do with as we like with them. We are only trustees for those that come after us.” He said this concerning historical buildings and artifacts passed down from one generation to the next, but when I heard this, I immediately applied it to the environment. Our current society should be the guardians of the environment for the future, not the destroyers of it. As Morris says, it was passed on to us but it does not belong to us to do with as we please. The environment will forever belong to future generations.

 

The American Approach

Stephanie Hubli, Student, Environmental Engineering

Panel
United States representative from the White House discussing how the federal government is leading by example by transforming its own vehicle fleet to ZEVs and LEVs. Photo taken by Christen Bellucci.

At first, I will admit I was initially disappointed at the lack of representation I saw from the United States at COP22.  It seemed as though my discontent with America’s next choice President elect and my reservations about the next four years were traveling to Morocco with me.  As the week progressed, I became a little more open minded and inspired.  At COP-related events, I met students from the University of Minnesota, Columbia University, and University of Central Arkansas, and I attended panel discussions featuring U.S. representatives.

There was one panel in particular that was of interest to me. It consisted of delegates from countries that have agreed to cut back on their carbon emissions through transportation initiatives.  French and American panelists identified similar objectives with differing policy strategies.  Both countries stressed the role of reducing vehicle emissions in reaching the 2030 carbon reduction targets.  The French delegate described an approach that required change: for example, rental car companies are mandated to incorporate low emission and electric vehicles into their fleets.  On the other hand, the U.S. delegate advocated for an approach focused not on directives but on leading by example in order to transform the transportation sector.  The U.S. representative explained the American methodology is to use the government’s own federal fleet vehicle purchases as a catalyst for companies and the public to follow suit.  In a country that was built upon the principles of liberty, such a method should prove more effective. Obtaining an understanding of these government policies, I am encouraged and hopeful for the future of the United States’ climate control intervention.

 

Collaboration Among Nations

Eddie McInerney, Student, Political Science

Before applying to attend COP22 in Marrakech, I had done some preliminary research with an advisor on the previous COP, studying the equity implications of emissions reductions goals by different countries. In particular, we focused on members of the G20, and did a case study of the Nationally Determined Contributions by Mexico, the United States, and Japan. At the time, I lamented that even with the President’s progressive take on climate change, the plan for reductions submitted to the UNFCCC by the U.S., was scarce in both quantitative and qualitative detail. Then Donald Trump was elected and, unbelievably, things became more uncertain.

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Artwork created using plastic bags, seen at the Green Zone. Photo taken by Christen Bellucci.

So, when I arrived in Marrakech with the rest of the UConn group for COP22, my main expectation was that those attending the conference would speak almost exclusively in the context of America’s new role in efforts to adapt and mitigate for climate change. However, I was surprised to learn that, even with the major political shift in the U.S., these countries attending, especially the developing ones, were more focused on regional methods.  This was highlighted nowhere more expertly than during the panel discussion on Climate Change Adaption and Resilience in Africa.

Throughout the panel, COP22 was consistently highlighted as an African COP, one that was more accessible to developing African countries, with smaller economies. The hope was that this COP could help unite them in efforts to prepare for climate change. The panelists also discussed the role of academics in innovation and research, and the importance of scientific academies across the continent. Even those African delegates who disagreed with some of the logistics of implementing the Paris Agreement, were not arguing about America’s role, but rather about the Francophone relationship, and how it has affected development in French-speaking African countries.

Holistically, this panel, among others, opened my eyes to the insular view that (some) Americans have on the climate change issue. It also reinforced the notion that collaboration among nations was a key to resiliency against the more pressing consequences of climate change. The panel showed that although the U.S.’s own adaptation and mitigation strategies are undoubtedly important, our country must also work closely with developing nations so that they can learn from our experiences – good and bad – then can grow responsibly, without the same environmental consequences as countries in Western Europe, North America, and East Asia.

 

The World Won’t Wait

Ben Breslau, Student, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Even as things look temporarily bleak for America’s federal government, the rest of the planet is still working hard to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Each day, we attended several panels, discussions, and displays throughout the COP22 Green Zone. Several companies demonstrated how they’ve taken advantage of landscapes such as Morocco’s to create and market renewables. MASAN, for example, is one of many solar companies who seek to increase Morocco’s renewable energy usage to 50% by 2025! Other companies, such as Bombardier, have invested in making trains throughout Europe and the Mediterranean that are more energy efficient, faster, and made of materials that can easily be recycled when the trains are outmoded. Even Royal Air Maroc, the airline we flew to Morocco from NYC, had a display that discussed fuel economy innovations that reduce the carbon footprints of its planes and the use of dry cleaning methods that reduce water and energy consumption.

Green Zone
COP22 Green Zone. Photo taken by Christen Bellucci.

Transportation was also discussed a great deal in one panel series that I attended on E-Mobility.  Among the speakers was a Minister from Quebec, who proudly explained that his province has capitalized enormously on the opportunities provided by an expanding market for hybrid and electric cars. Quebec, alongside Holland and California, is a founding member of the Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) Alliance. As a member of this group, Quebec has become part of North America’s largest cap-and-trade entity. Using legislation from California and nine other US States as a guide, the province has passed Canada’s first legal ZEV standard. Furthermore, Quebec works with the private sector to promote the spread of hybrid and electric car sales. The provincial government offers an $8,000 rebate to those who purchase ZEVs, and Nissan has agreed to provide credits to drivers who trade in and purchase used ZEVs. Nissan is also developing more efficient batteries for their cars to comply with COP21’s emissions recommendations. These deals have allowed Quebec to export its eco-friendly cars, and to expand its network into U.S. states like Vermont and Maine. A representative from California expanded on this. He explained that the state has an emissions goal of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Another panelist discussed the similarly progressive actions taken by the French Government. France currently requires more than half of public fleets to consist of ZEVs, and will mandate 100% by 2025. Private fleets will also be required to have aty least 10% LEVs by 2020.

Another intriguing panel discussed the advances in modeling climate solutions. Scientists working for the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) have created a system for advising countries around the world on bringing electricity to all people. These scientists use the Climate, Land use, Energy, and Water Strategies (CLEWS) system to determine how best to improve the lives of civilians around the world.

Green Zone
The UConn contingent outside of the Green Zone. Photo taken by Mark Urban.

From all of the sessions that I attended, and all of the displays and exhibits I visited, I understood one thing very clearly about how the rest of the world is working on climate issues. There is no question about whether or not the climate is changing. There are no debates between scientists, journalists or celebrities as to whether or not humans are the cause. Every scientist, policy maker, student, businessperson, and teacher attending the COP has accepted that the effects of man-made climate change are already harming their countries and communities. The focus at this conference was on how to adapt as quickly and sustainably as possible to droughts, floods, storms, wildlife loss, and agricultural shifts. There was a sense of urgency in the Green Zone. Where COP21 was concerned with forging a lasting international climate mitigation deal, the theme of COP22 was implementation and action. Across the planet, people are tired of simply discussing the issues, and they’re tired of trivial changes. The global body is starting to act.

The world is moving forward, with or without the United States government. Progressive companies and innovative green entrepreneurs throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa are capitalizing on the ever-expanding demand for renewable energy and clean technologies in the global market. Many nations’ governments, as well as U.S. state and local governments, and colleges and universities, continue to create and enforce policies and best practices that alleviate the harms of pollution and environmental degradation to civilians. The United Nations and NGOs continue to seek out sustainable uses of natural resources using the newest and most accurate available science. And our millennial generation, more connected than ever before, need only break out of our online echo chambers to build the largest, strongest, and most actively coordinated global community in human history.

The next few years, even the next few decades, may be very difficult. But we, the people of Earth, have the power to make the world better for ourselves. It will take unprecedented communication and organization, but in the end I believe that we will make this world better for the next generation.

 

The Privilege of Prevention and Necessity of Mitigation

Kristin Burnham, Student, Pathobiology and Molecular and Cell Biology

At UConn, I spend a lot of time working with my incredible team of undergraduate engineers on the Ethiopia Project from Engineers without Borders. Like many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia as a country is particularly vulnerable to climate change. With highly variable seasonal rainfalls and a disproportionately high dependence on sustenance agriculture, increasingly extreme droughts, attributed to climate change, have had devastating effects on food security.

Kristin
Kristin Burnham at one of the seven waterfalls encountered during the contingent’s hike up the Atlas Mountains. Photo taken by Mark Urban.

The first full COP 22 session I attended was presented by members of the Network of African Science Academies.  Despite Africa only contributing 4% of the global carbon emissions, 36 of the 50 countries most affected by climate change are in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Africa lacks the infrastructure that North America, Asia and Europe have to deal with climate change.

When I think of fighting climate change I think of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  I think of solar panels and alternative fuels.  I think prevention.  In this panel, fighting climate change had an entirely different tone. Fighting climate change meant research and modeling to predict where climate change was going to cause the most damage, who it was going to affect the most, and how to most efficiently limit the destruction.

This is not to say that Africa isn’t making great strides in sustainable, renewable energy resources. This is the harsh reality that no matter what progress we make, no matter what we do, climate change is happening. The effects are real, they are destructive and they are, to a degree, inevitable.  Faced with limited infrastructural and human resources, focusing discourse solely on prevention is a luxury that Africa, and many other developing countries, can’t afford.

 

The French Influence

Hannah Casey, Student, Environmental Studies, Public Policy

Innovation Zone
A view of the COP22 Innovation Zone. Photo taken by Christen Bellucci.

A COP22 panel discussion I attended, titled the ‘African Coalition,’ included several French businessmen discussing renewable energy expansion into rural areas of Africa. They described electrification of the African continent not as a business opportunity but as a business responsibility, almost a moral imperative to provide people in these developing nations with the product they are selling. They stressed the importance of creating markets to deal with the issues related to deploying renewable energy at local levels in the developing world. Another panelist, Abdoulaye Sene, who was President of an NGO, Global Local Forum, explained that energy dispersion across African nations faces bureaucratic and administrative challenges. He also opined that technical training, on electrical engineering and installation skills, is extremely important.  He thought it should be the renewable energy businesses’ duty to extend these resources.

As a result of Morocco’s long history as a French colony, France has a large influence on many aspects of Moroccan government, resources, and society. However, as a questioner pointed out at the end of the roundtable discussion, many Moroccans believe that France has reneged on deals and promises, to the detriment of sustainable economic growth in Morocco. It will be interesting to see whether a more market-based, but socially-responsible, business approach, like the one described by the panelists, succeeds better than the approach used by politicians and government officials. The business approach may provide a more stable path to electrification throughout Morocco than ever before because of the business imperative to succeed or lose capital investment. Since electrification, especially with solar power and other renewable resources, is a critical issue throughout the developing world, it would have been an even more effective discussion had there been additional representatives of African nations, and their specific interests and concerns, on the panel.

 

Climate Change Policy and Human Rights Discussion

Klara Reisch, Student, Molecular and Cell Biology

There are the typical buzzwords around climate change policy that were echoed in almost every sector at COP22: sustainability, clean energy, conservation, and the list continues, but never did I hear a mention of human rights until I attended a particular panel discussion. The Paris Agreement was the first international declaration on climate change to address human rights. It states in the preamble of the agreement, “Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights.” So the COP22 panel entitled “Human rights and climate change: what’s next after Paris?” sounded promising. As I listened to each of the panelists, I was inspired, even a bit overwhelmed, by the level of concern and consideration expressed for human rights issues in the climate policy discourse.

Human Rights
“Human rights and climate change: what’s next after Paris?” panel at the COP22 Green Zone. Photo taken by Klara Reisch.

Kimaren Ole Riamit from the IIPFCC spoke about indigenous people and how climate change policy has affected and will affect their livelihood. “Indigenous people represent a world we are trying to achieve,” he remarked. They are the ones who contribute the least but suffer the worst. An example of such exploitation is through the unjust acquisition of land. Land grabs have targeted millions of hectares, and have displaced indigenous people in attempts to build industries and further agricultural investments.

These land grabs are not exclusive to the oil, coal, and agricultural industry, but have been a result of biofuel and bioenergy efforts as well. Governments are signing away land to build sugar cane plantations for ethanol production or jatropha for biodiesel. This forces neighboring communities to bear the effects. In the United States, specifically, there has been an outcry about the development of a pipeline through indigenous land, but what if this program was not a pipeline but a wind farm or carbon storage area? Regardless of whether we are drilling for oil or developing the newest technologies for environmental sustainability, the effects on the native communities are not to be forgotten.

Kelly Stone, a panelist from Action Aid at the event explained, “It’s not just a loss of property, it is a loss of livelihood and identity.” If we are implementing new climate change policies, we have to consider what the human rights risks are and who will bear those risks. It is easy to over-idealize climate change policy because the distant effects on the general population overshadow the effects of those in our backyards, but we should not stand for it.

 

When Climate Action Conflicts With Human Rights

Usra Qureshi, Student, Molecular and Cell Biology, Human Rights

Conflict doesn’t always need to involve a “good” and an “evil.” We do not question nor vilify the need for sustainable practices in our world in order to combat the effects of climate change. But sometimes these efforts have negated another core axiom upon which this world is built: human rights.

I attended a session at COP22 featuring a panel of human rights activists, who were present during the Paris Agreement negotiations at COP21. Last year, when the language of the Paris Agreement was still in the works, these activists fought hard to protect the rights of all. Yes, indeed – they found clauses upon clauses, which despite their potential to infringe on the rights of communities (particularly the indigenous), remained unchanged in the Agreement, as if justified by the salience and nobility of the climate change cause.

COp22
Outside COP22. Photo taken by Klara Reisch.

Even now, certain provisions in the Paris Agreement leave it very possible for land to be stolen, livelihoods lost, and ecosystems destroyed in the name of large renewable energy or biofuel projects. In particular, there is a failure to address the needs of indigenous populations. This is especially true for the administration of the Green Climate Fund, which is the UNFCC’s primary financing mechanism for climate mitigation and adaptation projects in developing nations, projected to cost about $100 billion a year by 2020.

The participation of indigenous people is not considered in the Green Climate Fund. Access to the fund occurs either through accredited identity or a formal letter. This process combined with the lack of representation of the indigenous within the language of the Paris Agreement (showing up three times, in only the preamble and declarative clauses) seems to guarantee that their voices will neither be heard nor considered. The Paris Agreement also fails to consider the engagement of such populations, or the potential benefits that non-western knowledge systems can provide in combating climate change.

Usra
Usra outside COP22. Photo taken by Klara Reisch.

With irresponsible attempts to introduce clean energy to societies, food prices tend to soar, the quality of water declines, and land grabs occur. Residents of the developing world are left to suffer the most. Human rights advocates estimate that 17 million hectares of their land was grabbed for projects that benefitted primarily western countries and corporate interests. Land is a limited resource. Equipped with such honorable intentions as renewable energy development, it suddenly becomes easy to just…steal it. For example, the Aguan Biogas Project, Barro Blanco Gravity Dam, and JK Papermill Afforestation were all incredibly noble attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or create renewable energies. However, each was noted for its failure to consult with and consider the needs of community members and civil society, and each was responsible for the brutal displacement of indigenous populations and the depletion of resources necessary for their survival.

We need to do better. It is by no means impossible to shift to renewable practices while keeping the rights of all in mind. Consulting with communities and amendments to the Paris Agreement with more inclusive language are the first steps. The path to sustainability might not be as clear as we had hoped for, but it is, without doubt, there.

Trade Unions: The Champions of Renewable Energy

Kristin Burnham, Student, Pathobiology and Molecular and Cell Biology

A diverse group of trade and labor union representatives, from Philippian electricians to Canadian oil sands workers to New York nurses, presented the concept that through ‘just transitions,’ the people who stand to lose the most from transitioning away from oil and coal can become the people who have the most to gain from investment in renewable recourses.

Kristin and Klara
Kristin (right) and Klara at COP22.

We were all thinking it – How possibly could a labor union representing oil workers benefit from less oil production and more use of renewable energy? The answer for Kim Conway of Unifor, a Canadian trade union, was simple: the goal of trade unions is ultimately to ensure protection of workers’ pay and jobs. If the government, NGOs and local leaders are willing to open the policy discourse to include trade unions, if the tone shifts from leaving the coal industry behind to moving coal workers forward with new jobs in the emerging renewable energy market, if there is a ‘just transition,’ unions will fight with them.

It is undeniable that unions have formidable political power. We saw their political prowess in shaping labor policy in the 1960’s and we saw it again in the election of Trump. So rather than villainizing coal workers for denying climate change, for fighting to keep their industry and livelihoods, let’s fight for the government to specifically include energy labor unions in all plans to transition to renewable energy. Let’s not forget the coal workers whose hard work powered our nation, often at the cost of their own personal health and safety. Let’s make sure the transition to clean energy is a just transition not only because time is short and we need everyone’s support, but because it is the right thing to do.

Reflections on COP22

The following blogs are reflections on the group’s experiences in Marrakech and at COP22:

Message from COP22: KEEP CALM and Keep Fighting the Good Fight! Oksan Bayulgen and Rich Miller

Signs of Hope Throughout Marrakech Brooke Siegel

A Remarkable Learning and Cultural Experience Genevieve Nuttall

There is Hope in the Human Spirit Margaux Verlaque-Amara

Back to Nature, Where it All Started Wyatt Million

 

Message from COP22: KEEP CALM and Keep Fighting the Good Fight!

Oksan Bayulgen, Associate Professor of Political Science, Faculty Director of UConn’s Global House

Rich Miller, Director, UConn Office of Environmental Policy & Sustainability

Only a few days after the historical elections in the United States, we set out to North Africa to attend the U.N.’s international conference on climate change. COP22 was supposed to be a relatively straightforward, low-key conference a year after the monumental Paris Agreement had emerged from COP21. The goal was to take stock of the progress each country has made so far and flesh out the remaining challenges in the implementation of the national pledges.

Instead, this goal was overshadowed by the unexpected turn of events in the U.S., with the improbable election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency. Given his climate change denialism and explicit rejection of the Paris Agreement (in addition to many other statements in favor of the fossil fuel industry), there were genuine concerns that the hard fought achievements of the previous year would be reversed with a possible withdrawal of the U.S. from the historical agreement. When we landed in Marrakesh, Morocco, we found ourselves right in the middle of that pervasive sense of doom and gloom.

To be honest, on our first day in Marrakesh, we were very pessimistic as well.  Based on our combined years of experience, whether it’s conducting research and teaching various classes on the politics of energy, or working to develop environmental and sustainability programs at UConn or in the corporate world, we have come to appreciate the critical importance of leadership and an institutional balance of power in designing and implementing environmentally friendly policies. Even in a democracy like that of the U.S., where there are strong checks and balances, a president singlehandedly has a lot of power to affect and change the course of policy in the years to come. It would be naïve and uninformed to assume that the path of progress that was set by an outgoing president could not be reversed by a new president.

rich-oksan-message
The UConn@COP22 team of 12 students, four faculty members, and two sustainability staff, at the Green Zone in Marrakech, Morocco

Yet, as the week went by, seeing and interacting with some of the passionate and committed “foot soldiers” of this environmental movement, we started to relax and see the glass half full. There are three main reasons why we are more hopeful now.

 

First of all, even though anti-globalization forces have gained ground and popularity in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world in recent years, it is clear to us that COPs in many ways represent the best of globalization. They prove that there are no national boundaries, no walls, and no cultural differences when it comes to the aspiration to find solutions to a truly global challenge such as climate change. These conferences are the best and most hopeful responses to the isolationist and xenophobic calls that we have come to see in many countries around the world. They reinforce the belief that we are not alone in this world in our fight against dark forces that want to reverse progress.

[COPs] prove that there are no national boundaries, no walls, and no cultural differences when it comes to the aspiration to find solutions to a truly global challenge such as climate change.

Secondly, the fact that COP22 took place in Morocco, a developing country with many economic challenges of its own, in and of itself, sends a hopeful message. One of the themes of this meeting was the synergy between sustainable development goals and climate action. The clear message was that policies to fight climate change could be successful only if they also provide economic and social benefits to communities and respect the rights of vulnerable, marginalized groups. Or put differently, countries do not need to choose between economic development and the environment. It is not a zero sum game. Concerns about economic insecurity need not trump anxieties about environmental insecurity. Sustainability requires us to think of these two as complementary and as reinforcing each other. To us, the location of this COP and the excitement and commitment of so many delegations from developing countries, especially in Africa, proved unequivocally that the momentum of Paris cannot be reversed. With or without the U.S., the Paris accord will live on.

Poster for Higher Education Networking Event
UConn and Marrakech’s Universite Cadi Ayyad (enrollment 85,000) co-hosted a higher education networking event, co-sponsored by AASHE and Second Nature. Colleges United for Climate Action attracted 50 students, faculty, and staff, mostly from the U.S. and Morocco.

Finally, in the course of a week, we witnessed among our students (as well as millions more in the U.S. and around the world) the transformation of the post-election blues into a fresh determination and commitment to keep fighting.  We think (and hope) that this setback will motivate and empower younger generations to participate in the decision-making processes at local and national levels, in the plethora of ways that our democracy offers.  And, as demonstrated by dozens of students, from Morocco’s Cadi Ayyad University, UConn and several other American universities, who spoke at the higher education networking event, Colleges United For Climate Action, there are more that unite than divide the younger generations around the world. Climate change is the defining and unifying challenge of our times and the millennials are all in!

 

Overall, this was an amazing trip! Beautiful Marrakesh was the backdrop to the great new friendships we formed and the new networks we established. This trip also proved, once again, the importance of experiential learning. Outside the traditional classroom setting, we were able to see, breathe, feel climate change and learn about the innovations, and policy solutions that real bureaucrats, corporations, and civil society organizations bring to the table. Last year in Paris and again this year in Marrakesh, history was made and we were there to witness it!

UConn needs to continue this participation in future COPs, and other colleges and universities should engage as well. Now more than ever, higher education needs to lead by example on the myriad science, policy and human rights issues surrounding climate change. We are all better for having attended this conference.

And now… we need to keep calm and keep fighting the good fight!

Signs of Hope Throughout Marrakech

Brooke Siegel, Student, Environmental Studies, Urban and Community Studies

The second that we boarded our Royal Air Maroc flight to Morocco, the COP22 logo was plastered everywhere we looked: painted on the fuselage of the airplane and printed on every seat cover. When we got off of the flight in the Marrakesh airport we could not walk more than 10 feet without seeing a COP22 sign, logo, or environmental message. Many people stopped us in the airport to ask if we were attending the conference as well. In the city itself, COP22 was carved into the landscaped gardens and a sign was hanging from every streetlight, including a call for climate action in multiple languages.

To me, this was both exciting and refreshing to see that the importance of the environment was being advertised and publicly displayed for all to see. Even with these signs everywhere, I found myself skeptical that the local people of Marrakesh actually understood the significance of COP22, apart from bringing big-spending tourists into this very entrepreneurial city.  Maybe they were aware that it was an environmental conference and that we were talking about the importance of mitigating climate change. But what does that really mean to them? Did they understand the implications of a warming climate on their daily lives?

lantern shop
A lantern shop in the market. Photo taken by Christen Bellucci

On the second day of the trip, my questions were partially answered at the Green Zone and later, after visiting the market. After lots of searching and negotiating, I picked out a lantern to purchase from a local vendor. The man I purchased it from saw that I had a bag already hanging from my arms and said in broken English something like, “Put the lantern in the bag you already have. We must recycle to help the environment.” For me, this was a very eye-opening and refreshing experience. It made me extremely hopeful that COP 22’s message is spreading beyond the walls of the conference. Maybe this was just an isolated experience and the vast majority do not fully understand climate change, but it is a vision of hope for our future and the future of our planet. I am optimistic that it is not just the formally educated individuals attending this conference who understand the importance of saving the planet for future generations.

 

 

A Remarkable Learning and Cultural Experience

Genevieve Nuttall, Student, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Conservation Biology and Biodiversity

The COP22 experience was remarkable. Even though we were in Marrakech for only five days, we met many interesting people, saw many wonderful sights, and listened to many inspiring and informed presentations on climate change issues from international delegates.

At the COP conference, I had the opportunity to learn about a variety of topics, such as sustainable agriculture, electric vehicles, and women’s rights, and how climate change impacts these subjects. It was interesting to interact and learn from people who came to COP22 from distant continents, like nations as far apart as Costa Rica and Kenya or the US and Senegal. Despite the differences in backgrounds and perspectives, it was reassuring to know that so many people around the world are united in the search for common solutions to climate-related problems, and passionate about preserving a sustainable future.

gen-1COP22 was held in Marrakech, a bustling and exciting city in the North African country of Morocco. We explored the city on the first night and had the chance to watch painters create a mural portraying climate change and a group performing traditional Moroccan dances. I enjoyed the cultural experience of our tour through the city, especially the food, which included some incredible vegetable dishes, olives, and tea.

I loved learning about and discussing the problems and solutions related to climate change, and I’m optimistic about the future of our Earth after listening to all of the great ideas posed by delegates at the COP. Although combatting climate change will be difficult, I left Marrakech knowing we have the commitment and tools to make it possible.

The COP22 conference was spectacular, and I am so happy that I was able to have this experience. In the second half of the week, I attended panel sessions on biodiversity, sustainable agriculture, and food security. I really enjoyed all of the talks on agriculture and this topic inspired me to continue studying conservation biology and its integration into agriculture. I found that the delegates speaking about farming were the most passionate and made the audience excited and hopeful. I was a little disappointed by the biodiversity speakers because they seemed disinterested when they spoke and didn’t emphasize the importance of biodiversity and how it goes hand in hand with climate change. But the conference as a whole was incredible. I spread the word about the conference using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and people seemed excited to learn about what was happening in Marrakech.

cafe in MoroccoI loved meeting the students from the University of Cadi Ayyad in Marrakech, during the networking event that UConn helped plan and co-sponsored with our Moroccan hosts. It was inspiring to listen to their ideas and see their innovations to promote the sustainability of their University community. We were able to exchange contact information to keep in touch in the future, which was exciting.

My favorite activity other than the COP itself was visiting the Atlas Mountains. From our hotel, we were able to see the silhouette of the mountains, and I am so glad we were able to drive to them and hike up to a waterfall that fed a river that ran through the communities in the mountains. At the top of the mountain, we had mint tea at a little café right next to the waterfall. This experience was a great way to end such an amazing trip to Morocco.

 

There is Hope in the Human Spirit

Margaux Verlaque-Amara, Student, Molecular and Cell Biology

It started with the security guard patrolling the TSA line. He slowly walked down the line, smiling and greeting those as he went. When he stopped at us, we exchanged greetings. We got to talking, and I asked him if he had ever been to Morocco. He said no, but mentioned he would love to someday. I told him that our group was attending the UN Climate Conference, and his face instantly lit up. He said to me, “I can’t believe that some people can deny that climate change exists, young people like you have to go out there and make some change, for us, our kids, our grandkids.” In the first leg of our long trip to COP22, I had already encountered this profound idea that the safety of our Earth knows no borders, but still, some are not compelled to believe or pay attention to the rapidly changing world around them. Why is that? That’s a complex idea, one wrapped up in politics and social circles and privilege. But what is even more interesting to me is that one of the first interactions outside of the sphere of my fellow classmates and professors was with a security guard, and he had a felt the same gravity and urgency we all felt as we were embarking on this journey.

The topic of climate change is not just for liberal ideological spheres, it is for everyone simply because it affects everyone in some capacity. Everyone should engage in these conversations whenever they are able to. Especially in the current political climate that is divided between the advocates and the skeptics, engagement in thoughtful and evidence-based conversation is crucial. I responded to the guard by saying, “Well you can be a change too, ya know?” By just urging others to pay attention to your environment, I said, you are already doing more than a lot of other people. He agreed with a smile on his face, and told us good luck as we continued on down the line.

Speaking of political climate, we are definitely in the depths of a drastic shift in political influence in the United States. And, for most of my fellow classmates and professors, we don’t see the change as a positive one. We can argue about how to best improve healthcare insurance, or how to reform the tax system, but we cannot get around the fact that our Earth is changing very rapidly, and we cannot dispute the overwhelming evidence that shows humans are contributing to this. But the topic of climate change has been devalued and rejected throughout the entirety of our recent presidential election in favor of possible economic prosperity and job security (although sustainability-related industries can easily support a prosperous economy, but that’s a different discussion).

market in Marrakech
A market at Marrakech

I met a man deep in the famous Marrakech markets who spoke to me about the election. A small group of us were wandering the tightly packed stalls filled to the brim with the best of Moroccan goods when we met. As we browsed along a wall of leather bags, the man and I got to talking and he asked what we thought of our newly elected president, Donald Trump. Trump is an open climate change skeptic, so, along with his other disagreeable rhetoric and behavior, the COP22 group definitely has reason to be concerned for the future of our climate policies. However, the man in the market, who is a Brazilian living in Canada, had his own opinion about our new leader. He said, “Well, I know he is racist and not the best qualified, but I have a strong feeling he will do good things for the middle class which is so bad right now.” I was absolutely intrigued because it seemed that his stance had nothing to do with the facts or policy of Trump’s campaign, but it had everything to do with this idea of personal financial gain. I changed the topic and said, “What about the fact that he doesn’t believe in climate change?” This did not seem to dissuade the man in the market at all, as he waved his hand in the air and said that kind of thing does not matter. HUH?! I responded with a few one liners that I’ve perfected since the election but, to my dismay, the man was not budging. Now I don’t know this man’s whole back story, but what I got from him was this: many people will go to any length to see change in personal status, no matter what other baggage their vote has. And this makes sense if you think about it – we are all trying to survive out here. But what is surviving if you are stepping over other types of survival in the process?

This man didn’t even vote in the U.S. election, but in the midst of growing global populism, he gets lost in the jibber-jabber of false promises and exploited ideas, a problem many Americans had at the polling station this past election. Unfortunately, climate change policy got lost somewhere along the line because a personal connection was not made for most people. What will it take to make that personal connection with the threat of climate change? How is it too abstract for some folks like the Brazilian-Canadian, yet an imminent threat to a random TSA security guard? Maybe exposure, maybe privilege, maybe a different set of values.

students outside Cadi Ayyad University
Students Usra, Margaux, and Ben outside Cadi Ayyad University. Photo taken by Mark Urban

So here we are, a bunch of American students in Morocco, trying to make sense of how our values and hopes collide with the rest of the world’s. But at our cores, we humans are not all that different from one another no matter where we are from; and if this trip taught me anything, it is that exactly. We try our best to make the right choices for ourselves and the people we love. For instance, Muhammad, the man who served us delicious tagine and warm bread on the cramped city street, lives his life day to day and makes enough to sustain what he already has. He talked about Morocco’s corrupt health system where if you can’t pay, you die, and how important it is to just keep working no matter what. And Salema, the belly dancer we met in the desert restaurant, who left an abusive marriage and lives to support herself in a world where it is difficult for a woman to make it on her own. These are the people of the world, they are trying to do their best with the tools they are given, and it leaves little room for the nuance that we American college students have the luxury of contemplating. Where does climate change advocacy fit into the life of the average human who has to worry about a multitude of other things just in order to survive?

I still have so many questions floating around my mind after this trip. But if there is one thing I know now, it is that I believe in the power of the human spirit. I believe there is strength in knowledge and urgency, and if the right voices were talking, humans would come together to change our world. Of course it is complicated, and there are powerful and corrupt leaders who put personal gain over the lives of others. Every structure that is built into our daily lives need to see a change, the table needs to be restructured so the common person’s voice is heard. Yet, there is strength in numbers, and if you give people the right political and industry support, the right knowledge, and the right incentive, the threat of climate change can be at the forefront of their lives, and we can all move towards a better world together.

 

Back to Nature, Where it All Started

Wyatt Million, Student, Biological Sciences

Atlas Mountains
A view of the Atlas Mountains during the excursion

The last UConn@COP22 activity of our trip to Morocco brought me back to where my passion for the environment all began. The final afternoon and evening in Marrakesh were spent on an excursion to the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, which rise out of the desert terrain about an hour south of the city limits. After the driver parked our shuttle bus cliff side, rather precariously for some in our group, we met Mohamed, our enthusiastic mountain guide. He expertly led us on a walk that turned into a hike, that eventually turned into a climb, with several stops along the way to rest, admire the beautiful vistas, and purchase various local items.

We started by crossing a river and then weaved our way through shops and homes to follow a small stream up the side of a mountain. The small stream started to become more powerful but, as the elevation increased, so did the difficulty of the terrain, causing the group to hop across rocks and scamper up boulders. Nearing the top, we encountered the first waterfall, an impressive rush of crystal clear water down a 20-foot boulder, but it was relatively small compared to what was above.

After more hiking and climbing, we arrived at the highest waterfall, at least 50-feet tall, pouring glacial water down into a shallow, clear pool. I caught myself hypnotized by the power and sound of the falling water, and as I turned to look at the mountain range behind us, a type of euphoria sent me back to my childhood. As I waded into the cold water and stood beneath the falls for a few seconds, it literally took my breath away.

Wyatt under waterfall
Wyatt standing underneath one of the seven waterfalls

For me, the outdoors has been more than a place for hiking or fresh air or taking cool pictures, it is more of a home. The environment has been a vital part of my life growing up, so being in such a beautiful place took me back to when I first realized that I would do anything to protect it. Because I was so affected by the outdoors as a child, my enthusiasm has been growing nearly 15 years and has been focused now on protecting ecosystems and conserving natural resources. COP22 provided me with more direction for my future but the Atlas Mountains reignited my most basic connection with the environment.

My access to the outdoors as a child led to my love of nature and, later, to my involvement in environmental issues and decision to pursue a degree in the Biological Sciences at UConn. And I believe this experiential learning could reign true for future generations. Providing children with the opportunity to experience first-hand the effects of climate change will do more than just explaining the science to them. It is one thing to understand climate change and another to care enough to do something about it. Being in those mountains reminded me of exploring in my backyard and family vacations to the Adirondack Mountains. It reminded me of what is at stake in the fight against climate change.

Climate Action and Higher Education @COP22

The following blogs emphasize a common theme at COP22: the role of universities and educated youth as powerful leaders in the fight against climate change, highlighted at a higher education networking event at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech:

We Want You (to Help Combat Climate Change) Eddie McInerney

Green Campuses: Turning Knowledge into Action Christen Bellucci

A Meeting of Millennials Stephanie Hubli

Knowledge is Privilege Usra Qureshi

An American Dream? Hannah Casey

It’s Up to Us Now Ben Breslau

Caring on Campus Margaux Verlaque-Amara

 

We Want You (to Help Combat Climate Change)

Eddie McInerney, Student, Political Science

There were a large number of panel discussions to attend in the Green Zone at COP22, ranging in subject matter from implementation of sustainable practices in the fashion industry, to the implications of climate change on basic human rights. Based on the sessions attended and the topics discussed among faculty and student in the UConn@COP22 group, it seemed that one of the most pressing issues was the younger generation’s role in combatting climate change and how we as students can become involved at the local, national, and international levels.

Cadi Ayyad University
Cadi Ayyad University, host of the higher education networking event. Photo taken by Mark Urban

One of the first questions we heard asked at the conference, and that we asked ourselves in our daily discussions, was how can we spread awareness about climate change to people in the U.S.?  Outreach is desperately needed, especially with President-elect Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed climate denier. We rebounded a number of different ideas through our group, but were not able to reach any compelling revelations. Should we try to get every student who would listen to become an advocate for the issue? Or could we get more done with fewer students who were more knowledgeable? Should we use emotive rhetoric to garner support among older populations, especially those who voted for Trump, or should we focus on better educating their children on the subject matter? It seemed as though we were stuck in a loop.

 

Then, on Wednesday evening, we attended a higher education networking event with students from Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech, along with students from a number of schools across the United States. The same question was posed by a UConn faculty member: how can we get the younger generation excited about this issue, and to that measure, involved? Ultimately, it seemed the conclusion drawn by both the students and faculty was that we must take action together.  A Moroccan student argued that it is one thing to say you want to stop climate change, but another to actually do something about it, given most students’ pre-occupation with the daily academic workload of assignments, projects and maintaining good grades.

Coming from the higher education networking event meeting, I was inspired by the similarity of our views and the power of climate change as a unifying issue among students from diverse backgrounds and nationalities.  I’m convinced that the surest way for us to combat this issue is to make use of these international connections. Students at UConn and other American universities need to reach out to international students, peer-to-peer, through contacts made during study abroad programs, at future COPs, or otherwise. Mobilizing Millennials and Generation Zs, especially college students, would create a formidable international force for influencing governments and educating youth in ways that give us the best chance at combatting climate change, across all regions of the world.

 

Green Campuses: Turning Knowledge into Action

Christen Bellucci, Student, Environmental Sciences, Human Health Concentration

Green Campus Sign
COP22 “ACT” signs were posted all throughout the city of Marrakech

From the moment we first stepped foot in COP22’s Green Zone, an urgent question presented itself to us: What can universities do to strengthen the fight against climate change? The first panel we attended as a group Monday evening was The Relevance of Green University Networks in Promoting a Sustainable Future, a discussion led by a group of higher education leaders from around the world. One of their primary messages was that universities have a responsibility to exist as leaders in the area of sustainability and climate change mitigation. By building and supporting green campuses, universities embed a sustainability mindset in their students.

 

Sustainable campuses allow for multiple angles of education, drawing a link between the classroom, initiative, and innovation. As stated in the panel, they “create platforms to turn knowledge into action.” This discussion was so relevant to UConn’s goals of providing its community members with a sustainable living and learning environment. I was encouraged to hear that UConn had already taken on one of the panel’s primary recommendations for optimizing sustainability: managing and monitoring both quantitative and qualitative sustainability metrics. UConn has discovered, developed, and implemented a great number of sustainability initiatives through participation in annual surveys such as the Sierra Club’s Cool Schools ranking.

networking event
Colleges United for Climate Action networking event at Cadi Ayyad University. Photo taken by Mark Urban

While at Cadi Ayyad University for our co-hosted event, Colleges United for Climate Action, a student even congratulated us for our number 2 ranking in the international GreenMetric sustainability survey. I was not fully aware until this moment that UConn’s achievements are being recognized throughout the world, confirming the higher education panel’s message that we have a responsibility as a university to act as a leader for our own community, for fellow colleges and universities, and for the world.

 

 

A Meeting of Millennials

Stephanie Hubli, Student, Environmental Engineering

The optimism I gained from this conference greatly outweighs my initial skepticism about the daunting nature of the global fight against climate change. The change in my overall outlook stems not from the success of this year’s formal proceedings at the COP, but rather from what I observed about the promising leadership and camaraderie amongst the millennial generation worldwide.

higher ed networking
Photo taken by Mark Urban

My enthusiasm is rooted in my own COP22 experiences and interactions, which have reassured me about the connectivity of educated youth on a global scale.  On Monday evening, while waiting for the bus from the Green Zone back to our hotel, our group had the pleasure of meeting a college-educated, twenty-something Reuters reporter from Cairo, Egypt.  Naturally, we discussed international concerns about the recent U.S. election of Donald Trump, a known climate change skeptic.  The reporter did not laugh at us but instead empathized with us. Later in the week, we had the honor of meeting with faculty, students, and graduates from Moroccan and other American colleges at a COP22 higher education networking event held at the University of Cadi Ayyad.  Every individual I engaged in conversation with was intelligent, action-oriented, and determined to be a voice of change. I was especially struck by the similarity of concerns, ideas and aspirations of the many Moroccan students we met.

 

Some would say that the competitive nature of globalization, such as international trade agreements, have led to a more divided and selfish world.  However, in the case of international youth, I dare to disagree. My experiences at COP22 and the people I have met in Marrakech have given me hope for the future.

I know that it will be a long process, but we can do anything when we stand together.  We are united on the need for climate action.  We are empathetic to the plight of those who have been or will be displaced by the effects of climate change, such as flooding and drought.  We are strong in preparing for a more resilient world, and protecting those, often in developing nations, who are most at risk from climate change.  We are determined to succeed.  We are one.

 

Knowledge is Privilege

Usra Qureshi, Student, Molecular and Cell Biology, Human Rights

I want to believe that everyone has the opportunity to participate in environmentally friendly practices, that every community knows enough about climate change to understand the urgency of the situation. And that sustainability is affordable for all.

The reality is morose. Liberals, academics and the upper class are communities privileged and enabled by the understanding of climate change, and all afforded access to sustainable measures meant to keep our world going.

solar powered car
Attendees of the Colleges United for Climate Action event learn about sustainability projects at Cadi Ayyad University

COP22 in itself felt accessible to few. During a session on funding sustainable practices in Africa, one man went on an unforgettably impassioned monologue about how COP22 would not have been frequented by so many African voices had it not been taking place in Africa. The Innovation Zone was found to be populated by incredible inventions and visions that would undoubtedly change lives – so long as you came from a lineage of royalty.

Certainly, the world becomes more aware by the day about the impacts of climate change. But we keep educating those who are already educated. This is a problem. Continuously, there is a failure to frame the subject in a way that is understandable to the average person. Climate change is incomprehensible. Sustainability is inaccessible. Change is unaffordable.

So before we expect them to understand and join the revolution, we ourselves need to fix the way we enable. It is a privilege to be able to understand climate change. It is time we make it a right.

 

An American Dream?

Hannah Casey, Student, Environmental Studies, Public Policy

The mostly Moroccan and North African students at the higher education networking event, co-sponsored by UConn and the Universite Cadi Ayyad, were extremely excited to host us at their college.  Afterwards, they showed us an exhibition displaying their sustainability-focused research projects. The 20 or so students from this top University in Morocco were studying a variety of majors, from biology to environmental science and linguistics.

networking
Students, faculty, and staff networking at Cadi Ayyad University. Photo taken by Mark Urban

One of the undergraduate students, Omi, stood out to me. Omi is a freshman studying physics with a passion like no other. Her greatest inspiration is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the American astrophysicist, author, and Director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC. Omi aspires to follow his path and become an astrophysicist. Despite her hard work and incredible grades, Omi will be unable to pursue her planned career in Morocco.  That’s because of the lack of resources and educational institutions with specialized programs, like those Tyson found at Columbia for his Masters and Doctorate in astrophysics. Her dream is to study in America and she described this goal as comparable to “winning a prize.” Her simple wish to continue her education in America with the same opportunities we have, points out some of the things we take for granted in the U.S..

 

Omi’s entry into the United States also is dependent on potential immigration policy decisions made by the new president elect. Such policies could greatly affect the ability of Omi and many other bright students to continue their studies in the U.S and realize their dreams. New innovations, technologies, and future solutions to current problems may also not be realized if many great international students are not given equal academic opportunities –  especially if this means pursuing their graduate student dreams in America.

Omi’s sincere desire to follow in the academic footsteps of her American role model was a real eye-opener. How lucky we are to live in the United States.

 

It’s Up to Us Now

Ben Breslau, Student, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Upon entering COP22 on Monday I struggled with what to do next. What did any of this matter if the U.S. government refuses to help us? Fortunately, over the course of this week at the conference, I came to understand that I am far from alone in the pursuit of a healthier planet. Individuals, corporations, and governments from around the world are working harder than ever to solve the issues that lay ahead. And our young generation has a greater potential than ever to completely reshape our world for the better.

higher ed panel
COP22 higher education panel. Photo taken by Christen Bellucci

On our first night at the conference, all of the UConn students entered a panel of faculty from around the world, discussing the role of Higher Education in future environmentalism. Professors spoke in French and English about how important it is that every college student learns about sustainability. As our generation is the one bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, it is vital that we are all equipped with the knowledge of how climate change and other environmental issues occur, how they relate to issues of social justice and economics, and how to create lasting solutions. It is important not only to teach sustainability, but also to make the lessons memorable; as with any subject, students are most likely to remember the lessons that are interesting, engaging, and relatable. Luckily, UConn students and faculty are pursuing this goal by promoting a new environmental literacy/sustainability general education requirement through a student-circulated petition and a faculty-led workgroup. It would be wonderful for our university to be on the short list of schools around the world that have adopted such a requirement. So how exactly can we, as students and faculty, construct these programs for more schools besides our own? Networking. Luckily, we had numerous opportunities to network and exchange ideas with a host of other people throughout the conference.

On Monday night, several of us were stuck waiting for our bus back to the hotel. Luckily, a potentially troubling situation quickly turned into a great opportunity. As we waited, we began to exchange information with some of the other conference attendees.

Mostafa, for example, is a journalist from Cairo. For the last few years, his work has granted him unique opportunities on the front lines of our changing world. Mostafa has seen the death and destruction caused by Syria’s civil war, and the plight of the now impoverished refugees trapped in Jordan and other countries. And of course, he was actively involved in the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations that removed Hosni Mubarak from his decades-long rule. He also had to watch helplessly, first as the extremely conservative Mohammad Morsi was elected, then as Morsi was forcibly deposed by Abdel al-Sisi and his military companions. Now, Mostafa and his friends — who, like us, want a nation of more democracy and transparency — are stuck under military rule with no sign of an election in the foreseeable future. Interestingly, we observed how the Arab Spring, and other recent events like the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, share similar social trends: the population at-large seems to be sick of ineffective “establishment” governments, but there is a strong divide as to what should replace the current world order.

sustainable heating solutions
Students and OEP Director Rich Miller learn about sustainable heating solutions at the COP22 Green Zone. Photo taken by Christen Bellucci

Before Mostafa boarded his bus, I asked him for advice about what we could do to counter our potentially regressive regime. He said: “Be patient. Unlike us, you’ll have a midterm election in two years, and another presidential election in four. Before then, we can all form a more connected international community.” We exchanged information, and will hopefully continue to build grassroots international support for climate awareness and action.

As the week went on, our group continued to ask ourselves what many Americans have recently been asking: How has our nation, and even our world, become so polarized? On Wednesday, we brainstormed this question with students from other American Universities and the Moroccan University of Cadi Ayyad. We gathered in one of the large university’s boardrooms with local students, as well as students from American schools such as the University of Denver, Columbia University, University of St. Louis, and several from Historically Black Colleges and Universities cohort. After introductions, UConn professor Oksan Bayulgen observed: In our generation, there are some teens and young adults who, like us, are incredibly passionate and active about a wide range of issues. But there are also many who show nearly complete apathy towards anything controversial or political. I, and some of the other American students, suggested that many of us are stuck in online echo chambers — we follow people and ‘news’ sources that align with our pre-existing ideas, and fear or condemn those with different outlooks. People also suggested that many American millennials need to be reached in areas of their life that matter to them. Examples include eco-friendly fashion, green community service, and sustainable diets. Some of the Moroccan students expanded on this notion and suggested that environmentalism is also a subject that too often is presented as abstract. Students need to learn, from a very early age, that sustainability is a real-world issue that affects us all.

I spoke later with Zakaria, a local student who runs “Science Caravans” with some of the other students who were at the networking event. They travel to local high schools and demonstrate simple experiments that explain how climate change works. Other Moroccan students suggested more outreach with a stronger focus on human rights and social justice issues that accompany climate challenges. This promotes community service and engages poor and minority stakeholders in the battle to avert a climate crisis.

Throughout the conference, we spotted many more opportunities to improve our generation’s global networking. For example, one of the many NGOs presenting in the Civil Societies pavilion held student gatherings throughout one of the days. While we weren’t able to attend ourselves, we gathered information about the organization, called Sustaining All Life. A U.S.-based group, they encourage exactly the information exchanges and conferences that we support.

I’m happy to say that I feel much more positive about our generation after all of these networking encounters. This, coupled with a Northeastern U.S. college sustainability conference I attended two weeks ago, has shown me that our generation is very proactive, especially in the face of disaster. All it takes is a coordinated effort!

 

Caring on Campus

Margaux Verlaque-Amara, Student, Molecular and Cell Biology

On Wednesday afternoon the group took a taxi ride to the Universite Cadi Ayyad for a program entitled, Colleges United for Climate Action; Connecting at COP22. As we walked through the university gates on the bustling city street, we entered a beautiful and sunny campus with walkways lined with orange trees and students hanging around the open-air academic buildings. Upon entering the main building, we were greeted with quintessential Moroccan architecture; elaborate wooden archways and red-clay walls, leading into beautiful lobby with delicate tiles that covered pillars that extended all the way to the ceiling.

cadi-ayyad
Cadi Ayyad University, co-host of the Colleges United for Climate Action networking event

Various students and professors from both UConn and other universities in Morocco and beyond sat around a long conference table in the main building of the university. Soon after the introductions from the university president and the students and educators in the room, our very own Dr. Oksan Bayulgen posed the idea; how can we get students at UConn to actually care?

This might seem mildly offending for some students reading this – no one wants to be called out for being apathetic. But let’s be real, a majority of us do not do all that we can in our community to combat the issues of climate change, nor do we feel overwhelmingly guilty about it. We don’t rally around the ideas of rising sea levels and depletion of bio-diversity like we rally around President Herbst not calling a snow day.

The evidence is clear, climate change is a real and imminent threat to us all, and there are tangible steps we can take to reverse the effects. It was agreed upon that while most students know the threats of climate change, the day-to-day behavior of each individual needs to reflect this on a much larger scale.

group discussion
College United for Climate Action group discussion. Photo taken by Mark Urban

Being mindful of how our daily actions impact our environment was agreed to be the biggest component of shaping the campus environment. There is an emotional and personal component that needs to be tapped into, much of which can be achieved by daily reminders that our consumption adds up. Being environmentally conscious cannot be an isolated event on a designated day, one commentator said, but rather a part of daily life, built into every action. Some easy solutions that came out of not only this conversation at the university, but also the panel discussions at COP 22, included restructuring the way we deal with waste and making recycling more accessible in every space. I find this to be true, especially in major public spaces such as Homer Babbidge Library. Coffee cups, wrappers, boxes, plastic waste, all thrown into the little garbage cans next to tables with little care from the students furiously studying for their calculus exams. Making recycling more accessible in all spaces creates a constant reminder that our resources can be reused

On the topic of integrating climate awareness on campuses and the role of a campus in spreading awareness, Dr. Beverley Wright, a professor of Sociology and the founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, gave an answer that I found promising and feasible. Dr. Wright expressed an idea about community-based partnership where a community of interest would guide projects and research in partnership with a local university. I think this idea is simple, yet can lead to the behavioral change that enables climate action, as we discussed beforehand. Specialized programs that emphasize community-based partnerships allow members of a community to actively engage in research, political advocacy, and awareness. There are many communities around Storrs that could pose a mutually beneficial partnership with UConn to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle. As we expand UConn’s sustainability programs and climate science research, we could use our resources to catalyze and support communities that are transitioning to more sustainable practices. Additionally, this allows UConn students to take community involvement to a level that directly changes our world, and could bolster the excitement and urgency surrounding climate change.

 

 

U.S. Election Casts Shadow Over Marrakech

As a contingent of UConn students, faculty, and staff arrived at COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco, it became clear that, although they were more than 3,000 miles away from home, the uncertainty and concern surrounding the recent U.S. election were being felt just as strongly. The following blog posts were submitted by members of the UConn contingent, detailing their experiences at COP22 in light of the recent election:

The World Without U.S. Mark Urban

An Uncertain Future Ben Breslau

UCONN@COP22: The Trump Opener Kristin Burnham

Hoping for a Better Donald: What the 2016 Election Means for Climate Change Policy Klara Reisch

Since these blogs were written, President-elect Trump has moderated his position, and stated that he is “open-minded” about the Paris Agreement; however, Myron Ebell, a vocal climate change skeptic for many years, remains in charge of the President-elect’s EPA transition team.

 

The World Without U.S.

Mark Urban, Biologist, Associate Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” a taxi driver said as he weaved through the tangle of motorbikes, pedestrians, donkey carts, and buses clogging the streets of Marrakech, Morocco. I flinched when he slammed on the brakes or accelerated through precarious gaps in the traffic. He was talking about U.S. President-elect Trump. He was trying to make me feel better even though the world was a very different place than it was just one year ago.

Last December, the world met in Paris for the 21st meeting of climate delegates to the United Nations, or COP21 for short. The world agreed to try to limit global warming to 1.5 °C above preindustrial temperatures. The Paris Climate Agreement exceeded expectations. The world and the UConn delegation celebrated in the streets of Paris. Some of our faculty and staff cried tears of joy when they heard the news.

Last year’s COP21 was one of shining optimism. This year’s COP22 in Marrakech was one of gritty determination. If the Paris COP was a flute of French champagne, the Marrakech COP was a can of warm Casablanca beer.

Already the promises of just a year ago are fading. The world hasn’t figured out how to implement the lofty goals of the Paris accords. Whereas President Obama helped lead the fight against climate change, his successor threatens to withdraw.

outdoor market
Jemaa el-Fnaa outdoor market

Against this backdrop, our second UConn delegation of undergraduates, faculty, and staff flew to the highlands of central Morocco. Marrakech, an ancient center for African trade, religion, and culture, provides the nexus for protecting all those things from a changing climate. Just beyond the ancient Jemaa el-Fnaa outdoor bazaar and outside the high pink walls of the Kasbah, the massive white tents of COP22 rose from a flat field. Out front, flagpoles of the world skewered the big African sky.

Like in Paris, we watched panel discussions about everything from the economy of climate adaptation to the sustainable development of Africa. We visited the government and corporate solutions tent, where new electric cars and photovoltaic cells shimmered under LED lights. We visited the stands of non-profit groups, cities, countries, and regions from around the world to hear about their climate solutions. The Nordic countries’ booth was expansive, white and clean. The African section was bright and welcoming. The Dutch offered a full bar, proudly extolling the ‘Dutch Approach.’ But I never found the US booth.

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John Kerry on the small screen

The US did take the center stage at the conference when US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered an impassioned argument for continuing to address climate change. Not managing to talk our way into the tight security of the UN blue zone, a group of us watched Kerry’s address to the assembled diplomats on an Iphone propped against a water bottle in an expat hotel. He was not speaking to the world, but to his country. Quoting Winston Churchill, Kerry said “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”

The white, blubbering specter of a Trump presidency sapped strength from world efforts. Yet, I returned more optimistic than when I arrived. The world ratified the Paris Agreement more quickly than ever thought. Cities around the world are advancing toward carbon neutrality. Businesses are developing clean technologies because they recognize that efficiency is good business. The world reconfirmed its commitment to addressing climate change. A large banner on the last day proclaimed “We Will Move Ahead!”

Maybe the taxi driver was correct. Maybe it won’t be so bad. The world is united against the climate threat, even if our government is not. The world will lead, even if the US will not.

 

An Uncertain Future

Ben Breslau, Student, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

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The UConn contingent arriving at Marrakech

As we flew into Morocco, my mind raced. Like many of my environmentally conscious peers in the United States and beyond, I was still in shock from the previous week’s presidential election. Among his many campaign promises, President-elect Trump has spoken of promoting policies that would be disastrous to the national and global environment. He has discussed reinvigorating the coal industry, which will translate into massive health hazards for the people of Appalachia. He has also proposed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. This agency has improved countless lives by directly reducing the amount of pollutants in our nation’s rivers, air and soil. He has also suggested opening up our National Parks to private industries for exploitation. This would not only severely damage America’s tourism industry, but it would also destroy unique and irreplaceable ecosystems. And most dangerous of all, he is seriously considered abandoning the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Since the United States is Earth’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter (and may again become the largest as China seeks more renewable energy), this could mean that our country, which stands as a beacon for freedom around the world, may irreparably contribute to the largest global crisis in our generation.

Needless to say, I was less than optimistic before we touched down in Africa. I felt something that others less privileged than myself have felt for years or even decades: a strong sense of disillusionment and betrayal towards the officials that are supposed to represent the interests of ALL Americans.

 

UCONN@COP22: The Trump Opener

Kristin Burnham, Student, Pathobiology and Molecular and Cell Biology

The Trump Opener: A cultural phenomenon observed at COP22 in which, once the nationality of a U.S. citizen is established, the opening remark of the conversation is about President-Elect Donald Trump.

“You know I’ve never met a Trump supporter,” Mostafa, a well-spoken, twenty something journalist from Cairo tells us as we wait for the bus from the Green Zone back to the hotel.

We comment that people who voted for Trump don’t come to climate change conferences, or to developing countries for that matter. The statement is laced with condescension, the implicit message clear: they don’t know better because they haven’t seen the things we have, they don’t know the things we know.  It’s how we explain their seemingly inexplicable choice.

Rich Miller, from the UConn cohort comments that it’s interesting how close the rest of the world followed the U.S. election. Mostafa replies, “We’re all stakeholders – your elections affect us as much as they affect you, maybe even more.” And, to some degree, he is right. For better or worse, the U.S. is a global superpower. Our foreign policy brings not only humanitarian aid and other resources to developing nations, but also, all too often, our soldiers, our missiles, and our carbon emissions, which travel far beyond our borders.

Mostafa explains that he sympathizes, comparing many Egyptians’ dislike for their President of the past two and-a-half years, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to many Americans’ dislike of Trump. “I was a part of the Arab Spring,” he tells us. With pride and eloquence he says that our generation is more connected than ever before: How incredible it is that we can know the story and thoughts of a 16 year old girl in Palestine, a 41 year old man in Iraq… or a 20 year old girl from Connecticut.

kristin-mitigation-2There is a lull in the conversation. Ben Breslau, a fellow student from the UConn group, asks “So what do we do?” Mostafa emphatically replies, “You wait. Please wait.  You do nothing. You have patience,” almost pleading for the new US administration to stand behind the Paris Agreement, reached just last year at the historic COP21.  He cares what we do. He cares because it affects him too.

It’s not just what the president does that has a global impact. It’s what we all do. It’s the votes we cast, the revolutions we start, the passion of our convictions, and the causes we choose to champion.

A few minutes later we meet a delegate from Turkey, “You’re from America? I was here [at the conference] as the election results were coming in.” He says people cried and scheduled talks were abandoned to discuss instead the potential devastation Trump’s environmental policies could have on the world.

I hope that no matter what Trump does, no matter how drastic or inflammatory, we, as a country, can be more than his actions.

Let’s use the overwhelming feelings of frustration and helplessness to create a better United States. Let’s treat each other with more kindness. Let’s use the outrage and fear that surround Trump’s election to be a catalyst for change. Let’s join together to reduce our contribution to greenhouse gasses.

If we can’t take pride in our President, let us instead create a culture, country and carbon footprint we can be proud of.

 

Hoping for a Better Donald: What the 2016 Election Means for Climate Change Policy

Klara Reisch, Student, Molecular and Cell Biology

klara-human-rightsI shuffled in and out of shops trying to find a souvenir in Marrakech when one merchant turned to me, chuckled and asked “you voted for Trump?” I was confused and slightly embarrassed that this election was following me deep into the Souks of the Medina, but I was not surprised. In fact, before that encounter, most panel discussions I attended at COP22 mentioned the election results back home, which named Donald Trump as our president-elect. Throughout the campaign, Trump argued that climate change is merely a hoax spurred by the Chinese and criticized the United States for spending money on environmental initiatives to minimize its effects. He had threatened to dismantle last year’s landmark Paris Agreement, and Trump and revoke the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, which calls for a decrease in carbon emissions from power plants.

klara-human-rights-2Either way, this election left many delegates and panelists concerned and unsure about the future of our world. I spoke with a panelist from GIZ, Klaus Wenzel, about the U.S.’s resistance of climate change policy. He talked about how workers are concerned about how they will be affected by this transition to things like clean energy. “People are afraid,” he said. “People are afraid of what this means for their jobs.” One of Trump’s main issues with renewable energy is that it is too expensive. Wenzel argued that although the return on investment takes time, renewable energy decreases the amount of air pollution and green house gas emissions, both of which have major effects on the environment and human health. “What is the worth of a premature death?”

Of course, no one knows for sure what this election means for the United States and the rest of the world, but I heard opinions expressed by both sides in various panel discussions at COP22. Some said that the United States would not back out because of the geopolitical and trade implications, while others believe that the U.S. may step out of the game and perhaps force other countries to step up.

Hopefully, enough people will speak out against Trump’s environmental policies. If our president will not fight on our behalf, we will have to.

UConn COP 22 Marrakech Climate Change Conference

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Trip Description

COP 22 is the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and will be held this year in Marrakech, Morocco from November 7th to November 18th, 2016. The event will bring together diplomats, business executives, heads of government and other delegates to discuss action on climate change. The objective of COP 22 is to make the voices of vulnerable countries to climate change heard and will be one of action.

The University of Connecticut will be providing full funding, excluding meals other than breakfast, for a select group of undergraduate students to travel to Marrakech from November 13th – November 18th to attend events centered on the conference. In addition, students will have the opportunity to experience the beautiful city of Marrakech, Morocco.

This application must be completed and submitted to envpolicy@uconn.edu by 11:59pm EST on Monday, October 10th in order to be considered by the Selection Committee for the trip. Only complete applications will be considered. Airfare, housing, and city transportation will be provided.

Clerical

  1. Do you have a passport that is valid through April of 2017?
  2. What is your cumulative GPA? (3.0 minimum requirement)
  3. What is your major and minor (if applicable)
  4. What is your expected date of graduation?
  5. How many credits have you completed?
  6. Please list any relevant student leadership activities (e.g., service hours, officer position in clubs, etc.)
  7. How did you hear about this program?

Requirements

  1. Write one 600-word essay on the following topic:
    • Describe what you hope to share with the UConn community from your COP 22 trip. Examples include participating and presenting in a conference, presenting what you learned to a class, etc. These goals should be attainable and reasonable. Essay should also include how this trip will be beneficial to your future career.
  2. List the contact information for three academic or employer references (at least one must be an academic reference).
  3. Attach a one-page copy of your current resume to this application.
  4. During AND after your trip, you must develop a series of blogs and social media posts pertaining to COP22.