Bonjour from UConn@COP21

First Days in Paris

Rich Miller, OEP Director

group photoWe have finally arrived in Paris at the UN’s 21st annual international climate summit or Conference of the Parties (aka COP21). After a 3-hour bus ride from Storrs to JFK, barely ahead of the Monday evening rush hour, then a 6 ½ hour flight from NYC to Paris, not to mention seven months of intensive planning and organizing – nous sommes arrivés! And by “nous,” I mean the UConn contingent of 12 talented students (selected from a strong field of 77 applicants), four faculty members, involved in some aspect of climate change-related research, and two OEP sustainability staff members charged with overseeing implementation and outreach for UConn’s own Climate Action Plan and commitment to a carbon-neutral campus.

After arriving in France on mid-day Tuesday, having lost 6 hours to the time zone differential, the first two full days of our stay have been a whirlwind of activity, education and cultural immersion. We begin each day with breakfast at 8, followed by a group gathering in the stately hotel lounge, where each of our faculty members takes a daily turn at leading a lively group discussion on a climate science or policy topic.

CaptureBy 11, we’re off on the 45-minute combination metro, train and bus ride that takes us from the heart of Paris’ Left Bank to Le Bourget, on the northern outskirts of the city, where a vast convention complex hosts the COP21 official proceedings, so-called “civil society” events, and hundreds of related lectures and exhibits from NPOs, companies, and governmental officials and agencies around the globe. Even for someone like myself, who has been to many an annual AASHE conference, which are always buzzing with thousands of higher ed faculty, staff and students, the COP21 “Climate Generations” gathering is somewhat daunting.

Eventually, several from the UConn contingent will break away from Le Bourget and head to more focused side events (e.g, workshops about the effects of climate change on oceans, public health or human rights), which are each held at different venues throughout Paris. Then, with evening temperatures in the balmy low-50s, others will use their free time for long walks and short visits at some of the many cultural landmarks that have made Paris one of the world’s favorite tourist destinations.

After very late dinners (in the European custom), students, faculty and staff are back at the hotel, catching up on their work or studies; some students are busily writing papers due next week (the final week of fall semester classes before exams), and others dutifully writing blog posts, tweeting or using Facebook and Instagram to instantly share their experiences with friends and family, and oh yes, the UConn Nation and beyond, through the hyper-connected world of social media.

eiffel tower group.PNGHowever, Wednesday night, December 2nd, was an exception. We all gathered, along with another 30+ guests from other colleges and universities, from 7:30 to 10 p.m., at the Kedge Business School, in the Montmartre section of Paris. Here, UConn had the honor of co-hosting, along with Second Nature and AASHE, a special “Higher Education Leads on Climate” event. While it was mostly a networking occasion for meeting up with our peers and colleagues, who happened to be in Paris for the same aspirational reasons, we also heard two spirited informational presentations from Second Nature’s Education Manager and Kedge’s CSR Director. Respectively, they explained the re-branded Climate Leadership Commitments and HESI’s sustainability literacy tests. By the end of the day, I had gotten positive feedback from several of my colleagues at the event, who appreciated the opportunity for higher ed gatherings, both fun and informative, at COPs. Mission accomplished – thanks to all who helped make the event a success!


Students submitted the following blog posts detailing their experiences during the first few days of our trip:

The Road to COP21 Kerrin Kinnear

Maskbook Anna Middendorf

Climate Change – The Ultimate Interdisciplinary Issue Rob Turnbull

Combating Climate Change: The Power of Multiple Perspectives Jessica Griffin

Many more are to come as the conference continues.



The Road to COP21

Kerrin Kinnear, OEP Intern

busGazing out at the cacophony of asphalt, metal, and concrete, an inner conflict is brewing. As the scenes of Connecticut civilization blur by the bus window on the first leg of my journey to COP21, I cannot help but wonder if I should feel awestruck or pained.

The society we live in has become more physically connected than ever before. Because of the infrastructure in place, I can drive a fairly direct route from Storrs, CT to Pennsylvania to see my boyfriend, or hop on a plane just a short 45-minute shuttle ride away to see my family in Oklahoma. I can fly to Paris, France in less than 7 hours to demonstrate solidarity with thousands of other environmental activists at the 2015 United Nations Climate Conference.

airport 2.JPGThe ease with which my fellow citizens and I can mobilize ourselves to unify and act is a beautiful thing about modern society, but at what cost have we achieved this mobility?

The landscape I see beyond this window is marred. Trees and shrubs are few and far between. Impervious building materials suffocate the earth and its soil systems. And the bus I ride spews the very carbon emissions I am traveling to Paris to combat. This is not the scene of a connected planet where species live in harmony with one another. No, this is the scene of a world where it has become easy for humans to be mentally removed from their impact on the environment, where it has become the norm to be unaware of, or apathetic about, the repercussions of our effect on climate and the earth’s ecosystems.

Kerrin pic flags
International flags outside the COP21 venue representing all nations attending the United Nations negotiations

I write this post not to criticize society, but instead to initiate a call for action. It will soon be halfway through the UN’s negotiations on climate change, and I realize us citizens on “the outside” cannot stand by idly, waiting and hoping for world leaders to come to an agreement that will solve this massive problem. As individuals, we have the intrinsic power to reconnect with our environment, to be conscious stewards and not ignorant polluters, and to care for our international neighbors already suffering from the impacts of climate change, rather than turn a blind eye. We cannot and should not wait for others to make the choice for us.

Regardless of the outcome of this year’s negotiations, I challenge you to consider your responsibilities as a global citizen. Become more knowledgeable about your personal impact on the planet, brainstorm ways to reduce your environmental footprint, and get involved with your community’s environmental initiatives.

The time to act is now. Together we are strong, and together we can create long-lasting change.



Anna Middendorf

At our first stroll around COP21, I noticed a little stall in the back of the Climate Generations area that seemed inconspicuous enough. Always on the outlook for other ambassadors of creativity against climate change, I was impressed to find the stall to be Maskbook.

Anna modeling her own creation. Maskbook has officially been supported by the French government and operates a dedicated space within the Grand Palais (Solutions COP21) and at Ie Bourget (Générations Climat). Join the initiative by creating your own mask and posting a picture with it on the official Maskbook website to protect your health and our climate.

Maskbook is a project that came to life through the non-profit organization Art of Change 21 initiative which links “social entrepreneurship, art and youth at an international level.”1 The idea behind Maskbook is to offer observers the chance to create a mask covered in whatever the activist’s heart might desire: buttons, textiles, lightbulbs, playing cards, soda cans or perfume samples, amongst many more. Representing the daily rubbish that we discard, the mask uses a connotation of potentially fearful images to focus on the health hazards that we are not only imposing on ourselves, but also on the flora and fauna that surround us. The masks remind us that the environment is not ours to destroy, and the playful way of expressing this makes the mission both personal and real, especially when surrounded by thousands of like-minded campaigners here in Le Bourget, Paris.

1Art of Change website,


Climate Change – The Ultimate Interdisciplinary Issue

Rob Turnbull

group lessonClimate change is the ultimate inter-disciplinary issue, and today I learned exactly how many disciplines I understand thoroughly: almost one. Coming from a strict biological science background (I study Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at UConn) I have long considered myself a very literate person in terms the effects, causes, opinions, etc. surrounding climate science. After a few discussions had over breakfast and UConn’s daily group discussion in the lounge of our hotel, I came to understand that even though I thought I completely got the “science” of global warming, I could really only claim to understand the general biological effects of global warming on organisms. The physics and chemistry were, though not entirely foreign to me, far more complex than I anticipated, and it took nearly an hour listening to, and talking with, Dr. Anji Seth, a UConn climatologist, to get a firmer grasp of how solar radiation, heat, earth’s elliptical orbit, albedo, and a slurry of other factors all interact to create our observed climate trends.

I entered into an even more foreign discussion with my fellow UConn@COP21-ers on the economics of dealing with global warming. While I certainly learned plenty from my peers, my ignorance about these topics highlights a major challenge in dealing with such a broad-reaching issue as climate change: the isolation of the many professional disciplines. I wasn’t the only COP21er who had a fish-out-of-water moment today. Among such a diverse group of UConn students – including scientists, political scientists, economists, and social scientists – whenever anyone began to talk in depth about their respective field, the others often found themselves having such a conversation for the first time.

While it is excellent, in my opinion, for different people to develop different types of expertise, especially given the complexity of global warming, this diversity only becomes a good thing if accompanied by strong communication and collaboration. Otherwise, issues aren’t resolved in a holistic sense and accessory problems will persist. While the scientist can unveil the trends to back up climate theories, that scientist needs the economist and the politician to draft viable policy, and the artist to help spread the word.

exhibitsWith this in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to find, among the many booths and exhibits at the COP21 “Climate Generations” event, an organization practicing what I’ve just preached. The UN Environmental Program’s Climate Change website can be found at the link below. With a focus, at least for this COP21 day, on influencing ocean climate legislation, the aforementioned group involves academics, political scientists, artists, and many others, to accomplish its goals. Upon arriving at the booth, I was presented with scientific procedures and results, as well as a clear plan about how these results will play into the policy negotiations. Such multidisciplinary collaboration is vital to addressing problems associated with global warming. Those involved with   have shown me that Climate Change is the ultimate inter-disciplinary issue and can only be resolved through multi-disciplinary collaboration on a global scale.


Combating Climate Change: The Power of Multiple Perspectives

Jessica Griffin, OEP Intern

Today I had two experiences that helped me to understand the broad reaching impacts of climate change. At an event called Climate Generations, our group was able to interact with a variety of teams and organizations interested in climate change. The participants came from a wide variety of civil society organizations- some were wildlife focused, others offered suggestions for energy innovation, and many incorporated aspects of social responsibility.

A speaker at “The Messengers” panel

Towards the beginning of the conference, I came across a women’s caucus, which consisted of six women who had gathered to speak about their experience in the climate movement and how they felt that being a woman impacted their involvement and perspective in the movement. Each woman spoke about different aspects of their experiences, including encounters with sexism and obstacles they faced in getting to COP21. However, they also shared funny stories, spoke about their hobbies and families, and about how they felt that being a woman was an asset to them. I felt humbled to have the privilege of hearing the stories of these women, who hailed from Japan, India, France, and the United States. They asked me to speak about myself, and I felt reluctant. I thought that what I had to say would be of little interest to them. But as I began to speak, I realized that I had a lot to say about the subjects of women and environmentalism. The environment that they invited me to speak in was warm and accepting, and I am glad to have participated in this caucus.

Following the caucus, I went to an entirely different event across the conference center. This event was called “The Messengers,” and it was focused on how researching birds can tell us about the health of the environment. There were several speakers from an organization called BirdLife International, dedicated to the conservation of bird species worldwide. The panel answered questions on subjects ranging from factors threatening birds, policy changes associated with conservation, and the ways in which bird populations indicate a changing world. I enjoyed hearing from a wide variety of perspectives, including speakers from the UK and Liberia.

A display for BirdLife International

What struck me about having these two experiences was the range of impacts made by climate change, and of ways to approach solutions. At the women’s caucus, the foci were social factors and environmental justice, which are instrumental in understanding how people of different backgrounds are affected by environmental degradation. At the Birdlife International Event, most discussion centered on conservation and working with nature, both of which are enormously important in the effort to combat climate change.

As a society, we can combat climate change by allowing people of a variety of backgrounds and disciplines to make their voices heard. We can also understand all of the ways that climate change will impact our lives, including socially and ecologically. The broader our shared experience, the closer we can come to finding real solutions.

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