Below is a collection of blogs reflecting UConn’s experiences in Paris and at COP21. They include:
Takeaways from UConn@COP21 Rich Miller
Race, Privilege, and Climate Change – Addressing global instability Cristina Macklem
For a worldview of climate change Rachel Smiley
Takeaways from UConn@COP21
Rich Miller, Director – Office of Environmental Policy
Now that we’ve had a month or so since our return from Paris to reflect, what are the key takeaways from UConn’s first-ever participation in the UN’s annual Climate Summit? Let’s start with the global perspective – COP21 will be long-remembered for two distinctly different reasons:
- it occurred a few short weeks after ISIS-attributed terrorist attacks killed 130 innocent people at three popular locations in and around Paris; and
- more importantly, it resulted in the Paris Agreement, which was approved by vote of acclimation among the 195 participating countries, finally including the world’s top two carbon emitters, the US and China.
Let’s hear it for the US’s decision to join the world’s most economically-powerful and globally-engaged nations in approving this historic climate accord. In so doing, the US sides with countries like the those in the EU and Japan, and disassociates itself from a shrinking group of increasingly belligerent, rogue nations that did not participate, like Syria and North Korea.
The Paris Agreement will limit greenhouse gas emissions at levels needed to avoid global temperature increases of more than 2 degrees C. and thereby prevent the most catastrophic consequences of global warming. While skeptics say the agreement is not strictly enforceable, a schedule of annual and five-year progress reports will establish a “name and shame” system for assuring compliance with each country’s own emissions targets. There is precedent in environmental law for the power of public disclosure. Consider, for example, the successful reductions in the use and storage of hazardous chemicals after the adoption of Emergency Planning & Community Right to Know Act, which was part of the Superfund amendments during the late 1980s (aka, SARA Title III).
But back to the basics of UConn’s experience at COP21 and the related events and activities that occurred throughout Paris during our one-week stay, from Nov. 30 – Dec. 6. Perhaps the best way to describe it is like the Olympics for environmental policy wonks and climate activists, myself included. Extending the analogy, Le Bourget was the main stadium, with multiple other venues in and around Paris, and hundreds of thousands of spectators and participants from around the globe who had gathered to be a part of history. The Eiffel Tower was an inspiring analog for the Olympic torch – illuminated at times in green or with a “For the Planet” message throughout the event.
Our observations have been reported in two previous blog posts (Bonjour and Thoughts) written by several from the UConn cohort, which included 12 undergraduate students, faculty from four different academic departments – EEB, Geography, Political Science and NRE – and two staff from OEP’s Sustainability Office. This overview introduces the third such group blog.
In December, our UConn@COP21 social media reports and photos posted on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (#UConnTalksClimate), seem to have reached a wide audience. In deference then to our busy readers, here are 12 top takeaways written with Tweet-like brevity:
- We did it! And they said it couldn’t be done with only seven months of planning. We represented UConn well, had an incredible experience, and returned safely – eager to share our experiences with the UConn community and beyond.
- Coveted entry passes to the official COP21 and/or “civil society” proceedings were grossly over-rated. We had neither but still managed a busy schedule of events.
- Colleagues from other schools who had passes to the official proceedings reported that it was about like watching the proverbial paint dry – no loss there for the (sans passes) UConn group.
- Speakers, expert panels, discussion groups and exhibits at the vast COP21 Climate Generations Space (Green Zone) in Le Bourget, along with related events, like Climate Solutions, provided us with a substantive, immersive experience.
- The impromptu climate change discussions, which the UConn group held every morning after breakfast, were a thought-provoking highlight of the trip for all.
- UConn was proud to co-sponsor the “Higher Education Leads on Climate” networking event for our colleagues – thanks to co-hosts Second Nature, Kedge Business School and AASHE.
- Attendance, not including UConn and other co-sponsors, was relatively modest, with 30 or 40 guests from perhaps a dozen different colleges and universities. But the networking event clearly filled a void. We hope it’s the first of many higher-ed focused gatherings at future COPs. See you in Marrakech?
- Extra security was everywhere in Paris – reports said 30,000 police, many in full body armor and armed with AK-47s, were on duty at COP21 venues and patrolling the main tourist attractions.
- Once we arrived in Paris, we never felt unsafe, despite the anxiety of family and friends beforehand. As some suggested, this might have been the safest time to be in Paris.
- The “City of Lights” did not disappoint. We saved enough time to see many of the 300 beautiful Parisian buildings, monuments, fountains and statues that are up-lit at night.
- Our hotel was perfect, from its convenient location to the excellent service we received. On our last morning in Paris, hotel staff even arrived 30 minutes early to send us off on our return flight with a full breakfast buffet.
- The hotel’s front desk clerks had heard of UConn, not surprisingly from our multiple championship women’s basketball team. Now they know a little bit more about other things that UConn stands for, like world class campus sustainability and climate science programs.
In the coming months, our outstanding undergrads, selected from 77 extraordinary student applicants, will truly earn their expense-paid trip to Paris. They’ll be sharing their experiences with the UConn community, and beyond, by organizing and conducting outreach events, demonstration projects, photo exhibits and more. Stay tuned!
After final exams a few weeks ago, most of our group of 18 met with President Susan Herbst, who was genuinely impressed with our accomplishment. She encouraged us to continue the UConn@COP group effort, and to develop longer-term and unique climate leadership and sustainability strategies for UConn. Toward the end of our meeting, which ran about 45 minutes longer than scheduled, she even brainstormed with us, offering some great ideas about how to reach the widest audience. She was pleased to hear that there were very few, if any, colleges and universities that participated in COP21 quite the way we did. If this kind of global, interdisciplinary and co-curricular experience is to happen again for UConn at future COPs, there’s no better nod of support to have than the President’s.
And, while we’re at it, thanks again to the senior administrators and others who believed in and enabled our vision last year, starting in May, when we began planning and fundraising for UConn@COP21: especially the VP of Global Affairs, Deans of CLAS, CAHNR, and the School of Engineering, along with faculty leaders in the Marine Sciences Department and at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, which is purchasing carbon offsets (with proceeds supporting the Indonesian Rimba Ray Project) to account for the greenhouse gas emissions from our international travel. Even UConn’s beverage contractor, Coca-Cola, which had a significant corporate presence of its own at COP21, contributed a student sponsorship share. Last but not least, the Campus Sustainability Fund, supported by individual and company donations from UConn (EcoHusky) Nation, helped transform our unlikely dream in April into an unforgettable reality by December.
Merci beaucoup, on et tout – au revoir, Paris!
Race, Privilege, and Climate Change—Addressing global instability
A few weeks ago, my conservation biology class did an exercise on privilege, and the thing about privilege is that it is often hard to see unless it is brought to your attention. After completing the exercise, I realized how much of my privilege I failed to recognize and how insidious and complex the manifestations of privilege and racism are, particularly with regard to climate change and the environment. That experience was in the back of my mind as I traveled to Paris for COP21 with UConn. As an ecology student, I wanted to get a new perspective on climate change by attending talks and discussions focused on addressing issues pertaining to racism, women, and indigenous peoples. I hoped these events would help me to better understand the complexity of these issues and my privilege in these situations.
On our third full day in Paris, I attended a profound discussion on racism and climate change. The event included a panel of people from all races and walks of life. Each panelist took turns telling their own personal stories about the exploitation of their lands and people. The discussion focused on the idea that the root of our social and environmental instability is in the economic self-interests of a few powerful countries, a pattern that began centuries ago. Our willingness to exploit our land resources arose when we became willing to exploit and enslave people. We took the land and natural resources of many indigenous persons away and continued to abuse them and the land, until we reached the tipping point on which we currently balance. Between the war in Syria and the refugee crisis, senseless discrimination, catastrophic natural disasters, and the massacres in Paris just a few weeks before COP21, tensions in many countries are rising along with the average global temperature. At the conclusion of this discussion, there was an agreement that we cannot address climate issues and environmental degradation without addressing the social issues, which permeate from the foundation of our global society. The group also expressed concern that the decisions made during the delegations would reflect a select few privileged nations and not the interests of the majority of our world’s citizens.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance who served on a panel for the Global Landscape Forum, also shared these sentiments. She spoke about the need for extrinsic financial support to adequately address the current and future climate-related issues facing her country, which, many would argue, are largely caused by the past actions of the would-be extrinsic financial contributors. Even though these developed countries are responsible for many of our current climate concerns, she wasn’t optimistic that their contributions would be sufficient. As a result, she has been forced to find and utilize extremely limited domestic financial resources to mitigate any losses and damages and to develop ways to reduce emissions in her country.
This panelist now has a reason to be optimistic because the final draft of the agreement document states that developed nations will pay a minimum of “USD 100 billion per year” to support the “needs and priorities of developing countries.” While it still remains to be seen how the developed countries will allocate these funds to the developing countries, it is absolutely a step in the right direction to stop the cycle of social and environmental destruction that we have created.
My week at COP21 truly transformed my outlook on climate change. In order to address current global instability effectively, we must first have a united global community. We cannot sit back and let things continue as they have. We have to act together to change policy, behavior, and land use. We must recognize our privilege and learn to value the input and concerns of the global majority and compensate them accordingly. We owe it to the environment, humanity, and the continued existence our planet.
For a worldview of climate change
After a very short week at COP21, I quickly realized that we in the United States are strikingly sheltered from the effects of climate change, which undoubtedly contributes to our nation’s reluctance to take action and the ongoing refusal of some to accept that dramatic action needs to be taken.
It may seem like the US is doing fairly well. We don’t have to worry about entire cities closing down because of smog. Our economic position allows us to deal with the drought in California without worrying about running out of food. Sea level rise doesn’t put our entire country at risk of flooding. The general public in the US hasn’t experienced any significant changes (yet!!), so dramatic action to mitigate climate change isn’t seen as a priority. Arguments for climate action often refer to the impacts it could have in the future.
However, my conversations with people from places already being significantly affected by changes in the climate opened my eyes to the urgency of the issue. Island nations are pushing to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C instead of the proposed 2°C, because sea level rise is already causing their people to lose their homes. The Middle East and Northern Africa, whose economies rely on fossil fuels, are active in coming to an agreement to limit CO2 emissions because they are currently experiencing large scale droughts and dust storms.
In Paris I witnessed so many people who were exceptionally passionate about finding solutions to climate change because they have personally seen what kind of destruction to people’s livelihoods results from increasing global temperatures. So, does the US wait to suffer huge consequences before we are serious about cutting emissions and investing in renewable energy sources? Hopefully the COP21 agreement will ensure that the US doesn’t experience the widespread effects of climate change to such a degree. Regardless, I think it is important for everyone in the US to take a broader worldview of the issue and understand the harm that rising temperatures is already having on so much of the world.