Protecting the Future

Students go to Copenhagen for UN climate conference.

By Melanie Breault ’11

Nearly 200 countries representing more than three billion people came together December 7–18, 2009, in Copenhagen, Denmark, for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP 15.

Joining the thousands of people who gathered in Copenhagen for environmental advocacy and reform were 25 Ithaca students, faculty, and alumni. They included students from professor of environmental studies and science Susan Allen-Gil’s International Environmental Policy: UN Climate Change Convention class; Andrew Grossman ’10, a politics and environmental studies double major; Patrick DiCaccio ’08, a biology graduate; Lindsey Hardy ’09, an environmental studies graduate; and Rick Otis ’76, former deputy administrator of the Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Otis, who worked at the EPA during the administrations of Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush, has been sharing his knowledge of Capitol Hill proceedings and policies with Allen-Gil’s students for the past four years. Every two weeks during the fall semester, Otis met with the class via teleconference, or in person when he was on campus, to help students understand the historical and political contexts of the conference.

 “This conference is a once in a lifetime opportunity [for students],” Otis says. “You don’t always get the chance to go to an event where there are people [to listen to] from all over the world and all walks of life.”

Allen-Gil’s class didn’t go to Copenhagen just to listen and observe. In collaboration with Dickinson College, they created a social media and public polling service exhibit called POP COP15, which stands for Public Opinion Polls of the COP15. Using Twitter, Facebook e-mails, and in-person polling, the students posted a single question each day about climate change and documented the responses online and at their booth in Copenhagen.

“We asked questions like, ‘In what year do you think we’ll have a binding contract,’ or ‘Do you think the youth NGOs will have an effect on the negotiations?’ We had a pretty good turnout, and some of the answers were very interesting,” says Paige Davis ’10, an environmental studies major, referencing a ‘never’ response to the binding contract question.

Students also attended lectures and open presentations by leaders of numerous countries, including what DiCaccio describes as a moving speech from Ian Fry, a delegate from the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu. DiCaccio, who attended the climate change conference with Allen-Gil’s class last year in Poznan, Poland, explains that the highest point on the island of Tuvalu is about 13 feet above sea level. He says the rising sea levels that are predicted as a consequence of climate change made Fry’s speech a plea for the fate of his people.

“During the speech [Fry] said, ‘I woke up this morning crying for my country,’ ” DiCaccio recounts. “Stories like that really hit home.”

Leaders around the world have considered this conference to be one of the largest youth gatherings on climate change in conference history. Kim LaReau ’10, a sociology major, attended the Conference of Youth gathering in Copenhagen that began a few days before the UN conference. She says there were more than 500 young people from over 50 countries there sharing ideas and skills.

“I didn’t expect the youth presence to be as strong as it was,” she says. “There was a lot of activism and a lot of people from across society putting pressure on the delegates for not only climate change, but also social justice.”

Allen-Gil says that attending the conference inspired students to return to the United States and spread the word about the importance of climate change.

“Every single student I talked to came back feeling the urgency to do something about climate change in his or her profession,” she says. “The biggest impact [for this conference] is the outreach those students are going to have with other students and within their communities.”