From the archives: UI students return from Copenhagen well-informed, optimistic

COP15 logoIn just her third year at the University of Iowa, Bethany Patten never dreamed she would be able to truthfully add “attended an international climate conference” to her resume. But now she can.

While most UI students likely sought respite from lectures, writing assignments and most anything academic during their long month of winter break, Patten – an International Studies and Economics double major – was among eight UI students who did just the opposite, immersing herself in the complicated scientific, political and economic discourse of COP15 – the much-anticipated UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

While attendees did have the brief chance to take in normal sites and sounds of the green, “City of Spires,” their stay in Copenhagen was far from leisurely.

“I didn’t see the sun in Copenhagen for four days,” said Senior Abbie Gruwell, who studies Political Science and International Business and interns at the UI’s newly-created Office of Sustainability. “Every day was different.”

As did most of the UI students, Gruwell spent the bulk of her two weeks at the conference attending symposia and listening to lectures from field experts on a variety of topics.

This central eating area of the Bella Center was surrounded by a huge exhibit area and conference rooms for NGO programs, an exhibit and office area for nations and NGOs, two plenary session rooms, negotiating rooms, and special areas for the press.

Here, students had the chance to hear from a slew of internationally-renown figures like Ban Ki Moon, Al Gore, John Kerry and General Wesley Clark speak on topics ranging from the science behind climate change, to carbon trading, migration, and the political and financial implications of environmental policy.

“Eye-opening,” “energetic” and “frustrating” topped the list of words they used to describe their experiences.

“It was eye-opening to see so many people from so many different places,” said Adam Abelkop, a third-year law student studying environmental policy, and a staunch advocate of emissions trading. “It was great to learn from people who knew so much more about each topic than I do.”

Unfortunately, large crowds at the Bella Center, the conference’s main conference hall, prevented most of the students from sitting in on the bulk the UN session. The hall accommodated just 1,500 of the roughly 4,500 people hoping to listen in, limiting most UI students to just two or three days of observation.

At times, the hectic scene even prevented some of the convention’s key players from participating. According to Abelkop, the Canadian delegation was once briefly shut out from the building after it returned from its short lunch break.

This lack of accessibility was “disappointing,” said Senior International Studies major Simeon Talley “because civil society and grassroots organizations have an important role to play in these proceedings.”

But luckily for Talley, he was never left out in the cold.

A group of young students protest outside of the Bella Center.

Talley, who writes for the Daily Iowan as well as a number of blogs, was granted a press pass to the negotiations.

Alongside UI Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Jerry Schnoor, who was also granted press credentials, Talley had the chance to interact with hundreds of reporters from all parts of the globe.

“I really hoped to tell a story – cover the convention, and be a voice for the people who are not there,” said Talley, who has a strong interest in transparency through social media.

“At first it was sensory overload, but as the weak progressed, you really appreciated the fact that you…are a piece of this international puzzle,” he said.

Schnoor – the co-founder of the UI’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, which funded Patten, Abelkop and Talley – who blogged along with some of the students, said he was extremely impressed with their observations and analysis.

“The depth of understanding and some of the nuances they took away were impressive to me,” he said. “[They would write] things I never thought of.”

Disappointment, but Optimism

But COP15 was far from just a feel-good learning experience for the UI delegation.

Along with the rest of the scholars, activists and politicians who descended on Copenhagen, the students recognized that much was at stake.

“Everyone was anxious,” said Gruwell. “We really needed to come out with something…this was sort of a defining moment.”

On December 14, that anxiety boiled over when representatives of 130 developing countries walked out of negotiations, concerned that that the final deal would be skewed to favor developed countries.

The divide between developing and developed countries had become “much more palpable as the week went on,” said Bethany Patten.

But while the conference was rife with political controversy, Gruwell said it was heartening to see many countries genuinely working together for a solution to climate change.

And while the announcement of the modest, non-binding Copenhagen Accord proved disappointing for some of the students, they still returned to the states with optimism.

“[The agreement] is certainly disappointing,” said Talley, “but it lays the foundation for a binding agreement…I’m an eternal optimist.”

Gruwell echoed Talley’s sentiments. While she too was disappointed in the outcome of the conference, she optimistically viewed the final deal as “the ultimate compromise” and “a jumping-off point” for future legislation.

And according to self-proclaimed pragmatist Adam Abelkop, the take-home message from a John Kerry speech might best describe how advocates of climate change policy should view the results from Copenhagen.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Kerry had said – accept progress, even if it’s not ideal.

Moving on from Copenhagen

Demonstrators outside the Bella Center, the main meeting center – were pushing for a strong, legally-binding treaty.

While a national bill to address climate change may be in doubt, some of the COP15 attendees think that progress will best be made at the grassroots level.

“States and local coalitions need to take a lead on this, put pressure on legislatures,” said Talley, citing successes in California and Colorado.

We’re doing well, but there are more things we can do,” he said, advocating for more cooperation between the city and University.

“The University can drive innovation…we have an important role to make this happen.”

And while many people at home fail to acknowledge climate change because they do not understand the science behind it, the students returned from Copenhagen ready to impart their knowledge to the public.

Patten said she and her fellow delegates feel obligated to portray what they learned to those who scoff at the reality of climate change. And after learning from the international experts, they feel more qualified to do so.

“I can’t articulate how much I’ve learned [in Copenhagen], said Talley. “I learned more there than I have in my entire undergraduate career.”

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