UConn students, staff return from COP21 climate conference in Paris

Participants attend a conference at the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, France, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. (Christophe Ena/AP)

Small island nations at risk of being wiped off the map by rising sea levels are leading the charge at COP21 for a global temperature target of just 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, said Sarah Munro, sustainability coordinator for the University of Connecticut’s Office of Environmental Policy.

COP21 is the United Nation’s 21st Conference of the Parties, an international meeting of experts and negotiators from more than 190 countries that have adopted the United Nations Framework on Climate Change since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

Official negotiations began in Paris Nov. 30 with the stated ambitions of revisiting plans to maintain global temperatures at no more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels and to raise $1 billion toward mitigating the effects of climate change in developing countries. Negotiations are scheduled to end today, Dec. 11.

“There was a huge amount of representation of indigenous groups and groups from island states that were presenting their platform to the general public,” said Munro, who attended COP21 in Paris with a group of 12 UConn students earlier this month. “They are the low-lying countries, they don’t want a flood.”

By the U.N.’s High Commissioner of Refugees’ most conservative estimates, inhospitable weather conditions and environmental degradation resulting from climate change are expected to displace at least 250 million people by 2050.

As of Thursday morning, the Guardian reported that a “high ambition coalition” of more than 100 nations – including top greenhouse producers such as the United States, Canada and the entire EU – have come out in favor of a legally binding agreement that would lower the acceptable standard of global warming by 2020 from 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Notably absent is support from representatives of China and India, who have reportedly opposed stricter regulation of carbon dioxide emissions due to concerns that such limits would disproportionately impact developing economies.

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that global temperature increases must remain below 2 degrees Celsius to avoid the most extreme flooding, drought and wildfires. Ronald Tardiff, a seventh-semester marine science major who attended COP21 with the Office of Environmental Policy, said even this best case scenario is not enough for many low lying countries.

“There was a lot of talk about small island nations and how they’re going to be entirely lost, even under the 2 degree scenario the world is working toward,” Tardiff said. “When you lose these small island countries because they’re going to be flooded, you’re not just losing a village, you’re not just losing the people that live there, but you’re also losing the entire culture that might go back thousands of years, so very literally climate change would be erasing evidence of human history.”

Between 1990 and 2011, the United States produced 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions despite constituting less than 5 percent of the world’s population, according to the World Resources Institute. Individually, Americans were responsible for producing the equivalent of 19 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2011, over four times the global average, which was roughly equivalent to the emissions of the average Brazilian or Mexican citizen.

Despite this unbalance, the BBC reported discussions surrounding “loss and damages,” the question of whether or not Western polluters should be required to compensate the global south for the destructive effects of climate change, have been tense in the past. In 2013, leaders of 132 developing nations walked out of negotiations during COP19 in Warsaw, Poland when wealthier developed countries pushed discussions of compensation to 2015.

“The U.S. is fighting hard to avoid paying damages even though we are responsible, so we don’t have to pay to relocate these people,” Tardiff said.

In addition to being one of the world’s leading producers of greenhouse gases, the United States is also one of the only nations in the world where the reality of climate change is still up for debate. Tardiff said he thinks this is due to the success of “the denial machine,” fueled by conservative politicians like Texas Sen. and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz who campaign on the idea that environmentalism is a ploy to expand big government.

“That's the kind of attitude that pretty much exclusively exist in the United States. In other countries you’ll have academics who say, ‘It’s not going to happen that fast’ or economist who say, ‘It’s not worth spending money on’ but you don’t have people saying it’s not happening at all,” Tardiff said. “Frankly, the matter is that countries like China that decide to a adapt and switch over to clean energy soonest are going to have the best future advantages, the U.S. is setting itself up for future failure.”

Munro, who studied for a year in Germany, said she has observed a higher level of trust in science abroad, leaving many confused as to how climate change still remains a controversy in the United States.

“Even if you don’t talk about the science, I think there’s a general culture that’s very accepting of the need to reduce pollution, the need to do things that have less of an impact on your environment,” Munro said, adding that other countries may feel the effects of environmental degradation more acutely because their populations are more tightly packed.

Brianna Church, a seventh-semester environmental engineering student and an Office of Environmental Policy intern, said COP21 speakers from Libya and Uganda, which are experiencing ongoing flooding and droughts, highlighted how climate change continues to shape people’s everyday lives.

“It really brought the issues a lot closer to home because, especially in the northeast where we have abundant resources, it’s easy to distance ourselves from these problems,” Church said.

Munro said students will continue to build on what they learned at COP21 next semester through panel discussions, blogging and art, including a photo exhibition by Church.

“Our generation is pretty united in the fact that we all agree that climate change is real, it’s happening and something needs to be done,” Church said. “As a group we hope to carry forth the ideas that we learned at COP21."


Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.