University of Connecticut students, faculty and staff traveled to Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, over the Thanksgiving break to attend the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC, sponsored by the United Nations. This program was sponsored by the UConn Office of Sustainability and provided complete funding for 12 undergraduate students as well as a variety of graduate students and faculty. Through this opportunity, students and faculty have been able to sit on climate panels and experience multilateral climate negotiations first hand.
Patrick McKee is the Office of Sustainability’s Program Manager and attended the trip. He described why the OOS began offering the program to students and why he believes it is a valuable opportunity for students.
“The Office of Sustainability established the UConn@COP Fellowship Program in 2015 alongside faculty co-leads Professors Mark Urban and Anji Seth. With the landmark Paris Agreement in the works, we thought it would be impactful for UConn students to be there representing the University and as representatives of the younger generation who stands to be impacted the most by climate change. This unique opportunity gives students insight to the impacts that climate change is already having around the world and access to politicians and negotiators, scientists, and other leaders in the effort to address the climate crisis,” McKee said.
When asked what students have to gain from this program, McKee explained that students have a variety of opportunities in terms of what topics they will explore and what they will get out of the experience.
“Each year we strive to improve the academic co-curricular experience (the past two years students have earned 1 independent study credit) but the highlight is always attending the conference. The buzzing activity at the COP and cultural immersion associated with traveling abroad provides unmatched opportunities to learn and grow,” Mckee said. “Beyond just the negotiations, there are side events nearly every hour of every day of the conference for attendees to learn more about a myriad of topics related to climate change: from technological solutions to agricultural practices, and climate justice, and everywhere in between there are experts sharing research and forums to learn more about the endless intersectional aspects of climate change. Students have the opportunity to choose their own path when at the conference venue. Many dive into a topic or two of interest, while others try to learn more about a breadth of issues they might be less familiar with.”
McKee also noted that UConn sends the largest cohort of any university to COP, allowing students of the university an exclusive opportunity not available to most.
“From what we can tell, UConn sends the largest contingent of undergraduate students of any university in the world to the COP. The cohort model is especially impactful as students get to relate their experiences to those of their peers and grow through peer-to-peer learning,” McKee said.
Sydney Collins is a seventh semester Environmental Science major. She went on the trip as one of the undergraduate students selected into the program. She spoke on some of the experiences she had and lessons she had learned as a result of the trip and how this impacted her understanding of the climate crisis.
“The importance of climate justice and listening to our Indigenous leaders, our Black leaders, our Leaders of Color, and having diverse representation in our decision-making. Climate change is a symptom of our systems of injustices. Fossil fuel infrastructure is able to exist because we shift the burden of toxic facilities onto BIPOC communities. Our current fossil-fuel based economy is based on the devaluation of BIPOC communities, and we cannot address climate change without addressing these deeper systemic injustices. Otherwise, without changing our value systems that place profit over people, fossil fuel companies will continue to justify their actions and we will continue to pollute the planet and our peoples,” Collins said. “However, Indigenous communities, Black communities, and communities of color know the solutions. We must listen to and be guided by their leadership to build solutions that liberate ourselves from these harmful systems and are supported by traditional, indigenous knowledge.”
Back on campus there was some contention from groups such as UConn UNCHAIN arguing the conference was ineffective and counterproductive.
“When the wealthiest party to COP27 makes empty promises to fighting climate change, accompanied by over 600 fossil fuel lobbyists, this is a confirmation that the conference is little more than a soapbox to greenwash!” UNCHAIN said via social media.
Additionally, Collins spoke on some of the disappointments that the conference brought. Referencing in a blog post later uploaded to the OOS website about the experience about the seeming lack of action taken during the conference to combat the climate crisis.
“We need rapid, transformative action. We don’t have time for incremental change — we only have 7 years to achieve our goals from the Paris Agreement and strive to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degree Celsius. We need strong commitments for nations to phase out fossil fuels. We need stronger pathways for climate finance for developed AND developing countries to transition their infrastructure, adapt to the impacts of climate change, and pay for loss and damage of previous and current climate catastrophes. We cannot have false solutions that entrench us deeper into systems of injustices,” Collins said.
McKee concurred, stating that while the conference does move slowly on some issues at times, it is still a valuable experience for students.
“Having attended three COPs now personally, I do see a shift in focus of the event from the public participation aspect from being solely focused on influencing negotiations to more of an expo for learning about the issues. I don’t know that this detracts from the importance of the actual negotiations (on the flip side, it does provide new opportunities for students to learn) but it is very clear to onlookers that the implementation of the Paris Agreement and progress toward Nationally Determined Contributions (to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) is not moving nearly fast enough,” McKee said. “One positive that did come out of the COP27 negotiations was an agreement on a loss and damage fund, especially important for smaller and less developed countries who have contributed the least greenhouse gas emissions, but often face the most dire consequences.”
Despite these concerns, Collins expressed support for the continuation of the program into the future, and described how it personally motivated her to find more creative solutions to the climate crisis.
“This trip was so wonderful because of the people I was surrounded by. They were so knowledgeable, passionate, and motivated, and it was so exciting being in spaces with such like-minded people with also such diversity of thought and experiences. This trip showed me the value and importance of building community. The trip was hard — hearing stories about people fighting for their lives, hearing about the fate of our planet. We cried a lot and would constantly debrief our thoughts. It showed me the value of feeling your emotions and being vulnerable with each other when being a part of climate advocacy, and I’m so excited to bring that back to campus,” Collins said.
Collins concluded by describing what she thought students on campus could do to combat the climate crisis and emphasized how some of the most effective actions students can take might be those found locally rather than globally.
“Not being afraid to call out and hold our leadership accountable. As youth, we bare the biggest burden of climate impacts in our future. Many leaders at COP27 kept looking at our youth as being responsible for building climate solutions. That is unaccessible [sic]. Leaders from previous generations got us into this mess, and need to hold accountable to be a part of the solution. While this is a global problem, it needs local solutions. Have conversations with your friends and families about climate change. Hear their thoughts, concerns, and ideas. Join climate or social justice based organizations in your town or city that are involved with climate action. Analyze the current jobs, clubs, or activities you are a part of and how they related to climate action and what solutions you can build within your circles. You don’t have to recommit yourself to be a part of the solution. Climate action is like a bee hive — and each little person is a bee. You have to figure out what role you have, based on your interests and skillsets, to learn how you can contribute to the whole community,” Collins said.
To learn more about UConn@COP, there will be a “Climate Change Café” poster symposium on Friday, Dec. 9 from 4-6 p.m. in Room 304 of the Student Union. Students who went on the trip will speak about their experiences at the conference and what they learned while abroad. There are also a variety of blog posts written by UConn@COP fellows describing what they did at the conference and their understanding of the state of climate change and the international response to address it.