Among the tens of thousands of people gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark, last December were five members of the Georgetown community four students and a professor who reconvened on Wednesday in the Mortara Center for International Studies to share what they had gained from their experience at the largest climate conference to date.
The panel, entitled “What Happened in Copenhagen: Perspectives from the Georgetown SFS Delegation,” consisted of Joanna Lewis, assistant professor of the Science, Technology and International Affairs Program, Jessica Robbins (SFS ’12), Olivia Chitavat (SFS ’10), Kathryn Padgett (SFS ’11) and Julia Shindel (SFS ’10).
Therese Miranda (SFS ’09) and Erin O’Sullivan, a graduate of American University, also spoke after attending the conference through SustainUS, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group for young people advocating for environmental sustainability.
Besides its unprecedented size, the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference that ran from Dec. 7 to Dec. 18 differed from other UN events. One of its most notable features was the significant involvement of various heads of state, including President Obama.
“You don’t usually have heads of state rolling up their sleeves and fighting over a text, word by word,” Lewis said.
According to the panelists, another distinguishing feature of the conference was the presence of people from various countries. Up to 100,000 people participated in protests calling for legally binding action.
“The lesson that everyone, and by everyone I mean the 60,000 that flooded Copenhagen with very strong convictions, learned is that negotiations are fine, but we need to start acting on the ground,” Padgett said.
“What are really going to push the boundaries are these people doing on-the-ground work,” Chitayat said.
Despite the protesters’ hopes, the conference did not result in any binding agreement. The Copenhagen Accord, the final product of the conference, expressed that the planet must work to keep temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, while it does not legally bind any country to actions meant to achieve such a goal.
“At the end of the day, the consensus seemed to be, `Where is my change? I don’t believe in this anymore,'” Shindel said.
Lewis, however, called the accord “the most concrete thing to come out of a process that has been going on for 15 years,” beginning with the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1994.
“Dissent became a very solid theme throughout the conference,” Shindel said. “I was struck by the amount of frustration from people with the process.”
Several of the panelists noted that the structure of a convention of this scale made a legally binding result unlikely and expressed the belief that grassroots action is a more effective solution to slow climate change.
“The biggest take-away I got from this, from all the speeches and all the discussions, is to talk to your senators, start organizations, get involved,” O’Sullivan said.
The panelists also expressed hope in the role of youth in promoting a sustainable environment.
“The experience defined really the limits, possibilities and potential that students have in effecting climate change both internationally and in their communities,” Robbins said. “We’re the ones who have the most to gain and the most to lose in the next few years.”
Lewis and the panelists will be compiling a documentary of their experience that they hope to premiere in late March.
The discussion was sponsored by the Mortara Center for International Studies and the Science, Technology and International Affairs Program.