Attending the United Nations Climate Conference: An Opportunity to Engage Your Peers…and the World

Update: the deadline for application to attend the COP 18 in Qatar has been extended to August 15th.  See bottom of post to learn how to apply.

An Unmet Challenge

A 13-year-old girl named Regan constructed this “SAVE OUR HOME; fight global warming” button as a middle school student in Corpus Christi, Texas.  Regan’s button puts a whole new face on our climate change discourse since most undergraduates reading this blog were not yet born when she made the plea for

her generation.  She neatly penned her youthful entreaty—circumscribing a hand-sketched picture of planet Earth—back in 1991.

At the 1992 “Rio Earth Summit”, nations from around the globe responded to the message on Regan’s button as they agreed to formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with the ultimate aim of preventing dangerous human interference in the climate system.  But it goes without saying that the solution has been elusive.  Here we are, two decades later—Rio + 20—buried gigatons deeper in greenhouse gases and measurably warmer as a planet.

It is now up to a new generation, your generation, to do something, and there’s plenty to do!  The consensus among publishing climate scientists and scientific societies confirms that our planet is warming and human activity is the primary cause of the changing climate. The science further warns that if we do not peak global carbon dioxide emissions by 2017, we face disastrous consequences.  But, what can you do to address such a colossal global environmental issue?  Well, for starters, you can attend the talks themselves in order to improve your understanding of the issue.

While voluminous resources exist concerning climate change, it appears that younger Americans are not fully engaged in Climate Science literacy.  And so, as the largest scientific organization in the world, the American Chemical Society, sponsors college and university students to attend the annual UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) in an effort to increase Climate Science literacy in youth and other civil society.

ACS Students at UN Climate Change Meetings

This project has its roots in the recent 2011 International Year of Chemistry (IYC 2011).  The overall objective of the project is principally to engage U.S. students, but optimally students world-wide in the climate change discourse using the UN as a platform and social media as a tool for communication.

In the pilot program, the ACS sent college students Leah Block and Anthony Tomaine as officially accredited UN delegates to the December 2010 COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico.  This project was designated as an official “kick-off” event for the then-upcoming 2011 International Year of Chemistry.  The students interacted with world leaders, NGO’s, and negotiators and blogged about their activities under C&E News Editor-in-chief Rudy Baum.

ACS student NGO’s Block and Tomaine interview Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi at COP 16.

Based on the success of this project, the ACS endorsed and supported an expanded project which sent five students to the November 28 – December 9, 2011 COP 17 in Durban, South Africa.  John Canada (University of Alabama) and Lauren McCullough (Pennsylvania State University) covered Week One of the conference while Matt DeNardo (Carnegie Mellon University) and Kiersten DeBlaker & Patrick Lestrange (York College of Pennsylvania) covered Week Two.

ACS student NGO’s DeBlaker, Tomaine, and DeNardo at COP 17 in South Africa.

The students developed their own web page to upload blog posts, videos, and pictures.  Check out their “Youth Involvement in COP 17” Youtube documentary here:

Why attending the meetings can make a difference

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came into existence in 1994 and continues to guide international policy framework for addressing the issue of climate change.  Today, the UNFCCC has nearly world-wide membership with 195 parties having ratified the Convention, and each year the UNFCCC holds a Conference of Parties (COP) session to review the Convention’s progress.  The COP serves as the “Supreme Body” of the Convention.  But despite the high rate of participation, the only legally binding international agreement that established targets for the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions is the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 at COP 3.  Moreover, American participation is vital because the United States stands alone as the only industrialized (Annex 1) country that has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

International youth support extension of the Kyoto Protocol.

Student engagement is critical in addressing the path forward.  Throughout the two decade history of the UNFCCC, including seventeen COPs, its member nations have failed to meaningfully address the anthropogenic contributions to climate change.  If you, as students, engage climate change issues in an informed way, you can help the world move beyond bureaucratic gridlock and forge a binding global agreement.  The post-Kyoto Protocol story remains to be written, and a significant portion of the story will be attributed to your generation.  Moreover, you could be more than a footnote by attending a COP meeting yourself.

Application for COP 18 in Qatar

If you are a student and interested in participating or you are a faculty member

Keith Peterman is a Professor of Chemistry at York College of Pennsylvania. He is an Associate in the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement. He has served as a Fulbright Scholar in Germany and in Russia, a National Academy of Sciences Scholar in Poland, a Research Fellow at the Naval Research Laboratory in DC, and as a visiting professor in China and New Zealand. His current pedagogical activities, research, and writing focus on issues related to climate change and sustainability. He participates in the UN climate conferences as an accredited member of the press.

interested in sponsoring one of your students to participate in the November/December 2012 COP 18 in Qatar, please visit this site for application procedures and additional information.  The application deadline is August 15, 2012.

Please contact Dr. Gregory Foy if you have any questions.


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