Humphrey School Students Get Up-Close Look at UN Climate Talks
December 5, 2017—Amidst the national debate in the United States over the causes and solutions to climate change, seven Humphrey School students attended the annual United Nations International Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, last month.
They got an up-close look at how countries around the world are responding to the challenge of reducing the production of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. They attended international negotiating sessions, lectures, and presentations, along with more than 20,000 other people representing nations, states, cities, nongovernmental organizations, and private companies.
The students are all taking a climate policy course this semester taught by Assistant Professor Gabe Chan.
Even though the conference, known as COP23, was held in Bonn, the actual host country was the South Pacific island nation of Fiji. Student attendee Jordan Morgan (MS-STEP ’19) said that was significant.
“Fiji and other islands will be impacted severely because climate change is causing ocean levels to rise,” he said. “Their homes, their backyards, their culture, could literally be underwater if we don’t address this soon.”
Most of the conference focused on how countries are implementing the goals of the Paris climate change agreement, which went into force in November 2016. The pact relies on individual countries to set their own goals for addressing climate change, but Chan said the pledges made so far aren’t enough to meet the target of holding the rise in average global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
Jacob Herbers (MS-STEP ’19) sat in on a negotiating session by various countries discussing how to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“It was fascinating to observe those kinds of negotiations on an international level,” Herbers said of the eight-hour session, noting there were many disagreements over whether developed and developing countries should be held to the same standards when it comes to addressing climate change.
Another student, MBA candidate Andrew Hurst, learned how some countries are finding new ways to finance their climate change mitigation efforts, such as selling “green bonds.”
“These are government bonds that directly support green initiatives. Usually these bonds are tax free, and have comparable risk to traditional bonds,” Hurst said. “Early research shows that investors are willing to accept a lower rate in exchange for putting money in a ‘feel good’ investment.”
Although the Trump Administration has announced that it will withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement as of 2019, it sent a delegation to the conference. According to the students who attended, some observers in Bonn suggested the president may reverse his decision before then.
Despite the significant challenges posed by global climate change, the students said they came away from the conference with a sense of optimism and inspiration.
“It was effective and energizing to be there. The world felt very small,” said Anna Johnson (MPP-STEP ’18). “It was a way to remind ourselves that the whole world is working on this problem, and that we’re all in this together.”
As for what individuals can do on their own to address climate change, Johnson suggested they seek out more information on the topic and then find their own way to contribute.
“This problem is as complex as any that has ever existed, so we need expertise from everyone. Whatever you’re good at, you can bring to help solve this problem.”