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Gabby Levitt / Gavel Media

BC Student Engagement in COP26 Sparks Further Discussion

All it took was an application on Google Forms and a blitzkrieg of emails about funding to the Environmental Studies department and the dean of the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, Gregory Kalscheur, for Diana Bunge, MCAS ‘22, to end up in Scotland for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, better known as COP26.

“The leadup to COP and logistics happened really quickly,” Bunge said. “It ended up exceeding my expectations though.”

This year was the first time BC had been internationally recognized as having relevant research to COP26, enabling the college to send four students and 12 professors to Glasgow, Scotland.

COP26 was the 26th annual summit to discuss global climate issues. Past actions at these “conferences of the parties” include the creation of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 at COP3 and the Paris Agreement in 2015 at COP21. COP26 was the first time since 2016 that the President of the United States attended in a meaningful way. Former President Donald Trump dropped by the New York summit in 2019 for 14 minutes before leaving for a religious freedom event. 

While President Joe Biden may have attended the actual negotiations, BC students and professors were left out. BC was assigned the title of a research independent non-governmental organization, or “RINGO.” Other familiar RINGOs included Yale, Northeastern, and Tufts University. This meant that Bunge and her peers were under the observer status. They could listen to climate talks and events at different pavilions and even get into the “Green Zone,” a part of the convention closed to the public, but they couldn’t watch Biden and other world leaders agree on the Glasgow Climate Pact

In fact, Bunge, who was a part of the first week of students sent by BC, struggled to watch any talks. The virtual board that listed the schedule of events was down for the first two days, and COVID seating restrictions limited the accessibility to meetings. “None of us had any idea what was going on at first,” Bunge said. “I thought I'd be able to see countries debate things, but that wasn’t reality.”

Reality wasn’t all bad. Networking opportunities were abundant. Bunge, an Environmental Studies major with a concentration in Justice and Policy, got to chat with the mayor of Miami-Dade County, Florida, Daniella Levine Cava, after watching her discuss small-scale efforts to slow the climate crisis with the mayor of Athens, Greece, Kostas Bakoyannis. Bunge ate lunch next to the director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol. She and Professor Tara Pisani Gareau, Director of the Environmental Studies Program, also were invited to dinner at a University of Edinburgh professor’s house. 

“It was cool to have access to high-level people in an informal way,” Bunge said. “Exchanging information and hearing ‘this is how we’re tackling this,’ those conversations don’t happen often.”

After a week, Bunge left and was replaced by a new set of students and professors, including Cynthia Ma, MCAS ‘22. Ma, an Environmental Studies major with a concentration in Climate Change and Societal Adaptation, was particularly interested in environmental health issues. Ma missed the high profile negotiations from week one, but she was able to access some influential panels, including one led by the World Health Organization.

“At the WHO talk I got to hear researchers talk about air pollution, equal energy access, and a global energy transition,” Ma said. “It was powerful to hear about the health impacts endured by people from Africa who burn biomass to cook.”

By the second week, BC’s delegation had also dialed in their schedule. Professors and students would walk to the venue together, split up during the day, and debrief at night to discuss different research interests. “I was very impressed by the entire process,” Ma said. “It sparked my interest to continue to pursue what I’m studying.”

Both delegates, however, questioned the representation of minority and indigenous groups. A lack of translators made language barriers hard to overcome, exclusion of indigenous folks made headlines, and the majority of global delegates present at major negotiations were older men.

“Indigenous peoples had their own pavilion, but I still felt pessimistic,” Ma said. “Did they really have a seat at the table or were they just talking about it?”

Despite this, BC’s delegation left the conference hopeful. Bunge was happy to see the US back, especially in the wake of Biden’s infrastructure bill, and Ma was motivated by the denunciation of fossil fuels in the Climate Pact’s language. 

The students’ renewed activism came back overseas too. The delegation hosted a panel mid-January where they shared their experiences and takeaways from COP26. Even the universities’ administration, despite their reluctance to divest from fossil fuels in the face of protests from Climate Justice at BC, opened the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, further cementing BC’s commitment to STEM majors and their significance in the environmental fields. 

Professor Pisani Gareau shared the students’ enthusiasm. She has been studying the climate crisis for over 20 years and was a driving force behind getting a BC delegation to COP26. Pisani Gareau was energized in a talk she gave to a Complex Problems course titled Crisis and Storytelling in the Age of Climate Change.

“I feel optimistic,” Pisani Gareau said. “It was a big accomplishment to get the goal under 2, but it doesn't mean we're done. It's our job to constantly put pressure on the system as global citizens.”

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