Jalayna Smith-Moore and Fredi Ponce Parra soon will embark for a second time on an international trip most undergrads can only dream about experiencing at all.
Smith-Moore and Ponce Parra will be among 20 students from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University to gain access to this year’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) annual Conference of the Parties (COP). The event, better known as COP 28, will be Nov. 30-Dec. 12 in Dubai, a city of more than 3.5 million people in the United Arab Emirates.
Since 2015, when COP 21 was in Paris, CSB and SJU have been granted annual formal observer status – which means the Bennies and Johnnies with badges can access both the Green and Blue Zones of the COP. The outlying Green Zone is where activists congregate around conferences, panels and exhibits, and the inner Blue Zone is a UNFCCC-managed area that hosts the formal negotiations of the conference, the World Climate Action Summit, country pavilions, presidential appearances and hundreds of panel and roundtable discussions and cultural events.
“The Blue Zone is where real change can be made,” said Smith-Moore, a senior environmental studies major from Richfield, Minnesota, who with Ponce Parra was among 20 students from CSB and SJU who ventured to COP 27 last year in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. “It’s awesome to be there.”
Among hundreds of non-governmental organizations from the five-state Upper Midwest region in the U.S., only two other higher education institutions have observer status. The University of Minnesota sends a group of graduate students, and Macalester College also provides access to undergraduates.
For Bennies like Smith-Moore and Johnnies like Ponce Parra, the opportunity comes through a two-credit environmental studies class (ENVR 305: UN Climate Change Conference) and sometimes adding a two-credit workshop (ENVR 303: Climate Action). Students from any discipline can apply and participate in interviews with faculty to determine who gets a credential. Those chosen must cover their flight and ground transportation to and from the COP. That can cost $2,000, but there is a generous pool of scholarship money to help defray the expense. (A future course, ENVR 306: Global Climate Policy, will offer a chance to role play the COP on campus.)
The students are required to develop research projects, conduct interviews related to their chosen topic at the COP, compile the information and present their findings (both back on campus and somewhere off campus in a public setting).
“I feel much better prepared than when I went in last year with no clue,” said Ponce Parra, a senior political science major from Minneapolis. “You learn to adapt on the fly because a lot of times schedules will change from day to day, and you don’t know until the last minute.”
His research project will focus on Indigenous spirituality and how it impacts activism for different peoples. Ponce Parra is the decolonization, reparations and justice representative of the Saint John’s Senate and wants to pursue a career in domestic policy, specifically as it relates to immigration and climate change. He takes seriously the opportunity to amplify views that might not always be heard.
“Often, Indigenous people aren’t able to share their experience at the negotiation tables,” Ponce Parra said. “It’s important they share their voices and have a stage to speak from. The COP will be an opportunity for people all around the globe to hear what they have to say, whether they’re Pacific Islanders or from Latin America or even people representing those voices in the U.S.”
Fredi Ponce Parra (left), Jalayna Smith-Moore (center) and Emma Rodeghier attended COP 27 in Egypt. Saint Ben's and Saint John's are among the few schools in the Upper Midwest that have been granted official observer status for the conference since 2015.
COP 27 drew 49,000 participants
Smith-Moore looks forward to helping lead other students experiencing the COP for the first time. COP 27 drew more than 49,000 participants, making it the largest in the history of the event – which originated in 1995 in Berlin and has been held subsequently in countries from every continent except Antarctica and Australia.
“The city where we were in Egypt was somewhat a tourist town, and we didn’t realize that before we got there,” Smith-Moore said. “There was also a big change in culture. We just talked about it recently in class – how it was different because there were expectations on how women would be covered, for example. Fredi and I traveled together last year with another girl and, whenever we rode in a taxi or asked someone something in public, they only directed their response to him. In the rest of our travels through other countries, I was always the one doing the talking. But I didn’t take it personally.”
Recent events in the Middle East, specifically the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians surrounding the Gaza Strip, could complicate participation at COP 28. It will be held more than 1,600 miles east of Jerusalem but also just across the Persian Gulf from Iran. At this point, however, it’s all systems go.
For Smith-Moore, that means she’s looking forward to investigating how coral reefs are being impacted by climate change and what effect that has on Indigenous communities.
“I’m curious to see how the general public will be represented compared to what we saw in Egypt,” said Smith-Moore, who at COP 27 researched women leading agricultural adaptation in Africa. “Dubai is a huge city, and the United Arab Emirates is considered a Global South country, even though it has all kinds of money from oil.”
This is an example of a demonstration from COP 27 for which Bennies and Johnnies had an intimate view. Activists, industry representatives and government officials from all over the world will descend on Dubai from Nov. 30-Dec. 12 in the latest effort to examine the effects of climate change and seek solutions to stop it from getting any more pronounced.
Two groups will each experience a week
The students will split into two groups. Nine of them and Kyle Rauch, the schools’ sustainability director, and faculty advisor Troy Knight will leave for Dubai on Nov. 28. Knight, an associate professor of environmental studies who also went to Egypt last year and has been to three COPs in the past six years, will stay for the entire conference and return with the second group of 11 on Dec. 13.
The excitement is palpable among those making their first trip.
“It’s one of the reasons I came to Saint John’s,” said Finn Dolezal, a sophomore economics major from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. “I knew going to the COP was possible through my sister (Regan ’22), who unfortunately wasn’t able to do it because of COVID. The study abroad program is exceptionally strong here, and I’ve made it a goal to see as many different areas of the world as possible.”
He’s already contemplating graduate school and believes this experience and the research in which he’s involved will give him a competitive advantage when it comes time to apply. His area of interest at COP 28 will be sustainable development and how it impacts education and standards of living.
“Those are a lot of fancy words to say, ‘How can technology be used to make peoples’ lives better,’” said Dolezal, who will be in the first group of students to depart.
SJU senior eager to see intersection of climate change with mining
Evan Mattson, a senior from Aurora, Minnesota, who is majoring in political science, is interested in the intersection of climate change and mining.
“I’m from the Iron Range and I grew up in a very pro-mining culture,” Mattson said. “When I go home, I see the ‘Let’s Go PolyMet’ signs. I want to bring back what research I can and see how we can meld those two things – mining and combatting climate change – together. Fossil fuels obviously are a big part of mining because that’s what powers the vehicles required to mine the iron ore – and will be if copper and nickel get going.”
Mattson, who is the SJU Senate representative to the school’s board of trustees, plans to make a presentation to his high school (Mesabi East) after he returns.
“I’m expecting – and honestly hoping – to see some protests in the Green Zone, because Dubai was a surprising choice for this conference,” he said. “The United Arab Emirates is a huge oil producer, so I expect some conversations around whether this was the right place for the event.”
CSB senior expects unique exposure to climate justice
Cassandra Johnson, a senior environmental studies major from St. Cloud, Minnesota, will join Mattson and others in the second group.
“I wasn’t going to miss it,” Johnson said. “I think it’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I wouldn’t get anywhere else. I think it’s going to be such an interesting, overwhelming experience, meeting so many different people from different areas around the globe. I just want to take it all in. I would never go to Dubai if it wasn’t for this.”
As social media coordinator for the Climate Justice Club, she will be posting on Instagram and other platforms during her trip. In fact, all of the students will be making social media posts for use on the CSB and SJU channels during their tours.
Her research will center on mangroves, tropical plants that live in loose, wet soils, including in salt water, that are periodically submerged by oceanic tides.
“They have a very specific ecosystem that I’m very interested in,” Johnson said. “I hope to talk with people who have experience in those parts of the world.”
Six sophomores get credentials; could return in future
Lauren Sitzman, a sophomore biology major from Omaha, Nebraska, is one of six sophomores among the 20 students and said she feels honored with the opportunity to go.
“I’m very privileged and grateful for the chance,” Sitzman said. “My sister is in graduate school, and she was telling me how doctoral students that she’s working with have been applying to go for years. She told me how lucky I was to have this opportunity as an undergrad and to already be engaged in high-level research.”
At the COP, she plans to focus on biodiversity in Asia and the Pacific and hopes to speak with delegates from countries representing those regions.
“When some of the people who went last year talked about it, I was like, ‘This sounds really cool,’” Sitzman said. “They encouraged me to apply. The worst thing that could’ve happened was I’d have been turned down and had to apply again. But now, who knows? Maybe I’ll go to COP29.”
This was the scene at the entrance for COP 27. A similar sight is expected to greet a group of 20 Bennies and Johnnies when they visit Dubai.