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First of two student groups from CSB and SJU in Dubai for UN climate conference [UPDATED Dec. 6]

UPDATE, Dec. 6 — As the first group of Bennies and Johnnies prepare to wind down their experience as official observers at the UN climate conference, they celebrated their experience with dinner in the Dubai Marina amid towering skyscrapers and luxury yachts aglow in the warm evening.

Earlier on Wednesday, some of the students visited COP28’s Innovation and Technology Hub, where they learned about product circularity and optimization, including packaging material made from ground up date seeds, of which there is no shortage in the Middle East.

As they return to campus, a second group of 10 more students will be on the ground with Troy Knight, an associate professor of environmental studies, for the remainder of the conference, which concludes on Tuesday. During the holidays and spring semester, all of the CSB and SJU COP participants will present research and give presentations about their time in the United Arab Emirates. As an oil-producing, autocratic country, the host hasn’t hid its reluctance for COP participants to protest the legacy of fossil fuels.

CSB and SJU students in Dubai

Troy Knight (left), an assistant professor of environmental studies, enjoyed a dinner in the Dubai Marina on Wednesday night with the Bennies and Johnnies who spent the first week at COP 28 as official observers.

Bennies and Johnnies experience Expo City, await Kamala Harris

Nov. 30 — Kyle Rauch, sustainability director for the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, reports energy and excitement are high for both the Bennies and Johnnies as well as tens of thousands of other people convening on the first day of the UN climate conference.

“Dubai’s Expo City is a grand and sweeping complex, an excellent site for hosting a conference of this scale and importance,” Rauch said via email from the United Arab Emirates.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to visit Dubai within the next few days, and coverage of COP28 will be everywhere in the world for the next two weeks. As an example, a story from the BBC questions on the first day of the conference whether an event in an oil-producing country can really achieve climate action.

CSB and SJU delegation in Dubai

The first of two delegations from CSB and SJU to reach Dubai for the UN climate conference gathered for a photo on the first day of events. Faculty representative Troy Knight (left) and CSB and SJU Sustainability Director Kyle Rauch (right) are with nine students in the United Arab Emirates for COP 28. The students include (alphabetically) Katie Boyer, Finn Dolezal, Mac Franklin, Nick Mertens, Claire Moonen, Karyn Morrissey, Thomas Odenthal, Luke Rausch and Caroline Wehseler.

Nov. 29 — Students endure marathon travel to reach Dubai

The first of two student groups that will represent the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change annual Conference of the Parties (COP) landed Wednesday in Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, after a marathon travel odyssey.

Nine students, accompanied by Troy Knight, associate professor of environmental studies, and Kyle Rauch, the schools’ sustainability director, have formal observer status for the first half of what’s commonly known as COP28, which opens Thursday and continues through Dec. 12. Among them was Clair Moonen, a senior political science/pre-law major from Delano, Minnesota. She departed Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Monday night for an eight-hour flight to Paris. After a 15-hour layover, she switched airlines and arrived in Dubai at about 9 a.m. Wednesday (about 11 p.m. Tuesday in Minnesota). She and her group checked into their hotel, ate and almost immediately departed on a pre-conference safari with two other Bennies. Beginning Thursday, they will be in close proximity to the foremost world leaders and activists involved in conversations and negotiations about climate change.

“The first thing I thought when I heard Dubai was the host for COP28 was, ‘Oh, that’s ironic,’” Moonen said via email during her trip. “The UAE is an oil-rich country, so why are they hosting? But they’re transitioning to a green economy with a net-zero emission plan goal for 2050. While balancing conservation, community and tradition, I think they are taking valid steps. Dubai alone is the most sustainable city in the region and, compared to back home, the United States is behind in this movement, culturally. We need to normalize more sustainable solutions – and quick, rather than waiting for everyone to make the right choice.

“I’m sure the oil money made it easier to create the sustainable city we’re going to experience, but I’m confident in Americans’ love of country and others to make steps in the right direction. I’m excited for this opportunity.”

Another group of 11 students will depart next week for the conclusion of the event.

For the past eight years, Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s have been granted badges that allow access to both the Green and Blue Zones of the COP, which last year in Egypt drew nearly 50,000 attendees – including U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry on behalf of President Joe Biden. 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.

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.

The opportunity at CSB and SJU 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.) Each student who goes to the COP will conduct research, including interviews with participants related to a specific topic, and present their findings back on campus and also in an off-campus public setting during or after the holiday break.

Moonen’s research will examine executive government turnover and how different countries in the Paris Agreement have implemented climate policy. Perhaps one of the most visible examples of this progress, or lack of it, will come when global leaders are asked in Dubai to ratify a landmark agreement to compensate poor countries for climate disasters exacerbated by emissions from wealthy ones.

“COP28 is the first global stock-take of the loss-and-damage fund, and it will be interesting to evaluate any change,” Moonen said. “I think the negotiations that go on can solidify who becomes accountable for what, not just open-ended action. The Paris Agreement and COP are all about accountability and climate justice. I don’t think either can be achieved without making voluntary commitments more ‘I will’ statements than ‘I want to’ beliefs.”

Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s are participating in the COP despite growing tensions in the Middle East following the outbreak of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians which began in early October in Gaza. The students canceled travel plans that would have taken them through Istanbul, Turkey, as a precaution.

“I think there’s definitely been some concern,” said Moonen, a veteran of a semester in Rome, a month of study in Brazil and solo travel to Germany. “Right now, all we can do is sign up for the U.S. abroad emergency alerts that will notify us if we’re in any real danger. I think the safety I’m most concerned for is within the protests that will be at the conference. Some are organized demonstrations and others happen without being a part of the conference and those could cost you your conference badge and even loss of your visa. I need to figure out what is the best way to get involved and use my voice in a safe and respectful manner.”

Nicholas Mertens and Luke Rausch at COP 28

Luke Rausch, a junior global business leadership major from White Bear Lake, and Nicholas Mertens, a senior environmental studies and political science major from Maple Grove, look over a display about how packaging materials can be made from ground up date seeds, of which there is no shortage in the Middle East.

CSB and SJU delegation at COP 28

Some members of the CSB and SJU delegation at the entrance to the Expo City portion of COP 28 on Thursday, Nov. 30.

Caroline Wheseler and Clair Moonen

Clair Moonen (left) and Caroline Wehseler, both senior political science/pre-law majors at Saint Ben’s, traveled over a couple of days this week to reach Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, site of this year’s UN Conference of the Parties on climate change.

Clair Moonen in Paris on layover

Clair Moonen had a 15-hour layover in Paris, which provided just enough time to glimpse the Eiffel Tower.