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Second group of Bennies and Johnnies witness COP28 leading up to potentially ground-breaking deal to phase out fossil fuels

As a second group of students from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University returned from Dubai this week, it appeared the world might be on the verge of some concrete steps to address the climate crisis.

More than 200 countries reached an agreement at the conclusion of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to take a stand on phasing out the use of fossil fuels. The convention, also called Conference of the Parties (COP), has gone through 28 iterations over three decades — including the current COP, which opened Nov. 30 and was to end Tuesday but instead went into round-the-clock talks until Wednesday.

Troy Knight, an associate professor of environmental studies, led 11 students on a mission to use the schools’ official observer status to conduct interviews and research at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. Knight, who was in Dubai for the full two weeks, led a previous group of nine students who were at the COP for the first week of meetings and negotiations, including when U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris appeared at the event.

As the Bennies and Johnnies returned to campus just in time to take fall semester finals, there was no voiced opposition when a climate agreement was approved that calls for transition from fossil fuels to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Despite the landmark agreement, many remain skeptical of whether it will come to fruition after being frustrated by slow progress through the previous 27 conventions.

In any case, the Bennies and Johnnies who participated got a ringside seat to history. They also got a tailored view of the surroundings for COP28 from Saint Ben’s graduate Nritya Sultana ’08, who lives in Dubai, has mentored Bennies for 10 years, and recently collaborated on a series of resilience videos for Alumnae Affairs.

“Dubai is both a major business hub and tourist destination in the Middle East-North Africa region,” Sultana said in an email. “We are home to more than 200 nationalities. So the level of exposure for the students is fantastic, and will go a long way in broadening their horizons.”

Sultana joined the group for dinner on Sunday at the Dubai marina. During the COP, even some of the Bennies and Johnnies were interviewed by media and other attendees. On Monday, students visited the Khor Kalba Mangrove Forest Reserve, one of many free excursions for COP delegates to highlight local environmental and climate-related sites and activities. Also on Monday, Bennies and Johnnies met with global leaders and policy makers during a press conference held by a group of visiting U.S. senators. At the end of the press conference, the students were able to engage one-on-one with some of the officials.

During and after the holiday break, students who attended COP28 will present their research projects on and off campus. In February, candidates from CSB and SJU to attend COP29 will apply and participate in interviews for the opportunity to go to Baku, Azerbaijan in November 2024.

CSB and SJU group

In this group photo taken at the Dubai marina, where they ate dinner, sixth from the right is Nritya Sultana ’08, who lives in her native Dubai. She graciously gave her time to meet provide insights and guidance during COP28.

SJU's Evan Mattson being interviewed

Evan Mattson (at right wearing blue shirt), an SJU senior political science major, was interviewed by a media member at COP28. According to Troy Knight, a faculty member who spent two weeks in Dubai, it is difficult to be spend significant time at the event and not be asked by someone to provide your views.

CSB and SJU students with US Senators

Lauren Thamert (left), a CSB sophomore biochemistry major, and Cullen McMahon, an SJU senior political science major, speak with U.S. Senator Tom Carper of Delaware at COP28. Being at the COP provides opportunities to see and sometimes meet with global leaders and policy makers. In this case, students were granted access to a press conference held by a group of visiting U.S. government officials. At the end of the press conference, students had time to individually meet with the participants.

CSB and SJU students visit mangrove forest

Chloe Anderson, Jalayna Smith-Moore, Lauren Sitzman, Mason Voshell, and Cassie Johnson (clockwise from left) enjoy a trip to Khor Kalba Mangrove Forest Reserve. The host nation often provides free excursions for COP participants to highlight local environmental and climate related sites and activities. In this case, the students visited a protected coastal mangrove forest near Dubai.

CSB student interviews participant

Cassie Johnson (right), a CSB senior environmental studies major, interviews a participant at COP28. A critical part of the academic experience, each CSB and SJU student must interview at least three people for research papers they will produce about the experience.

CSB and SJU students at COP28

Cassie Johnson (clockwise from upper left), Fredi Ponce Parra, Jalayna Smith-Moore and Jennifer Agustin Ambrocio clearly enjoyed one of the exhibits.