CSB/SJU students tap into world’s top experts on climate change

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January 30, 2017

By Mike Killeen

CSB/SJU students at conference

Left to right: Ally Nelson, Colin Kroll, Sarah Haas, Ashley Phillips, Malia Carson, Claire Buysse, Nick Harbeck, and Noelle Batalla-Miller.

Photo: Jean Lavigne, Ph.D.

Attending the 22nd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change is a little like going to a real-life reference library for undergraduate students of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

Each student who attended the conference, held Nov. 7-18 in Marrakech, Morocco, had an opportunity to meet, hear and interview some of the top experts in the field.

For the second year in a row, CSB/SJU held observer status at the conference. Nineteen CSB and SJU students attended the conference in two groups.

“It’s really one of a kind, almost once in a lifetime experience, due to the high level of access that the students get to international policy makers,” said Matt Lindstrom, professor of political science and director of the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement, who led the second group of CSB/SJU students at the conference.

“They get to see essentially the elite of the world come together – from government, business and the NGOs. In 15 minutes, they could be talking to people from Cameroon or Saudi Arabia or China, all in one room. That doesn’t happen very often,” Lindstrom said.

That’s important, because every CSB/SJU student who attends the conference is working on a research project. That work begins during a two-credit course in the fall semester, and continues after the conference. One requirement of the project was to interview at least three experts at the conference.

Among the experts the students’ interviewed were the assistant mayor of Stockholm, Sweden, who spoke on the city’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2045; a former member of the Denmark Parliament who was an expert on wind power; and the heads of UNICEF and the U.N. Environmental Programs.

“A world of opportunities opened up (for the students),” said Jean Lavigne, associate professor of environmental studies at CSB and SJU who led a group of nine students for the first part of the conference. “They gained a lot of confidence, especially since some of them were a little bit worried about being so young, about being undergraduate students, at an international conference.

“They realized that people genuinely wanted to know what they had to say, and that they were able, because of the research they had done ahead of time, to participate and to ask good questions, to be thanked for asking such interesting questions, and that happened to a couple of our students. And, these are not easy topics,” Lavigne said.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entered into force in 1994, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The Conference of the Parties (COP) are a group of countries designated as the supreme governing body of the convention. To date, 195 countries have submitted their instruments of ratification.

These countries meet once a year in order to evaluate the application of the convention and develop the negotiation process between the parties (countries) in front of new commitments.

Lucas Giese, an SJU senior political science major from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, attended both the 2015 conference in Paris and the Marrakech conference. He said some delegates are surprised undergraduates are attending the conference, but in a good way.

“Everyone there, in some ways, lobby you even as a student. Everyone is really fascinated that we’re engaged,” said Giese, who researched the role of civil society in India within climate change efforts in the country. “I think having youth in sort of a research mode is really important, because youth as advocates are well-established and there’s a lot of talk of the planet that we’re inheriting.

“I think having students that are engaged on the academic side are preparing in some ways to take up a national climate change role. It’s advocacy on one side, but also the more formal side of the negotiation process,” Giese said.

The makeup of the CSB/SJU student group was typical for the liberal arts – majors included environmental studies, political science, chemistry, physics, sociology, psychology, communication, peace studies and philosophy.

“You get this really great mix of science and social science, so the students are learning from each other,” Lindstrom said. “The policy or political focus students tend to learn a lot more about the science end of it, and natural science and environmental studies students tend to get a much better experience or awareness of the political solutions and policy.”

“People at the conference know that it’s going to be up to the millennial generation to do something about (climate change),” Lavigne said. “They were thrilled to have young people in the audience, listening to their papers, asking them questions.

“It’s one of the best experiences we can offer them. It’s an incredibly important issue for their generation,” Lavigne added.