This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the 23rd Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23) in Bonn, Germany as an observer and delegate from Emory University. Countries have agreed upon critical courses of actions during these annual negotiations in the past, including the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, so I was excited to attend COP23 in person and follow important decisions and informational panels and to engage with others on a topic that has an impact on me as an individual as well as my community members and everyone else around the world.
While at COP23, I had the opportunity to attend various side events and panels given by politicians and subject-matter experts on subjects ranging from infrastructure adaptation strategies of “sponge cities” to how Japanese youth are striving towards a lower carbon footprint for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games. I even learned about how major companies such as Mars, Inc. are working towards corporate sustainability, such as producing M&Ms through 100% renewable energy from wind farms.
Although I took advantage of this variety, I also specifically chose to focus on panels that focused on climate change’s effects on agriculture, food security, and malnutrition in order to gain a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of the topic. I have taken various courses at Emory on sustainable food and nutrition and have had internships studying environmental health, so this topic is one that I feel is important to understand and address, especially given the disproportionate impacts food security could have on lower-income communities and environmental justice. It was even more apropos because the United Nations selected the country of Fiji to preside over the negotiations this year; with the changing precipitation patterns and extreme weather events associated with climate change, small island nations such as Fiji are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change—a subject that I wanted to draw attention to.
It was most interesting to me to experience the new dynamic at the conference given that President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement. The United States is now the only country not part of the negotiations because Syria joined the agreement earlier this month. On my first day at the COP, U.S. officials suddenly altered the title of the panel from “Action on Spurring Innovation and Deploying Advanced Technologies” to “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.”
As I stood in line to enter the meeting room where this panel would take place, a group suddenly broke out in protests, shouting “Climate justice now! Keep it in the ground!” The panelists had come to COP23 in support of finding more efficient ways to use fossil fuels rather than backing away from fossil fuel use, and the protesters were against this idea.
I later found out that protesters had also stood up and started to sing during the panel to prevent the panelists from speaking. When they finally left and I was able to enter the room, I heard White House Special Assistant David Banks state that “[The United States government] is really focused on providing energy access [through fossil fuels]… [The U.S.] is part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, so climate mitigation is an important goal, but it’s not a surprise that economic prosperity and energy access are higher priorities.” Francis Brooke from the Office of the Vice President had a similar outlook.
Soon after, Holly Krutka, Vice President of Coal Generation and Emissions Technologies at Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, noted that there should be a focus on finding ways to reduce the environmental impact of fossil fuels rather than eliminate their use completely.
Lenka Kollar, Director of Business Strategy at NuScale Power, a nuclear power plant company, stated similar ideas, especially because she had seen the need for electricity in developing countries and believed nuclear energy could provide this needed electricity access. However, she added that she appreciated the opinions of the protestors.
“We need to listen to each other even if we don’t agree,” Kollar said. “We don’t do that enough. We pit ourselves against each other, and that doesn’t get us to the goals we need to mutually reach.”
Most of the panelists verbally supported Trump’s decisions, with the exception of Kollar who simply said “no” when an audience member asked the panelists whether they supported or disliked Trump’s decision. Audience members were harsh and strong in their opinions, and they frequently interrupted panelists without giving them much opportunity to make their cases.
State leaders at other panels, like Governor of Washington Jay Inslee, blatantly spoke out against the decisions. Inslee stated “Here’s the fundamental reason why I came to Bonn: to join with other governors in saying that Donald Trump cannot stop us. He can’t stop us from putting a cap [on carbon emissions] like I’ve done in my state. He can’t stop us from having an incentive program. He can’t stop us from having a renewable portfolio standard.”
It was interesting to hear these first accounts of individuals who supported Trump’s decision as well as those who did not and to experience such dissonance on my very first day at COP23, especially since the situation was later even printed in the New York Times.
Even on my last day, I attended an interactive panel entitled “Climate Action Needs Media Freedom,” during which audience members had the opportunity to share their opinions on how media usage in their respective countries has altered public perceptions surrounding climate change. When individuals from the United States shared their outlooks, they addressed this dissonance and the ways in which the media depicted climate change through fake news and political conditions.
Follow other student experiences at the COP at climatetalks.emorydomains.org, and watch a video I made to show some of my experiences below: