Blogging from Paris: UConn@COP21

Two UConn undergraduates reflect on the Paris climate conference, which is wrapping up its deliberations this weekend.

A group of students, faculty, and staff traveled in Paris for the UN climate summit, COP21. (Courtesy of UConn@COP21)

A group of students, faculty, and staff traveled in Paris for the UN climate summit, COP21. (Courtesy of UConn@COP21)

Ecology and evolutionary biology major Rob Turnbull ’16 (CLAS) and marine sciences and maritime studies major Ron Tardiff ’16 (CLAS) recently traveled with a group of UConn students and professors to Paris for the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP21) climate change summit. The event brought together diplomats, business executives, government leaders, and other delegates from all across the globe to discuss universal legislation on how to address climate change. Here, Turnbull and Tardiff draw on their experiences from the trip to discuss why finding climate change solutions will take insight from an array of disciplines and perspectives.  

Climate Change: The Ultimate Interdisciplinary Issue
Rob Turnbull ’16 (CLAS), ecology and evolutionary biology major

Climate change is the ultimate interdisciplinary issue, and today I learned exactly how many disciplines I understand thoroughly: almost one.

Coming from a strict biological science background (I study ecology and evolutionary biology at UConn), I have long considered myself a very literate person in terms of the effects, causes, and opinions surrounding climate science. After a few discussions over breakfast and UConn’s daily group discussion in the lounge of our hotel, I came to understand that even though I thought I completely got the “science” of global warming, I could really only claim to understand the general biological effects of global warming on organisms.

Though not entirely foreign to me, the physics and chemistry were far more complex than I anticipated. It took nearly an hour listening to and talking with associate professor of geography Anji Seth, a UConn climatologist, to get a firmer grasp of how solar radiation, heat, the Earth’s elliptical orbit, albedo, and a slurry of other factors all interact to create our observed climate trends.

I entered into an even more foreign discussion with my fellow UConn @ COP21-ers on the economics of dealing with global warming. While I certainly learned plenty from my peers, my ignorance about these topics highlights a major challenge in dealing with such a broad-reaching issue as climate change: the isolation of many professional disciplines.

I wasn’t the only COP21-er who had a fish-out-of-water moment today. Among such a diverse group of UConn students – including scientists, political scientists, economists, and social scientists – whenever anyone began to talk in depth about their respective field, the others often found themselves having such a conversation for the first time.

While it is excellent, in my opinion, for different people to develop different types of expertise, especially given the complexity of global warming, this diversity only becomes a good thing if accompanied by strong communication and collaboration. Otherwise, issues aren’t resolved in a holistic sense, and accessory problems will persist. While the scientist can unveil the trends to back up climate theories, that scientist needs the economist and the politician to draft viable policy, and the artist to help spread the word.

A discussion led by associate professor of geography Anji Seth in the hotel lobby in Paris. (Courtesy of UConn@COP21)
A discussion led by associate professor of geography Anji Seth in the hotel lobby in Paris. (Courtesy of UConn@COP21)

With this in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to find among the many booths and exhibits at the COP21 “Climate Generations” event an organization practicing what I’ve just preached. With a focus on influencing ocean climate legislation, the United Nations Environment Programme’s climate change initiative involves academics, political scientists, artists, and many others to accomplish its goals. Upon arriving at the booth, I was presented with scientific procedures and results, as well as a clear plan about how these results will play into the policy negotiations.

This collaboration and others at the COP21 summit have shown me that climate change is the ultimate interdisciplinary issue and can only be resolved through multidisciplinary collaboration on a global scale.

UConn and the Climate Conference: Looking Ahead
Ron Tardiff ’16 (CLAS), marine sciences and maritime studies major

The 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change began in Paris, France on Nov. 30, and at the same time, a group of 18 UConn students, faculty, and staff traveled to Paris for five days to participate in a number of events surrounding the conference. The 12 students selected represented a diverse group of majors, most of which fall within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, from marine sciences to human rights. For me, the conference was educational and sobering, but also inspired my fellow students and me to take action here at home.

Every day in Paris began with a group dialogue focused on the science or politics of climate change and solutions globally and at UConn. The diverse perspectives contributed by our multidisciplinary group of people definitely enhanced our conversations. The group visited the COP21 site in Le Bourget, Paris, and toured the public area of COP21, the Climate Generations Space. We also attended a networking night at the Kedge Business School co-sponsored by UConn and Second Nature, called “Higher Education Leads on Climate.”

On Friday, most of the group attended the Solutions COP21 exhibition, while I attended Oceans Day back at COP21. Oceans Day drew high-level attention to how the ocean and climate are inextricably linked. Among the many esteemed attendees were Prince Albert II of Monaco; Laurent Fabius, Foreign Minister of France and President of COP21; and Irina Bokova, the Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

As an American, one of the most sobering aspects of the conference and the international climate conversation in general is the skepticism towards U.S. commitment. Historically, particularly on climate change, the United States has failed to be a leader; if anything, we’ve often stymied the conversation. When I was at Oceans Day, I was asked by a French attendee whether I thought the U.S. would “follow through” this time. My only honest answer was that I believe our negotiators are working in good faith, but that the political climate – pun intended – at home is pretty unpredictable.

What is most interesting to me is that 190 countries convened to address an issue that an unfortunately large number of Americans refute entirely. This demonstrates how critical climate change education is. That is one of the many reasons our group will be advocating for a “sustainability” category to be included in General Education Requirements here at UConn.

Tackling global climate change epitomizes the types of challenges for which a liberal arts education aims to prepare students. The process of burning fossil fuels and forests and how that affects the climate is a fundamentally scientific issue. Why we continue these destructive processes, how these processes affect human civilization, and what we should do to improve our resilience and adaptation to climate change are intersectional issues spanning fields from science to the social sciences to humanities.

Now that we’re home, our group of “COP21ers” will be launching initiatives to improve our University’s carbon footprint, spearheading climate change conversation at UConn, and creating works of art, writing, or media to highlight the impacts of climate change. And we’ll be advocating for a greater role of sustainability education in the curriculum at UConn. We’ll be using the new perspectives we gained from meeting so many people from around the world to help UConn be a leader in this quintessentially global issue.