Coming of Age in Copenhagen
The Copenhagen summit would surely be considered a disappointment if the ratification of an international climate treaty were the only measure of success. The agreement by nations to only “take note” of an accord that limits the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels is as frustrating in its timidity as it is a serious cause for concern. Only two years ago, the upper limit of a safe atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was considered to be 350 parts per million, but current levels are now approaching 390 parts per million. The preindustrial level of carbon dioxide was approximately 270 parts per million. The world needs to act in concert, and soon, to halt this alarming trajectory and its concomitant pernicious effects on us and on the biosphere.
But being an optimist by nature, I am encouraged to report that out of the chaos of Copenhagen emerged a few hopeful signs. The presence of so many heads of state at the summit reflected a growing recognition that climate change is no longer just an environmental issue, consigned to some green ghetto, but a core issue of global concern that needs to be addressed in international negotiations on trade, economic development, competitiveness and public health. And at least from the perspective of Yale’s involvement, the summit could be considered a rousing success.
Yale’s 90-strong delegation in Copenhagen included 79 students, most of them from F&ES, and was nimbly organized by faculty and staff at F&ES, the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, the Office of International Affairs and the Office of Sustainability. And our students were joined in their efforts by students from the Law School’s Environmental Protection Clinic, the Divinity School and Yale College. Their esprit de corps in the run-up to and during Copenhagen was inspirational and, I hope, will be emulated by negotiators at the next climate conference in Mexico in November.
The students were in Copenhagen, in large measure, to support vulnerable small island states in their negotiations, represent official delegations, lobby, blog and immerse themselves in the arcana of bureaucratic give-and-take. I’m proud to say that they were remarkably well-prepared, entrepreneurial and effective in injecting themselves into the substance of the proceedings, which unfortunately turned out to be opaque and often exclusionary. The Yale team quickly formed a supportive network, sharing information and keeping each other apprised of quicksilver changes in events. They researched, tracked and wrote briefs on important issues for negotiating teams; analyzed and defended positions in draft texts of the countries they were representing during negotiations; and at times played the role of mediator.
F&ES doctoral candidate Angel Hsu, writing for the Green Leap Forward blog and fluent in Chinese, was an indispensable source of information on Chinese negotiating positions for the Western press, nonplussed delegates and the breathless inhabitants of the oversubscribed Bella Center where the summit took place. Tens of thousands read her blog posts, which were picked up by the Center for American Progress’ influential climate blog and caught the attention of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Impressed with her insights, the commission asked that she attend its April hearing to provide her perspective on China’s role in Copenhagen and green energy policy.
There are many more such stories to relate, but I cannot do justice to them all in this brief column. It pleases me to report, though, that the students were uniform in their praise of the faculty who prepared them in courses such as the “Environmental Diplomacy Practicum,” taught by Roy Lee; and “International Organizations and Conferences,” team taught by Gordon Geballe, Nick Robinson and Gary Yohe, with teaching fellows Kasey Jacobs and Alark Saxena; and in the Environmental Protection Clinic, run by Dale Bryk. Two other faculty members played prominent roles at the summit: Brad Gentry, on behalf of the U.N. Secretariat, and Rajendra Pachauri, as chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The agony of the negotiations and the ultimate failure to enact a treaty frustrated our students, for sure, but they never lost their sense of resolve or their sense of humor. One student quipped that it would have been propitious to have brought along a psychologist to help them handle the disappointment. But by all accounts, our students did their homework, knew the issues cold and conveyed their knowledge graciously, acknowledging that other perspectives, if not other points of view, can lead to opposite takes on the same question. It was in that crucible last December, where youthful idealism collided with the unyielding and prosaic demands of self-interest, that our students became leaders.