Since returning from the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December, many people have asked me “how was it?” And despite the frequency of this question, I find it very difficult to answer. What exactly are you asking? Are you asking if I enjoyed my experience? Whether or not the conference was a success? Or if I liked the Danish pastries? Certainly anyone who has studied abroad can attest to this difficulty…

How Would YOU Describe This?

But with this experience in particular I find it even more troublesome to negotiate. On the surface, my answer serves to both satisfy those who feel obligated to ask as well as describe what actually transpired during the two weeks of negotiations. But on another level, my response reflects how I view the problem of climate change, itself.

As for what actually occurred, no legally binding climate treaty was produced. Rather, the Copenhagen Accord put some fundamental steps in place for a more thorough climate pact to be produced in Mexico City next year. This may not come as a surprise since the media was calling the conference a failure even before it commenced. Prior to my arrival I was aware of some of the obstacles standing in the way. What I came to truly understand, however, is the actual scope and complexity of the problem as well as what it’s going to take in order to address it.

Climate change is not merely an environmental issue; nor is it a political or economic one. Climate change is an everything issue. Trying to coordinate a response that both prioritizes and balances areas of funding, capacity building, trade, mitigation, adaptation, as well as environmental, ecological and social justice is certainly a daunting task. Unfortunately, it takes time in order to develop these policies—especially at the international level. Realizing this while hearing some of the most vulnerable peoples of the changing climate beseech for urgent action was especially heartbreaking.  I’ll never forget the looks of desperation from the Presidents of the Maldives and Kiribati, two island countries where its citizens will eventually become environmental refugees if significant (and I mean significant) emission reductions are not made. To this end—knowing the urgency of the issue and observing how slow progress is made—I’m rather disheartened by the outcome of the conference.

But I’ve also forced myself to draw some sort of encouragement from this experience.  After all, it was amazing being surrounded with people from every country of the world and hearing groups of individuals speak out to have their voices heard.  My representation at the conference extended beyond my official observer status as a part of Dickinson’s research delegation. I was also there are as a part of the international youth constituency, advocating for climate justice because it will be our generations problem to inherit.

Gotta Keep the Hope Alive

So having been to this conference and observing its impact, have I retained a sense of hope? Surprisingly enough, I have. It’s just that my trust for the international political process to effectively solve this issue has weakened. Ultimately it’s going to take much more than policy alone if climate change is ever appropriately addressed. It will take changes in individual lifestyle choices, greater community involvement, business incentives, and local and domestic initiatives.  Now more than ever, I’m inspired to keep fighting.

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