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Dickinson to Durban » Climate Change, Conservation, Environmental Politics, Featured, Key COP17 Issues, Mosaic Action » Can I Get a Translator, Please?

Can I Get a Translator, Please?


By: Christine Burns ’14

On October 20th and 21st, the Mosaic students traveled to Washington D.C. to listen to an eclectic group of well-renowned individuals in the global climate change arena. Two individuals that provided some very interesting insight were Dr. Shalini Vajjhala and Dr. Joel Scheraga from the EPA.  Dr. Scheraga has served the EPA in many positions, his current one being the Senior Advisor for Climate Adaptation in the Office of International Affairs.  Dr. Vajjhala is the Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Office of International Affairs. Their presentation was extremely effective, because they presented a perspective on the negotiating struggles that I had yet to consider.   

The first piece of perspective was the role cultural and language barriers can play in hindering negotiations.   When the Conference of the Parties was trying to negotiate a transparency in monitoring and reporting emissions clause into the agreement, multiple countries including China and Russia were strongly against it.  This is partly because there is no word for transparency in either language. Translated into Chinese transparency became, “to put china into a glass house” while the translation into Russian became to spy. Clearly no one intended either of these meanings of transparency, and when the clause was rephrased, it was accepted.  It is extremely important in the international field not only to remember and respect other cultures, but to try and understand the differences so that gaps like an improper translation can bridged, and cooperation can be achieved.

The second bit of perspective I found very interesting was the idea of how to measure success.  Unlike some of the other speakers we met, the EPA officials did not consider Copenhagen to be an epic fail.  The ability of negotiators to bridge the aforementioned language gap, and shift strategy from a top-down to bottom-up system during Copenhagen and Cancun turned them into successes.  They then discussed how differences in government affect different countries’ abilities to make ambitious pledges.  Take the United States and the European Union as an example.  The EU system is designed to aim high and possibly not achieve their goals with little consequence while the US government is designed to “under promise and over deliver.”  This is because if the US should fail to meet their pledge, a civil suit would ensue.  This really helped me understand the US negotiating position a little better.  I still do not entirely agree with it, but I have gained a new level of understanding.

The next part of the talk was focused more on US domestic policy.  While I was shocked to find out that prior to three years ago only the climate change sector of the EPA dealt with adaptation and vulnerabilities to climate change, Drs. Vajjhala and Scheraga were extremely excited about this bit of progress.  Prior to that change none of the other sectors of the EPA considered climate change to be a part of their domain.  The water department did not believe in considering vulnerabilities to climate change relevant to their work, which is just not true.  Dr. Scheraga pointed out that actually climate change is not only related to every sector of the EPA, but many other jobs as well.  The main focus of his talk was finding a way to make climate change accessible and relatable to each and every person.  There are now 61 departments of the US government thinking about climate change and how it could affect them, and that Dr. Scheraga says is success.

Although I found the different perspective of the EPA educational, I do not entirely agree that the United States is doing all that they could to mitigate climate change, and I would not really consider Copenhagen to be a great success.  I do understand that progress is always good, but I am conscious of being too satisfied with the little bits of progress and then loosing the ambition.  Overall the trip was the experience of a lifetime, and I am grateful to have had the privilege to meet with such accomplished individuals, and learn from them.

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