This year I have developed a sincere appreciation for the ambition of young scholars interested in making an impact. Before I left Amherst College this past spring, I had the opportunity to encourage a group of Amherst College Environmental Studies majors led by rising senior Anna Burglund to gain observer status to attend the Cop21 UN Climate talks in Paris that happened in December.
In addition to figuring out how to get students into the meetings, we came up with a plan to set up a Special Topics course at Amherst this past fall called “COP21 and Climate Politics”. Amherst students recorded their experiences at Cop21 in this blog hosted by the Office of Environmental Sustainability.
Amherst students joined students from Pomona and MacAlester Colleges who had participated in the June 2015 World Wide Views on Climate and Energy global citizen dialog which resulted in a citizens report to the UN delegates. I am conducting follow up research this year to interview the policy actors who have received information about the citizen dialog to learn their views about the possibility of interjecting citizen views into transnational climate governance.
Here is the original proposal student Anna Burglund sent to President Martin in the spring of 2015:
A coalition of students, faculty, and staff requests support from the President’s office for a project that cements the issue of climate change and the ongoing struggle for solutions into the lives of the Amherst College community. The project uses the upcoming 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) convention in Paris in December 2015 as a catalyst to inspire linkages between curricular learning and co-curricular opportunities aligned with the goals of the College’s newly approved Strategic Plan. It also seeks to establish partnerships with community members and other colleges around environment and climate change, and to develop a replicable model for international engagement by Amherst students and faculty. This ambitious project will combine academic research, social activism, inter-campus collaboration, and community engagement to create a meaningful experience for all involved—and lay the groundwork for future efforts to include out-of-classroom learning in Environmental Studies and other disciplines.
Over the past year, Amherst College established the Office of Environmental Sustainability, pledged to pursue sustainable investing, and began work on a Climate Action plan, thereby acknowledging the seriousness of climate change and the role the college needs to take in combatting it. Aligning with the College’s strategic goals to “Prepare students for increasing global interdependence and to combine analysis with action in the world,” we students will develop a replicable model for co-curricular engagement in climate and sustainability governance as a pilot for the Environmental Studies department and involve Amherst College students in international policy debate. Specifically this project:
- creates a foundation of understanding of what climate change is and what it means for our college community and the international community through a Fall 2015 special topics course;
- mobilizes a participatory opportunity for members of the coalition to attend, observe, and participate in the COP21 proceedings in France from November 30, 2015 to December 11, 2015 under official observer status sponsored by Pomona College; and
- produces a student-led information-sharing forum that will disseminate our understanding of climate change and the policy-making process with members of the Amherst community, local high school students, and elected officials in spring 2016.
This project will act as a model for future projects that seek to link coursework to activities beyond the Amherst campus. It will set a precedent for a new type of international student engagement that is active and hands-on rather than removed. In order to enable Amherst’s continued involvement in United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) proceedings, we will register the college as an accredited institution able to send representatives to upcoming conferences. This project lays the foundation for future partnerships between Amherst and other colleges, the local community, alumni, and international actors to be utilized in new and innovative ways. We believe that this project will have long-lasting effects in establishing Amherst College as a place where integrative learning and a global outlook take center stage.
Climate change is the defining issue for this generation of Amherst students. No other social, political, or economic challenge has the capacity to be so devastating to so many people. As a liberal arts institution dedicated to preparing students for productive engagement in the world, Amherst College has a responsibility to help equip its students to face the enormous difficulty of restructuring a global system built on the unrestricted burning of fossil fuels. If we are to stay under the 2 degree Celsius increase in average temperature and prevent catastrophic damage to the climate, time is running short to take effective action both as individuals and as a society. The millennial generation faces immediate and daunting challenges that require an informed and motivated response.
In recognition of the urgency of this issue, climate negotiations are taking center stage in global governance. In December, the UNFCCC will be hosting the COP21 convention in Paris. This meeting brings together delegates from 196 countries to establish for the first time, a binding international agreement to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The COP21 has the potential to profoundly shape global efforts to mitigate climate change in the short and long terms.
Though the official deliberations at COP21 are in the hands of the delegates, there are opportunities for citizens, NGOs, IGOs, and research institutions to participate in conference activities. Accredited groups can obtain observer status which allows their members to observe the official meetings of the delegates and smaller sub-committee meetings. Additionally, there is a civil society forum where advocacy groups get together to spread their messages to attendees and try to influence the official results. Though Amherst cannot be registered as an accredited institution by this December, Dr. Richard Worthington, Professor of Politics and Chair of the Program in Public Policy Analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, California has invited Amherst College to become a part of their delegation and obtain observer status.
The Amherst Mission
Amherst’s Strategic Plan, approved this spring established a foundational goal for the college of “Preparing students for increasing global interdependence by cultivating international programs and perspectives.” The opportunity for students both to observe and participate in international conferences with the scope and importance of COP21 is rare.
Additionally, the Strategic Plan expresses such goals as “providing [graduates] a global outlook and global capabilities” and “strengthening all students’ abilities to combine analysis with action in the world–in experiential and project-based courses, internships, community engagement programs, and entrepreneurship and leadership opportunities, whether on campus or off, in the Connecticut River Valley or in other countries.” This project takes learning beyond the classroom to connect students with the local community as well as the international one.
The establishment of the Office of Environmental Sustainability (OES) as well as the statement by the Board of Trustees this past February exemplifies how the college is committed to becoming a leader in creating a sustainable future. The proposed project will take these ambitions to the next level and link Amherst to international institutions and make it a model for other colleges seeking to engage in the process. The development of a Climate Action Plan by the OES can be complemented by the chance to engage in the making of a sustainable world beyond Amherst’s borders. We will work with OES director, Laura Draucker, and the Chair of the Environmental Studies Department, Ethan Temeles, to connect the activities that are taking place on the international stage to efforts on campus. Linking the college to international institutions will make it a leader and a model for others in this process.
With these goals in mind and at this crucial moment of planning for the future, a coalition of students, staff, and faculty have created a project that engages our Amherst College community with the global community of actors who are working to understand and address climate change. Given the significance of the upcoming COP21 meeting, we feel the time is right for the Amherst College community to engage with these issues and take an active role in the global conversation about climate change.
Over the summer, students and staff are participating in COP21-related events leading up to the proceedings that are designed to enhance the level of student civic participation in the global climate policy-making process. We are working with an organization called World Wide Views and a coalition of other colleges, including Pomona and Macalester, to coordinate and study the processes of citizen dialogue. Students are engaging in research around the ways ordinary people across the world talk about and conceptualize climate change issues. The information gathered this summer will inform the scholarly inquiry in the Special Topics course in the fall as well as contribute to senior thesis work.
In the fall, we plan to scale up efforts on campus and off to bring the issues of climate change and global governance into the public eye. With the incoming first-year class having read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and with growing student interest in the Environmental Studies major, we believe that the campus will be more excited than ever to engage with climate change topics and take part in the solution-making process.
Our efforts in the fall will be guided by a Special Topics course taught by Environmental Studies faculty designed to prepare students to take part in the global dialogue around climate change. Students will create a research project to take place over the course of the semester that integrates scholarly thought on international policy-making with on-the-ground study of the conference proceedings in Paris. The course will help students conceptualize the biggest issue of our time and translate curricular activities into liberal arts research and civic engagement.
In order to bring these topics to the forefront of the Amherst community, part of the project will include bringing speakers to campus who are connected to the international proceedings. Important figures in the negotiations such as Todd Stern, the Special Envoy for Climate Change at the State Department, or Jonathan Pershing, the Deputy Director of the Office of Energy Policy in the Department of Energy, are being considered as potential speakers. We also seek to better engage with alumni who are participating in environmental work and can share their stories with the student body and inspire them to get involved. Bringing speakers to Amherst who are at the frontlines of the climate change struggle will embolden students to engage with the issue and integrate it meaningfully into their lives.
Because a multi-stakeholder approach is the only way to tackle climate change successfully, this project seeks to collaborate with a diverse group of campus and national student organizations. Holding informational events with student groups such as the Green Amherst Project, Model UN, the International Students Association, and others will connect as many Amherst students as possible to the initiative. The OES will support our coalition in bringing broad, international concepts to the work that can be done to make Amherst more sustainable. The connection between Pomona, Macalester, and Amherst will be expanded upon so that the groups from each college can work together to make sense of the deliberations. We will establish a plan to meet (most likely via teleconference or Google Hangout), learn, discuss, and research with the students from these colleges as well as other institutions engaging with the international conference. Creating a national network of students interested in COP21 and climate change will facilitate collaborative learning and information sharing.
The research and activities completed in the months leading up to December will prepare a small coalition of 5 students and 1faculty member to attend COP21. This is a unique opportunity for students to take part in an event as momentous as these climate talks promise to be. Utilizing the observer status, the Amherst contingent would attend high-level meetings, participate in the civic sector opportunities, and conduct research on the process. Students will learn to perform event ethnography and connect with organizations and individuals around the world who have taken a stake in the climate negotiations. Participating in and reporting on the COP21 will be a powerful demonstration of Amherst’s commitment to fostering international awareness and engagement among its students. Throughout the project and in Paris we will represent Amherst College on an international stage, thereby showing how seriously the college takes its responsibility to prepare students to “lead principled lives of consequence.”
After completing a significant amount of research at the COP21 meeting, students in the contingent will be prepared to disseminate what they have learned to the Amherst community. Students will participate in the Amherst Explorations celebration of student research presenting on the role Amherst has taken and can take in global climate negotiations. Additionally, we will establish a connection with Amherst Regional High School—through its Environmental Science instructors or an after-school environmental club—to share with younger students what has happened on the international stage and how they too can engage with the issues that face their generation. Finally, setting up meetings with town of Amherst and state elected officials will allow us to share how we might translate international plans into local action. The goal of this project is not to end our work with the conference in December, instead we view the meeting as merely a stepping stone to a more lasting set of partnerships and plans.