Earth systems class to attend U.N. Paris climate negotiations

Nov. 26, 2015, 12:00 a.m.
(McKENZIE LYNCH/The Stanford Daily)
(McKENZIE LYNCH/The Stanford Daily)

A group of students will travel to Paris at the end of the month to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference (the 21st Conference of the Parties or COP21). The students are taking a course called “International Climate Negotiations: Unpacking the Road to Paris,” specifically designed to teach students about the issues involved with the conference and to prepare for the trip. Enrollment in the course was by application.

“Climate change is the issue of this generation,” said professor Richard Nevle, deputy director of the earth systems program and co-instructor of the course. “It’s something that [my co-instructors and I] have all been deeply committed to working on through different means, everything from activism to research to teaching.”

Paris trip and final project

After Thanksgiving break, the students will meet in Paris on Nov. 29 and stay until Dec. 6.

“I want students to leave this course and to leave Paris with an understanding of why it has been and is so challenging to reach a meaningful international climate agreement, what the key issues are in the international negotiations and, more than anything, with a resolve to continue their work for climate action in their work, their studies and their lives after Paris,” Strong said.

Each student is working on a final project and will use the trip to conduct research. Before traveling to Paris, each must create a plan for where to go, whom to meet and what to do while in the city for the project.

Students’ projects range from an exploration of how American new media covers and frames the negotiations to research on subnational engagement or climate activism.

Guest speakers representing diverse perspectives, including journalists, negotiators and NGO workers, will speak with the students every morning. Nevle said these speakers will help students understand the negotiation progress as it unfolds.

Preparing for Paris

The class focused on gaining a background knowledge on issues pertaining to climate change as well as preparation for the trip to Paris for the COP21 negotiations. Students studied a broad range of topics including climate finance, game theory, carbon accounting, climate justice, equity, adaptation and climate science communication. Despite the wide curriculum, students were able to study each topic in depth.

“The class has focused on the history of the international climate change negotiations, tracing the path that led to all the focus on Paris,” Aaron Strong, a Ph.D. candidate and co-instructor, wrote in an email to The Daily. “We have had practical lessons on the nuts and bolts of how the U.N. system works and how to read the texts that form the basis of negotiation.”

Students acknowledged the complexities of the issues involved with the climate negotiations and how that has informed their own learning.

“We learned how integral all of these considerations are to reaching a deal and taking a position that achieves the goals of justice, equity and progress that most people want,” Josh Lappen ’17 said.

“I think many of us realized by the end of the class that the more we learned, the more we became aware that we can’t know everything related to climate change, because it’s such a broad issue and covers so many different areas,” Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna ’18 said.

Students in the class come from a variety of backgrounds. Many are studying earth systems or another science, while others are majoring in political science or economics. According to Nevle, the instructors were purposeful in accepting students with “diverse academic perspectives.”

Many of the students, including Lappen, are participated in the sit-in at Main Quad last week to demand divestment from fossil fuels.

Mock COP

The first eight weeks of the quarter led up to four hours of mock negotiations last Sunday designed to replicate the real COP21. Of the 30 students, 28 represented a nation or party and two acted as co-chairs. According to Nevle, the mock COP was an authentic, realistic experience that helped students understand what the process will really be like in Paris.

According to Arrieta-Kenna, negotiators discussed a modified version of the actual 16-page text that will be used at COP21. Their goal was to agree upon the specific wording of certain parts of the document, taking into account each of their countries’ unique interests. Complete consensus was necessary to reach an agreement, so competing interests complicated the discussions.

Arrieta-Kenna was one of the co-chairs, and he said the experience was “intense” because of the pressure involved with his role. As co-chair, his only goal was reaching a successful agreement, rather than acting in the interest of a particular country.

Sarah Johnson ’16, who represented Egypt, said the mock negotiations were challenging because her country hasn’t released much information about its position on the topic so far. Still, she was engaged and came out with a better understanding of the complexity of the issue.

Impact of last week’s terror attacks

The terror attacks in Paris last week have raised some concern among students and instructors about the safety of the trip and how COP21 will be affected.

“I think we’re all very concerned about the recent attacks in Paris, and we’re going to have to wait to see…how it will affect the official negotiations,” Arrieta-Kenna said.

However, the group is still planning to travel, and the only effect the attacks have had on the negotiations is the cancellation of some side events, such as a major climate march and other celebratory gatherings. Increased security measures will also be implemented.

“The talks are not being moved to a new location outside the city. They will still take place at the Le Bourget Conference Center,” Strong said. “Most importantly for our class, the French government is keeping the large Civil Society space around the negotiations open to the public, and this is where much of what we are planning to do there will take place.”

Strong hopes students will use their time in Paris to try and understand how the attacks might impact the negotiations. He said the “resolve” among negotiators to reach a successful agreement might be higher because of the attacks.

“Several of our students are interested in following the rhetoric around these topics in Paris,” he said.

But overall, instructors and students feel that their participation in the course has been influential on their personal and academic lives.

“This has been the most amazing teaching experience of my life, and that is all thanks to the inspiration the teaching team has gotten from the drive, ambition and focused attention of our students,” Strong said.



Contact Sarah Ortlip-Sommers at sortlip ‘at’

Sarah Ortlip-Sommers '18 is a senior staff writer and former Student Groups desk editor. A senior studying political science, she grew up on the beautiful island of Martha's Vineyard (yes, people really live there; no, she hasn't met Obama). Catch her ordering her fifth cup of coffee from Starbucks, singing with Everyday People, or watching Grey's Anatomy. Contact her at sortlip 'at'

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