As the December frost set in, some Yalies headed north to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal, Quebec, to discuss global warming issues this week.
While some attendees arrived at the conference as part of a School of Forestry and Environmental Studies seminar on the political economy of climate change, other participants arrived with extracurricular organizations including the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. Government and nonprofit organization representatives, businesspeople and scientists are also attending the international conference, for a total of approximately 10,000 people.
The Montreal Conference, which began Nov. 28 and will continue through this Friday, is the 11th annual conference of parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Simultaneously, Montreal is hosting the first meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, an addition to the U.N. Convention, which took effect Feb. 16. The Kyoto Protocol commits more than 30 industrialized countries to specific and legally binding emission reduction targets.
FES Lecturer David Runnalls, who taught a seminar this semester discussing the political economy of climate change, brought students to Montreal for five days of the climate change conference. Runnalls said he thinks the trip was a valuable educational experience for his students.
“I wanted them to first understand how complex this issue is at the international level and thus how difficult it is to begin to negotiating solutions, and to recognize the fact that the U.S. has taken a very obstinate stance,” Runnalls said. “The U.S. coalition here is a real negative force, and what you get is a rather slow and tortuous [process].”
Runnalls said the conference’s main events were at times less interesting than the side events organized by individual attendees.
“If you go to these side events, you begin to realize how much is really going on to prevent climate change around the world.”
After returning from the conference, Jules Opton-Himmel FES ’07, a student in Runnalls’ class, also said the side events were more compelling. While he attended one of the delegate sessions, he mostly attended side events in the afternoon.
“The real benefit is to see all of the different stakeholders who came, industry representatives, insurance agencies, businesses, nonprofits and government representatives,” Opton-Himmel said. “To see that carbon and climate were big-ticket items on their agenda was kind of eye-opening.”
Runnalls’ class met every day for four days and brought in speakers including Canadian Environment Minister Stephane Dion. Afterwards, to encourage students to explore the conference, students were free to attend side events and to lobby, Runnalls said.
While students said they attended the conference to both learn and observe, they said they also hope the issue of climate change will be addressed efficiently.
“There are major hurdles to overcome,” said Opton-Himmel, who is also the co-founder of the Climate Change Student Interest Group at FES. “We knew this before, but the conference reinforced this. Hopefully it spurred more people to take action.”
YSEC co-chair David Tracey ’08, who also attended the conference, said he hopes to work further with some of the other environmentalists he met there.
“It is a great place to exchange information with other environmental activists,” said Tracey. “We can exchange ideas to improve each-other’s campuses and get students more interested and excited about the environment,” he said.
Aside from potential activism, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Dean Gustave Speth said he believes that the conference provides an important complement to standard classroom education.
“Environmental issues are increasingly international,” Speth said. “Being there in Montreal gives our students invaluable exposure to the way the world works — and doesn’t work. We think participation like that is a vital complement to book training. And who knows, it may even lead to a great job working the climate issue.”
Runnalls said he believes that the conference sends a message to all students, whether they attended or not.