In December 2015, four Colorado College students participated in the COP21 climate change conference held in Paris, during which 196 nations adopted an historic agreement that set the goal of limiting the world’s rise in average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius. Gabriella Palko ’16, Lily Biggar ’16, Elliot Hiller ’17, and Zach Pawa ’17, all environmental policy and science majors, attended workshops and provided commentary on a daily blog. The students’ trip was made possible through funding from the President’s Office, the EcoFund, and conference grants.

In addition to rubbing shoulders with the world’s leading climate and environmental experts, the students met CC alumni, Emil Dimantchev ’11, his wife Annie Evankow ’12, and Matt Banks ’97. Emil works in the climate analysis department at Thomson Reuters in Oslo, Norway; Annie recently graduated from a biology master’s program at the University of Oslo; and Matt works at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C.

Read a Q&A with Palko.

CC: How did you and the three other students approach the climate change conference in terms of getting the most out of the experience? Did you decide each day who would attend different sessions, who would blog, etc.?

Palko: To get the most out of our time in Paris, I did a lot of proactive research and planning, and then tried to be flexible once we got there. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of different events, sites, protests, gatherings, art installations, workshops, networking opportunities, etc. to attend. You could not fathom how much was going on all throughout the city, so there was no way we could do everything we wanted. For the most part we stayed together as a group, but sometimes we split off and went to different presentations, or even different sites or events based on our interests. For example, I’m in the midst of my thesis, so I tried to attend a lot of academic lectures surrounding my topic (industrial animal agriculture), while Zach and Elliot were more interested in the activism side of things, so they would go to a protest instead. For the blog, we fell into a rhythm by the end, having Elliot write the summary of the official negotiations for the day, then myself, Lily, and Zach would write about whatever we did or learned that day. Our goal was to give a comprehensive look at everything going on in Paris and explain key climate concepts along the way that many of our readers had never heard about.

CC: In what ways did you, Lily, Elliott, and Zach learn from each other during your time in Paris?

Palko: We learned that different people choose different approaches to address climate change, and they’re ALL integral to combating the problem. For example, Lily wants to work in corporate sustainability, I’m interested in environmental law and politics, Zach is vested in environmental activism, and Elliot is more focused on individual action and lifestyle change. So Lily would go to events hosted by some of the major corporations, and Zach would actually be outside the building attending a protest targeted at those corporations. I would rant about the importance of large-scale solutions, and Elliot would rebut and say that individual lifestyle change is the only way we’re going to make a difference. It was awesome having four different perspectives, and we learned that all of these roles must work together in order to create the real change that we are all hoping to see.

CC: What were you hoping to gain from the experience?

Palko: We were hoping to learn more about the inner workings of international politics regarding climate change. We are all environmental policy and science majors, and we read about these conferences and political agreements all the time in our courses. By being there we were hoping to get a better sense of exactly how it works. We were also hoping to meet and connect with people who are just as passionate about these issues as we are. Lily and I are both graduating seniors, so we were also excited for the bountiful networking opportunities being at this conference would provide. Finally, we were hoping to be an influence! When discussing the possibility of attending with my advisor, he said that protests are a major part of the negotiations, and that it takes collective civil action to really put pressure on the leaders and hold them accountable. We were also excited to relay back to our friends, family, and peers.

CC: Did it meet or exceed your expectations? If so, in what ways? If not, why not?

Palko: Yes, absolutely. We were completely overwhelmed with the energy and expertise we were surrounded by. Being at the official COP21 Civil Society space, we rubbed shoulders with the world’s leading experts in all sorts of climate and environmental issues. We met other people from literally all over the world who are just as passionate about these issues as we area, and it was very encouraging to hear them talk about the concrete actions they’re taking in their communities to combat climate change.

The networking opportunities were definitely bountiful! We were actually really lucky to meet up with three CC alumni, Emil Dimantchev ’11, his wife Annie (Evankow) ’12, and Matt Banks ’97, who now works at World Wildlife Fund. Mark Smith (my advisor) put us in touch with all of them, and they were all really useful and informative. It’s always encouraging to meet CC alum who are wildly successful and influential!

I also think we were successful in being an influence. I sent our blog out to all my friends and family, and luckily many of them read it and told me they learned a lot! Climate change is such a large and complex problem, and with all the misinformation out there, it leaves the layperson either completely overwhelmed, confused, or in denial. So I like to think that my job as an environmental major is to diffuse all the science and policy I’ve learned at CC into the crowds who might not understand or really care about these problems. It was really rewarding and encouraging to hear back from family members who told me they had never heard about problems like ocean acidification, and friends who told me they would make changes in their diets after reading about the impact they had. That was one of the most rewarding parts for me, because while climate change is a universal problem that demands large scale solutions, individual action is also imperative.

One way in which it fell short were the protests. Because of the recent terrorist attacks, all of the major demonstrations were cancelled or banned. People definitely still attempted, but the police were very quick to shut everything down. It’s unfortunate, because the protests are typically a major part of these conference as they send a message to the leaders that citizens demand aggressive action and will hold them accountable. However, safety was obviously the main priority, and I think the message still got across through a variety of outlets.

CC: What was the most innovative idea you heard?

Palko: I’m going to call this innovative, even though it should be commonplace! But we went to one presentation at the Civil Society conference about youth roles in climate leadership. Two teenagers from Brazil presented, and they told us they are working to get youth into all levels of government. This means creating legitimate roles for youth in all levels of governance, from local to national. Not just internships or advising roles, but actual legitimate voting power and a say in politics. They emphasized that youth have more of a stake in the future and how we tend to have more urgency about issues like climate change, and that we cannot keep relying on older generations to make decisions that we must live with for the rest of our lives.

CC: Briefly, what are your thoughts on the new international agreement? Does it make you more or less optimistic about the world’s resolve in addressing climate change in your lifetime?

Palko: The conference itself can be heralded as a relative success, as it achieved a universal agreement to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius. It has taken years to get these countries to sign on to a commitment, so this is a large step in the right direction. However, many people, included all island nation people, will tell you that 2 degrees is not enough. In fact, we got to speak with the President of Kiribati, who told us that at 2 degrees [higher] his whole nation will be under water.

It does make us optimistic about the capabilities for international political agreement, because climate change is a global problem so it needs global solutions. As the problem worsens and we technology continues to improve, hopefully we will continue to revise and improve our actions. However, the agreement structure is not conducive for ambitious commitments or enforcement, so it will take citizen pressure to ensure that world leaders follow through and constantly improve their climate commitments.

CC: Were there some ideas that you brought back to CC that could be implemented here on campus or in the Colorado Springs community?

Palko: Definitely! There was a great simulation at the civil society conference where everyone in the room was assigned a different country. According to your interests and capabilities, you would negotiate with the rest of the “world leaders”, then everyone put in their agreements into a computer program that generated the overall outcome and what temperature you would achieve for 2100. In our Intro to Global Climate Change class we did a similar UN simulation, but this was far more sophisticated and engaging.

We also got to test the new Google Goggles, which is technology made specifically for classrooms. Essentially it’s a smartphone slid into a cardboard pair of “goggles”, connected to a Google program that allows teachers or professors to take their students on a virtual reality dive into the ocean. The purpose is to show the complex biodiversity of the oceans, and how they’re currently being destroyed by ocean acidification due to climate change. It was a really fun activity and allows you to see the detrimental changes taking place in these reefs that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to see.

CC is actually doing a great job in terms of sustainability and carbon reductions. Lily and I both work for the Office of Sustainability, so we’re very familiar with all the environmental initiatives CC has implemented and is still working towards. Going carbon neutral is a large step, which CC is already committed to for 2020. We hope the net-zero library will set a precedent for all new buildings in the future, and that CC will continue to raise the bar in its sustainability commitments. This will greatly put us ahead of the game come time for a carbon tax!

CC: How do you think attending the conference will inform your work in the sustainability office and/or your coursework in environmental policy?

Palko: Attending the conference gave me incredible insight to the massive realm of possibilities of working in the climate and environmental sector. After taking Environmental Law and Policy with Phil Kannan, I was inspired to pursue environmental law after CC. Attending this conference and meeting some of the most prominent people in the field re-sparked that interest and gave me ideas of specific areas I would like to pursue.

The conference was also integral to my thesis, where I’m writing how the United States needs to include agriculture in their emissions reductions portfolio. To achieve aggressive reductions in national emissions, agriculture, specifically animal agriculture, can no longer be ignored. Hearing the outcome of the conference and attending several panels with leading international experts, I was able to develop my ideas further and gather more sources for my research.

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