For the first time, Southern students will be active participants at this year’s COP27 [Conference of the Parties] Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, serving as official observers of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Nov. 11-17.
Graduate students Gregory Rodriguez, ’19, M.S. ’22 and Caitlin McLaughlin, ’22, M.S. ’24, will travel alongside Miriah Kelly, assistant professor of environmental science, and Erin Heidkamp, director of international education on this “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.
“There are a lot of demands on the students and expectations for their participation, not to just be there physically, but to actually engage and participate in meaningful ways,” said Kelly.
The annual meeting allows world leaders to negotiate global goals for tackling climate change, present their individual countries’ plans for contributing to those goals, and report on their progress.
About 100 heads of state, including U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, are expected to attend.
Rodriguez and McLaughlin, who are both completing their master’s in environmental studies, said their undergraduate experience at Southern influenced their interests in environmental protection and sustainability.
Their hopes are that this conference will help broaden their understanding of the climate emergency and jumpstart their own careers.
“It’s a really good experience for me to get my foot in the door, to see how these conferences work and the ins and outs of everything,” said Rodriguez, who has an interest in working in offshore wind.
“We’ve just been seeing like a push from this generation and I’m kind of hoping that’ll motivate everyone else to be more involved,” said McLaughlin.
This trip comes on the heels of Southern declaring a climate emergency in 2019, the first university to do so in the United States. Last year, three faculty members, including Kelly and Heidkamp, ventured to COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, to observe deliberations.
This time around, Kelly will serve on the RINGO Steering Committee, coordinating amongst hundreds of different universities and their respective participation in the ongoing negotiations.
“I hope to use this newfound leadership position as a platform to continue providing opportunities for students to engage in these processes,” said Kelly.
For Heidkamp, time is running out to address the climate emergency.
“I was talking with my husband yesterday, just looking at the temperatures over the last 20 years in New England, things are changing and they’re changing really fast,” said Heidkamp. “My undergraduate education was all environmental science. And that’s threaded through what I studied in graduate school. And I care very much about the world that we’re leaving our children.”
This year, Kelly says her team aims to take an even more active role at COP27, including having Rodriguez and McLaughlin read impact statements at several of the conference’s key moments.
In future years, Southern’s COP delegation wishes to make the trip more accessible to the campus community, which includes supporting students who don’t have the resources to travel to the conference.
“This year is the first year we’re bringing students, and we hope that next year, we can really build this program,” said Kelly. “Not just limited to grad students in the future, but undergrads and lots of other opportunities hopefully in the future for other faculty and people around campus to get involved.”
Students, staff, and faculty are asked to sign the Climate Emergency Declaration to affirm their commitment to climate change.