by Logan Gruber
Ten students, two staff and three professors from the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University attended the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 21, held outside of Paris from Nov. 30-Dec. 12.
Alexandra Miller, sustainability fellow at CSB, was one of those staff members. Along with her were: Sarah Gainey, assistant director of environmental education at St. John’s Outdoor University; Jean Lavigne, associate professor of environmental studies; Matt Lindstrom, professor of political science and director of the McCarthy Center; and Dr. Jessica O’Reilly, assistant professor of anthropology.
O’Reilly was able to obtain observer status to the conference through the United Nations, and applied for CSB/SJU to have observer status as well so she could take a delegation of staff and students with her.
Many students applied to be part of the delegation last spring, and those who were chosen to go to Paris were also enrolled in a class called Climate Studies, which studies climate change denial and the science behind climate change. About 25 students enrolled in the class, but only 10 were chosen to go to France.
Each student, even those who didn’t go to France, had a different area of focus regarding climate change, and they needed to write a final paper on it. Topics ranged from renewable energy ideas, to urban sustainability, to climate change as a national security threat.
The majority of the conference was held not in Paris but in Le Bourget, a northern suburb of Paris.
Miller said the train from their hotel in Paris to Le Bourget took about 20 minutes. They then could walk to the conference site or take a bus.
“Whoever organized the transportation did a great job,” Miller noted. “There were green arrows in the metro showing people where to go. It took us maybe one hour total to get to the conference.”
Miller said they would spend the morning and early afternoon at the conference, then go home, recharge and go out sightseeing and more.
“The conference had two zones set up. The Green Zone was where any citizen could walk in. There were four expo halls, two lecture halls, at least 200 booths and there was always something going on,” Miller said. “The Blue Zone was restricted, and it was where the negotiations were taking place.”
Miller noted four students were chosen to go in the Blue Zone, along with staff. She said inside were more expo halls, more booths, along with meeting rooms for negotiations. Each country had its own booth, and NASA was there with a “hyper wall” showing off all of its climate data.
“The conference was certified sustainable,” Miller said. “Most of the buildings were temporary, but some where permanent. The ones which were temporary, the materials will be reused.”
She also noted all of the food was locally sourced, and there were water fountains everywhere for people to fill their water bottles from.
Some out-of-the-ordinary things Miller saw included: French President François Hollande wandering around the Green Zone, getting mobbed by photographers; indigenous people from around the world in their traditional dress; people dressed as penguins begging for ice; and a large group of teenagers playing dead on the floor.
“There was a big youth protest push, and one afternoon they just had a ‘die in,’ Miller said. “At 3 p.m., they all laid down where they were and died in protest.”
She noted these protesters, and all others she saw, were actually protesting for a stronger agreement on reversing climate change, not a weaker one as one might assume.
One thing which surprised Miller was how everyone she met in France was on board with climate change.
“Over there, everyone agrees climate change is real. You come back here, and both nationally and locally you have people who still don’t believe. It’s hard to get things done when people don’t think what you’re working on is real,” Miller said.
After the conference in Le Bourget, the group spent a day in Paris at the Solutions COP. There, they saw electric bikes, electric cars, agricultural products like different kinds of chicken coops and more. Everything at Solutions COP was geared toward solutions to reverse climate change.
Miller thought one thing CSB/SJU does well, which was discussed at the COP, was offering plant-based meal options. She said dining services already offers many vegetarian options (Miller is a vegetarian) and the Climate Action Club is trying to organize dining services to brand Mondays as Meatless Mondays. It’s not a mandatory meatless day for dining at the college, but meatless options would possibly be marked with the name Meatless Monday to bring it to the forefront of students’ minds and make people more aware of the environmental impact of their food.
One thing Miller urged everyday people to keep in mind is a recycling company will throw away everything in a recycling bin if it’s contaminated more than 15 percent with garbage or waste. So some bad apples can ruin a lot of people’s hard work.
“France is actually really bad at recycling,” Miller said. “There are two recycling places in Paris, a city of 7 million people. The reason is because there aren’t any subsidies for recycling.”
Miller doesn’t think recycling is the answer to climate change anyway, and would rather see people reduce their waste creation and consumption.
The Paris Agreement, agreed to by 196 parties, says the parties will pursue efforts to limit the Earth’s temperature increase to 1.5°C. According to some scientists, this goal will require the Earth to reach a zero emission level sometime between the years 2030 and 2050.
“Overall, I’ve heard a lot of negative things about the agreement, about it not being strong enough, but it’s huge all of these countries signed it and that accomplishment shouldn’t be diminished,” Miller said.
Author: Logan Gruber
Gruber is a reporter for the Newsleaders. He grew up in Melrose, MN, attended St. John’s University, spent over a year teaching English in China, and most recently worked as the morning producer at WDIO-TV in Duluth, where he won a 2014 Upper Midwest Emmy for daytime newscasts. He enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with his wife, Jeni, and newborn daughter, Lucy, at their home in Sartell. To learn more about Gruber, head to about.me/logangruber