The US may be giving up on the Paris accord on climate change, but these students aren’t

Northeastern student Mary Potts observed negotiations on the rules to govern the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change at a climate summit in Poland. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Emma Thornton wants you to imagine a world in which crops are shaded and fertilized by trees, coastal ecosystems protect communities from storm surges, and freshwater is purified by biodiverse wetlands.

“Doesn’t it just make sense?” she asks.

Thornton, a fourth-year environmental science student at Northeastern, reflected on the idea of societies someday using natural resources to tackle issues such as climate change and food and water security at an international climate negotiations summit in Poland in December. The conference, which lasted two weeks, was convened to come up with rules for implementing the Paris Agreement, an international treaty designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020.

Taking part in the negotiations were leaders and activists, experts and academics, and members of the private and public sectors. Sitting among the VIPs, despite the decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the treaty, was Thornton, part of a delegation of Northeastern students from across various disciplines who share a passion for tackling climate change.

Thornton and her peers said that the summit represented a unique opportunity to observe people who are concerned about climate change working to design solutions to global warming. The students relished all of it. The painstaking deliberations over crafting the exact language; the presentations about game-changing innovations in clean energy; the chance to rub elbows with world leaders.

This is the best opportunity to immerse yourself in international climate policy. The opportunity for students to witness that first-hand after studying it was just something that I really wanted to offer to students.

Laura Kuhl, Assistant Professor in Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs

“This is the best opportunity to immerse yourself in international climate policy,” said Laura Kuhl, an assistant professor in Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs who led the students to the summit with Kyla Van Maanen, the program manager for research partnerships for the Global Resilience Institute. “The opportunity for students to witness that first-hand after studying it was just something that I really wanted to offer to students.”

Kuhl, whose research focuses on how developing countries are adapting to climate change, said that America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement seemed to be an elephant in the room. This experience came to a head at a panel discussion with U.S. officials who touted the use of fossil fuels.

Thornton documented her reaction to the incident in a blog post. “We could barely hold back our shock as others in the audience asked questions to make clear that they were climate-change deniers who support U.S. withdrawal,” she wrote.

Northeastern students Mary Potts and Julia Davidoff said they were encouraged to learn about states, cities, and businesses that are proceeding with their own progressive solutions to climate change.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Maryland, Potts pointed out, is a member of a nine-state cap-and-trade collaboration that has cut in half carbon emissions from the region’s power sector. California has some of the strictest climate regulations in the nation, and is creating new jobs in energy storage and renewable energy.

“Seeing the work being done by the other nations and by individuals finding a way to make a difference, I realized that the U.S. is just one country in the mix of the entire international community,” said Davidoff, who is majoring in  communication studies. “It also means we are getting to a point where the world isn’t going to wait for us. Other countries aren’t looking at us for guidance anymore.”

Potts, who studied abroad in Copenhagen in 2018, said that she was particularly impressed with the city’s efforts to combat climate change.

“They’ve got a plan to be carbon-neutral by 2025,” she said, referring to the idea of making no net release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, especially through offsetting emissions by planting trees. “And, they’re leading the way on renewable energy, particularly wind power.”

Davidoff and Potts said that they returned to Northeastern more inspired and determined to make a dent in what many consider to be a global crisis.

“COP24 definitely opened me up to the idea of taking the skills I have now and applying them to environmental policy or environmental science,” said Davidoff.

Potts, who is studying environmental studies and political science, also wants to pursue international climate policy work and is applying to jobs at the United Nations. “The conference kind of confirmed what I wanted to do,” she said. “I would rather be working in the government drafting policies being negotiated.”

Potts, Thornton, and three other members of the delegation, including August Granath, Keyon Rostamnezhad, and Sofia Cardamone, will participate in a panel discussion on Tuesday, Jan. 15 that will center on their experience in Poland. The event will be moderated by Kuhl, who is also the associate director of strategic research collaborations for the Global Resilience Institute, and take place from noon to 1 p.m. at Renaissance Park in room 310.

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