What students say about climate change

On the eve of the ratification period for the new climate treaty, here's what the Washington University observer delegation has to say

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National flags mark the entrance to the 21st Conference of the Nations on climate change in Paris.

On Dec. 12, 2015,  Cameron Pulley, a graduating senior at Washington University in St. Louis, boarded a plane for the second leg of his trip home from the Conference of the Parties (COP21) climate negotiations in Paris. Having left in a hurry, he was still wearing a business suit. He sat down next to an older man, who asked him what a young guy like him was doing in a suit.

“I’m coming back from the climate change negotiations in Paris,” Cameron said.

“You don’t really believe all that, do you?” the man said.

It was a bad moment for Pulley, who is an international and area studies and environmental policy major in Arts & Sciences. “We had spent a week talking with people from all over the world about the steps we need to take to survive as a species and the first question I get in America is, ‘You don’t really believe that, do you?’ ” he said.

But he didn’t argue; instead he turned to his seat partner and talked with him, searching through conversation for common ground.

In the end, this meant a two-hour conversation about the California drought and the price of almonds.

But Pulley, together with the five other Washington University students who went to the climate negotiations with him, are well prepared, resilient, tough-minded and in this fight for the duration.

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Washington University students Taylor Blevin and Talia Rubnitz advocating for a low limit on carbon emissions at COP21 in Paris.

You could say it is their lives’ work. “I’m 21 now,” said Nick Annin, a junior majoring in international and area studies in Arts & Sciences. “Let’s say I’m going to be on the planet for another 70 years. That’s a long time, and if we’re already experiencing the effects of climate change, it’s hard to imagine what the planet is going to be like when I’m 90, if nothing is done.”

“This is not an issue that’s going to be solved by a couple of years of effort,” Pulley said. “Our lifetime will be dedicated to it; it’s really going to be our generation’s problem to deal with.”

“Sometimes I feel that our generation doesn’t have enough control over these decisions,” said Amanda Bender, a fourth-year graduate student in earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences, and the alternate delegate to the conference this year. “Older people who are now in the position of setting policy don’t necessarily have our interests at heart. As a student you can feel a bit helpless.”

Riding the dragon

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the students’ resolve as clearly as the fact that they flew to Paris just weeks after the terrorist attacks there.

“I remember I was sitting on my couch and saw something pop up on my phone,” said  Taylor Blevin, a junior majoring in chemical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science and economics in Arts & Sciences. “It was two weeks to the day before I was supposed to leave. And then I found out that the apartment where we were staying is a block away from the Bataclan,” the theater where 89 people were killed.

“My plane was empty,” said Talia Rubnitz, a senior in international and area studies in Arts & Sciences. “I took a picture, and the entire plane within the view of the camera was empty. It was really kind of eerie.”

But if they went in nervous, they were quickly swept up by the excitement of a meeting attended by 150 heads of state. The first speaker Rubnitz heard was Francois Hollande, president of France, who said that he was very grateful to the delegates who had come despite the attacks, and that people like them who show up in times like this are going to create this change — this necessary change in the world.

The students, who had been following minute alterations to the wording of the text of the agreement, went to Paris hesitant to expect too much — this was, after all, the 21st attempt at a global climate treaty and arguments over words or phrases can be disheartening — and came home feeling cautiously optimistic or even flat out hopeful.

Also part of the Washington University delegation were Anu Hittle, an instructor in international affairs, and Beth Martin, a senior lecturer in environmental studies who taught the COP preparation seminar. Martin is no casual optimist, having earned a living working on hazardous waste cleanup and in Washington University’s Interdisciplinary Environmental  Clinic, and even she felt buoyed and encouraged.

Putting it on the books

The students’ hope is not based on naive faith in human rationality or benevolence, but rather on a more realistic assessment about what must happen to shift the world’s energy economy.

Junior Elise Fabbro, a third-year student in the joint degree program in the School of Law and the Olin School of Business, makes a startling argument for COP21 and it has to do with the private sector, not the public one, with companies and not with nations. She says that companies are finally beginning to put external costs, such as the cost of air pollution from industrial production, on their books, which “absolutely changes the bottom number, and the bottom number is what everybody looks at.”

First week's team
First week’s team: Taylor Blevin, Talia Rubnitz, Elise Fabbro, Emre Gunay, and Beth Martin. Gunay, an engineering student, is also a Turkish citizen and was in Paris with a Turkish badge.

Old hands at the climate game might think,“Well, but what about free riders  and the tragedy of the commons — in general, the difficulty of preventing people from profiting from common goods, such as clean air and water, while passing on the costs to others?”

But Fabbro easily outflanks this argument. She is currently in New York doing an externship with Sustainable Insight Capital Management, which, she said, is a capital management company that assembles portfolios of companies that have positive environmental impacts or score really high on social governance indices.

The officers and managers came from big investment banks, she said, many from Deutsche Bank. They’ve tried the more traditional model and they’ve decided they want to do something different.

The chief executive officer, Kevin Parker, is also on the board of SASB, the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board, Fabbro said, whose mission is to develop accounting standards that identify “material issues,” beyond those normally on the balance sheets that might have an impact on the business or be important to stakeholders. (For an interesting example, see Unilever’s graph of its material issues.)

Describing their experiences at COP21, several of Fabbro’s fellow students said they felt the most promising part of the meeting was the participation of the private sector.

Second week's team
Second week’s team: Melody Burns, Cameron Pulley, Anu Hittle and Nick Annin.

Annin, who attended a meeting of chief executive officers, including Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, was thrilled that the executives were saying that it is important for the private sector to combat climate change and to understand that it is an issue that is going to affect them and their bottom lines in the future.

He makes the argument that sustainable business practices are just good business practices because they are ultimately more cost effective and expose the company to less risk.

“The highlight of the conference for me was interacting with people in the private sector,” Blevin agreed. I would watch the negotiations bog down and then go to a side event on carbon trading that companies are doing of their own volition. They were really taking the initiative, saying, ‘Well, ok, this is going to be mandated, so let’s start figuring out now how it make it profitable.’ ”

Perhaps the students are right. In 2015 the global economy grew by 3 percent even though carbon emissions stayed the same, thus, according to some analysts, refuting the argument that the economy and emissions are so tightly coupled that one cannot be changed without changing the other.

And in March the New York Times ran front page stories above the fold about banks such as JP Morgan Chase that are moving away from coal companies and financing ventures that produce less carbon because lending to coal companies is “too risky.”

Is this a turning point?

Annin says that he feels his generation has a different “baseline understanding” or “awareness” of environmental problems because “we’ve been hearing about climate change since we were in elementary school and middle school.”

Is he right? Just before COP21 the Pew Research Trust released a survey of opinions about climate change that included people living in 49 nations.

It showed, among other things, that 52 percent of those between 18 and 29 felt that global climate change is a very serious problem. But only 38 percent of those older than 50 felt this way.

Annin believes there is a shift underway and that sustainable products and environmentally and socially responsible portfolios of investments are more enticing to young consumers. “My generation really cares where its money is being invested,” he said.

On the other hand, in the United States political affiliation is a stronger predictor than age of opinions about climate change. The Pew survey showed that 68 percent of Democrats feel that global climate change is a very serious problem, but only 20 percent of Republicans agree. (This is true only in the United States, and not in other nations.)

And this brings up Al Gore. Asked to remember when they first become interested in climate change many of the students mention a certain documentary.

“When I was in fourth grade, Dad sat me and my little brother down in the living room and made us watch Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ I remember being afraid and concerned; it was the first time my eyes were opened to an adult problem. And I feel that my passion for environmental issues began that day,” Annin said.

Rubnitz saw the movie in sixth grade. “This is kind of embarrassing,” she said, “but the next year my bat mitzvah theme was the environment, not something out of pop culture. My speech was about trying to make the world a better place and working together to prevent climate change.”

Rubnitz was over the moon when, sitting in the third row, she got to hear Al Gore speak at COP21. “It was so inspiring to see him and to hear what he had to say,” she said. “He’s such a powerful speaker.”

In that community he’s a rock star, Martin said, admitting that she texted her husband when Al Gore said hi to her in the hallway.

But observers say climate change, once a neutral scientific issue, became heavily polarized during the Clinton administration and Al Gore, in particular, has become a lightning rod for political anger. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, who has written about the politicization of climate change comments that if Gore said the Earth was flat many climate deniers would say it isn’t.

If the involvement of the private sector is the most promising sign that there is a growing consensus on climate change, the politicization of the issue in the United States is the most discouraging sign.

“Our upcoming presidential elections could tip things one way or the other,” Martin said. “I think that’s concerning for the whole world.”

Getting out of the bubble

The Pew survey also uncovered a paradox in attitudes toward climate change. While a majority of people surveyed in all 49 countries say it is a serious problem, concern was also inversely related to carbon emissions. 

Americans emit the most carbon dioxide per capita of any nation and are also the least likely to believe that climate change is harming people now or will affect them personally in the future.

All of the students are aware of this bias and some have decided to work the problem from the other end — preferring to do what they can for the worried low emitters in Africa or Latin America rather than trying to work against the considerable resistance in our high emitting country.

Melody Burns, a graduate student in international affairs in University College, returned to school after working  for Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI), and funded her education through AmeriCorps VISTA, working for the Wyman Center in Eureka, Missouri.   She has taken every opportunity that has come her way to travel to Africa.

As an HFHI employee, she volunteered for a global village build team working in Mozambique, and as a Washington University student she went to Madagascar through a program sponsored by the university and the Missouri Botanical Garden where she worked on anti-malarial soap, containing cinnamon, cloves and eucalyptus.

“My path has been one of service,” she said. She is currently applying for positions with the U.S. Department of State.

And Cameron Pulley, the student who met the climate denier on the plane, is truly a citizen of the world. “Because my parents were international aid workers, I moved frequently when I was a child,” he said. “I saw typhoons raging through the Philippines and hurricanes uprooting livelihoods in Kingston, Jamaica. Even though I was too young to really understand what was going on, it really disturbed me,” he said.

At 17, he was helping with flood relief in the Himalayas. In 2010 there was a heavy downpour in the Ladakh region of northern India, an area normally considered a high-altitude cold desert. In some areas a year’s worth of rain fell in 30 minutes, triggering flash floods, and mud and debris flows, which then froze in place. Pulley joined a volunteer team that went in to help people rebuild their lives after the spring thaw in 2011.

“Seeing lives obliterated this way changes you,” he said. “This experience has motivated everything I’ve done since then.” After graduation he will study agricultural adaptation to climate change at the University of California at Berkeley.

What will the historians say?

Bender mentions a book called “The Collapse of Western Civilization” written by an historian in the year 2390. He writes: “While analysts differ on the exact circumstances, virtually all agree that the people of Western civilization knew what was happening to them but were unable to stop it.”

Giant polar bear awaits the outcome of the COP21 climate change negotiations in Paris
Giant polar bear awaits the outcome of the COP21 climate change negotiations in Paris

Picturing people reading this article even 10 years from now, you have to wonder, what will they think of us as we grope to find our way?

“I think all we can do is plunge into it and do the best we can,” Hittle said.

“If I can help the students make a difference in their lives and in their careers, and they’re continually thinking and working to make an impact on climate issues, then I feel like I’ve done my part,” Martin said.

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