Three Michigan Engineering students are attending a global climate change meeting that they hope will be pivotal on society’s path toward a more sustainable future.
The United Nations’ 2015 Climate Change Conference begins Nov. 30 and runs for 12 days. At the summit, nearly 200 world leaders will attempt to negotiate a pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the planet’s climate. The students – from the departments of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering and Mechanical Engineering – are among tens of thousands of observers whose job is to ensure that the process is transparent. And they’re part of a 10-member U-M delegation that also includes students and faculty members from the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the School of Information.
The team has resolved to attend despite the recent attacks in the French capital that killed 130.
“It is important to me to explicitly reject, both in word and deed, the notion that any campaign of hatred can control our future,” said Elizabeth Ultee, a doctoral student in Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering who studies glacier dynamics. “To me, cancelling my participation would represent allowing hatred and violence to take precedence over global cooperation, and that would give me very little hope for the future.”
Climate researchers caution that time is running out to keep the Earth from warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) over pre-Industrial temperatures. That’s the limit scientists recommend to avoid serious consequences of global warming. To dodge that, if it’s even possible at this point, will take deep cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide. An international panel has recommended 80 percent reductions from current levels by 2050.
Shifting to a low-carbon energy system will take decades, says Paul Edwards, a professor in the School of Information and the Department of History who will attend the conference. Edwards is the author of the book “A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data and the Politics of Global Warming.”
“We have $10 trillion in fossil fuel infrastructure that is deeply rooted, but we have to find another way to power our stuff,” Edwards said. “The stakes are enormous. They’ve always been enormous but as time goes on, they get bigger and bigger.”
He added that the recent Paris attacks underscore the importance of these climate talks.
“ISIS terrorism has complex roots, but among them are real links to climate change. Virtually everything about Middle Eastern politics connects back to oil. To the extent that success at COP21 contributes to curing the world of its addiction to fossil fuels and reducing the extent of climate change, it will also contribute to reducing these causes of conflict.”
This marks the twenty-first year for this UN Conference of the Parties, also referred to as COP21. The goal each year has been to produce a binding climate agreement, but participants haven’t yet succeeded. Edwards says 2015 may be the year, due, in part, to new regulations that forced nations to submit carbon-reduction plans ahead of time.
The members of the Michigan delegation hope to be present for a global milestone.
“I hope to feel inspired and encouraged at the meeting, but I expect to experience a mixture of that and the frustration which has often accompanied these talks in the past,” said Matthew Irish, an undergraduate senior studying climate impact engineering. “Getting 196 parties to agree on one document isn’t easy.”
Irish plans to follow and report on the financial mechanisms nations could utilize to encourage international investment in lower-carbon energy technologies.
“Since this is where large financial commitments are required, it’s one of the most contentious areas of the negotiations,” Irish said.
Meanwhile, Ultee plans to examine the role of science in the negotiating process and the social justice implications of the meeting’s processes and outcomes. And Nicole Ryan, a dual-degree master’s student in mechanical engineering and the School of Natural Resources and Environment, will be watching nations’ willingness to make the compromises necessary for an agreement to be formed.
Even if nations reach an agreement, Paris won’t solve the problem, points out Avik Basu, a researcher and lecturer in environmental psychology at the School of Natural Resources and Environment who plans to attend. A binding agreement is actually an early step, and he sees a benefit in that U-M’s delegation is made mostly of young people.
“This generation of students will have an important role to play in the years ahead, and they need to understand the process that the United Nations has put in place,” Basu said. “That way, in their future careers, they’ll know which levers they can push to continue the global effort to limit climate change.”
U-M international travel experts have been in contact with those headed to France and have encouraged them make sure their emergency contact information is updated in the U-M Travel Registry; to register for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program through the U.S. State Department; to maintain a heightened sense of situational awareness while in France; and to follow local news reports to stay up to date on security precautions.
U-M works closely with the U.S. State Department, international travel professionals at more than 40 other universities and the international security company HTH Drum Cussac to monitor the situation in France and elsewhere around the globe.