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Learning Coming to Life: Students Reflect on Attending the COP26 Summit

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Instead of attending class with the rest of Swarthmore students from October 31 to November 12, five students, Daniel Balauro ’23, Alicia Contrera ’22, Olivia Stoetzer ’23, Kyra Hall ’22, and Tyler White ’22, along with professor Ayse Kaya, Sustainability Program Manager Claire Hyre, and PhD student and Swarthmore Alum Melissa Tier ’14 attended the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland as observers. 

The eight students and faculty were split into two groups of four with Balauro, Contrera, Hyre, and Tier attending the conference from Oct. 31 to Nov. 5 and Stoetzer, Hall, White, and Kaya attending the conference from Nov. 6 to Nov. 12. They went to COP26 in order to observe the ongoing negotiations between countries on how to mitigate the climate crisis. 

Back in Spring 2021, students were allowed to apply to be a part of this trip. The selected students then took the UNFCCC COP and the International Climate Regime class taught by Professor Kaya to prepare for their time at COP26. 

Swarthmore students are able to attend these yearly conferences because the college received non-governmental organization (NGO) observer status for COP in 2013. They have since sent a delegation each year, except in 2020 when the conference was canceled due to COVID-19. 

This year, COP26 picked up right where the last conference left off: trying to flesh out the Paris 2015 agreement, an international agreement adopted in 2015 that outlines how countries should mitigate climate change and finance their efforts. 

For students that went on the trip to Glasgow, attending the conference and observing COP26 was an incredible experience. In their reflections, the students kept emphasising how enlightening it was to see the ways in which countries negotiate with one another. 

“To see countries’ [leaders] actually speaking and sharing their positions while you’re sitting right there was absolutely crazy. It was amazing,” said Stoetzer reflecting on her time in Scotland. 

It was a learning experience for students unlike any other. While the days were long and busy, students found it rewarding to see in real-time all the things they read about in their classes. 

“It was a mind-blowing experience,” said Hall. “There was nothing about that week that mimicked my life at home. Everything was a learning moment, and everything you saw made you question how the world is governed. The conversations we have here at Swat were just manifested there.”

Since there were so many speakers to see, events to attend, and negotiations to watch, students were able to split up and decide themselves what they wanted to do at COP26 that catered to their own interests. This meant that the students had different experiences at COP26. 

COP26 was essentially divided into two main events for students to attend: side panels which were held by academics, activists, and organizations, and the actual negotiations among state leaders. While the panels were open to everyone, the students on this trip quickly learned that most negotiations happen behind closed doors that not even Swarthmore’s status of NGO observer opened. 

Only the negotiation on climate finance was open to everyone, and Stoetzer, along with Professor Kaya, attended it. The negotiation involved debate over how much money countries would raise to deal with the climate crisis. 

“In 2009, developed countries said they would mobilize $100 billion in climate finance by 2020. And they haven’t gotten to that. Everyone has a different definition of what counts towards that amount, so the US thinks we’re like 99% there. Whereas I’ve seen other countries say we have $40 billion,” Stoetzer explained. 

States debated over how private finance, loans, and grants factor into climate finance, and if climate finance should be monitored by a bottom-up approach, where countries would define climate finance themselves, or a top-down approach, where there would be one overarching set of criteria for all countries to define climate finance. 

After watching days of negotiations on climate finance, Stoezter reports that there are still a lot of questions up in the air. 

“The outcome was to table it. Or ask another institution to define it. That’s kind of what we saw there. There was a lot of tabling until next year because people couldn’t reach an agreement,” she said. 

Instead of attending the climate finance negotiations, Hall was much more interested in the actual climate science. She attended panels held by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which were centered around states’ efforts to meet the goal of only 1.5°C of warming. 

“This was supposed to be the COP where we got our shit together. That’s what the narrative was, like it is now or never if we’re going to actually hit a 1.5 or even 2°C target,” said Hall.

As of now, the world is on track to warm about 2.7°C by the end of the century, but that prediction gets higher with each passing year. 

On Wednesday, November 10, draft texts of resolutions to meet that goal of 1.5°C were passed out and by midmorning, states, NGO groups, and union and trade organizations were able to ask for parts of the draft to be changed and edited. The next morning, a new draft was released with the proposed edits and the groups met again to discuss what else they wanted changed. 

For Hall, this was an opportunity to see what really went into climate change negotiations. 

“It was really interesting to see the same countries saying similar things or similar things continuing to be a concern because they haven’t been addressed because they’re really not that fixable when there’s not enough funding for all of this,” she said. 

Hall and Stoezter spent a lot of time attending organized negotiations while other students who attended the COP26 trip spent their time meeting with activists and leaders representing other communities. 

Balauro, who attended the first week of COP26, was especially interested in exploring the power imbalances between different nations, so he dedicated much time to hearing perspectives that were off the main stage. He participated in sessions led by people like UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Secretary of State Tony Blinken. On the last day he was at the conference, Balauro attended the Fridays for the Future protest led by Greta Thunberg that demanded leaders at COP26 do more to mitigate climate change. 

“I’m from American Samoa — a Pacific island deeply impacted by the climate crisis, and is also under the jurisdiction of one of the second largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions,” he said in an email to The Phoenix, “I wanted to take this unique opportunity to not only learn more about the complexities of international climate regimes, but to connect with community leaders and activists from around the world.”

White, too, found his time attending protests at COP26 to be an important experience for him.

“I attended one protest in Glasgow that featured a myriad of indigenous folks from the Amazon to South Dakota to environmental justice communities in the Bay Area. The organized goal was to get JP Morgan Chase to divest from funding new and existing pipelines,” he said in an email to the Phoenix. 

But White considers his most enlightening experience to be watching delegates from Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Ethiopia speak freely together about how to bargain for the best deals from the U.S. and the E.U. 

Students at COP26 were privy to many important discussions held by state leaders, indigenous activists, and academics. They witnessed both the positive and negative things that came out of the conference. 

On one hand, there were things at the conference that students felt needed to change. Stoetzer reflected on the idea of equity and who was able to have the loudest voice in any given room. 

“The US delegation had about 300 people, and a lot of like LDCs, least developed countries, had like, five, or something like that,” she pointed out. 

Balauro and Hall also were very critical about the lack of accessibility and equitable representation at COP26. 

“Due to VISA accessibility, lack of badges, and inability to finance representatives to even attend, many frontline communities were not able to attend — and it was this vast lack of representation that really stuck out to me,” Balauro said in his email. 

Hall agreed that the structure of COP26 needs to be amended. 

“At the end of the day, poor countries are not represented in the way they need to be and those are the countries that have the most to say and their voices should be amplified the most and some of them can’t even get there,” she said. 

White found that the experience truly showed the problems with how the international system deals with climate change. 

“I left further harmed by and further pessimistic of the capacity of this kind of a system to genuinely address the issues at hand,” he wrote. 

On the other hand, this was a space where countries and activist groups came together to focus solely on the looming climate crisis. 

“I think the first day we were there Kyra [Hall] pointed out that this was the first time she’d been in a room where everyone actually cared about climate change. There were a lot of like minded people all trying to get to that 1.5°C warming,” said Stoetzer.

Students left COP26 cautiously optimistic about what they had seen there. 

“Something that was a success was the Paris agreement rule book which was a way to figure out how to track a country’s emissions and how to hold people accountable,” said Hall. “I always say progress is progress. I’m a huge fan of celebrating successes while also being critical of where we fall short.”

Balauro, while optimistic, is also holding out to see what will happen in the future. 

“I think there were a lot of ambitious statements made by all nations, but given that many of [the statements] are not legally binding, we have yet to see how these statements turn into action in the next couple of months. Looking forward, I still think that there is a lot of work left to do especially for climate reparations,” he said. 

Overall, though, for the students who attended COP26, this was an opportunity to see the things they read in class play out in real life on the international stage and meet and speak with other leaders, activists, and people passionate about climate change . 

“Even if this isn’t something you feel super interested in, it’s an amazing learning experience. I would encourage anyone to apply for it,” said Hall. 

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