A Model for Change

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” When Mark Twain penned these words over a century ago he couldn’t have anticipated the climate crisis, but when Ambassador Stuart Beck spoke them last month at Yale University, his message couldn’t have been more urgent.

Beck, who represents the Island Nation of Palau’s interest in oceans and seas, was speaking at the 2013 Inter-University Climate Simulation at Yale.  The annual event, organized by Professor Gordon Geballe and a team of graduate students at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, brought together students from around the world to sharpen their skills in diplomacy and negotiation.  The goal was for student diplomats to go through the negotiation process, simulating how an actual United Nations climate meeting might play out, and come up with a proposal for real-life diplomats to consider.

Yale Climate Simulation 2013
Students traveled hundreds of miles to take part in the annual Inter-University Climate Simulation.

On a chilly Friday evening in mid-October, nearly 60 participants arrived from eight universities: Brown, Columbia, Duke, Oberlin College, Vermont Law School, Yale, and, from Kenya, University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University.  The event runs like a Model United Nations negotiation, where each student is asked to think like actual diplomats from other countries and to try to find solutions to global problems.  The Inter-University Climate Simulation is designed to run like the a Convention of the Parties (COP), a series of climate change talks that began after the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Once assigned, the young diplomats-in-training are asked to think like actual diplomats from their country.  They separate into working groups to come up with their climate proposals, then come together in joint plenary meetings to present their ideas.

“This year I represented Indonesia; last year it was Canada,” says Michelle Yuan, a master’s student at Duke University.  “Two countries with very different stances on climate change reform.  It forces us to think strategically from the perspective of our country.  We really have to adopt their goals and stances, as well as the challenges.  We’re limited by the politics and economic stances within our nation.”

Ambassador Beck sits with students during the 2013 Climate Simulation at Yale University.
Ambassador Beck, second from right, sits with students during the 2013 Inter-University Climate Simulation at Yale University.

For a handful of the young environmental leaders the climate simulation was a training ground for this month’s COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland—the real deal.  Eight Yale graduate students attended this year’s COP to discuss issues such as fossil fuel divestment, financing to reduce deforestation, and the relationship between climate change and natural disasters like Typhoon Hyain in the Philippines.

“This is an incredibly valuable exercise for students preparing for COP,” says Lia Nicholson, a master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “I think it’s valuable for students to get a better understanding of the process so they can judge it, knowing what goes into it.”

At next year’s COP 20 in Peru, UN diplomats will negotiate plans for the new Sustainable Development Goals, the successor to the Millennium Development Goals set in 2000.  For many diplomats, including Ambassador Beck, this is a critical time to promote the policies they want the world to focus on.  That means considering how climate change affects the world’s oceans. “People treat the ocean like garbage, and I’m tired of it,” Beck says.

Finding international solutions to climate change problems will take skilled diplomatic work. Beck and the climate simulation organizers hope to cultivate student diplomats with better negotiating skills, but also to provide them with a reality check.  “I love thinking about different issues and finding common ground,” says Yuan.  “We’re walking away with a better understanding of the negotiating process, including the frustrations and constraints that negotiators work with.”

As greenhouse gases emissions continue to rise, international climate meetings like COP offer a sign of hope.  As Beck points out, however, words alone are not enough.  “There are billions of words on the science of climate change,” he says.  “But where are the words on justice?  On security? Every organ of the UN needs to take on climate change.”

David Gonzalez

David Gonzalez is an Editor and Webmaster at SAGE Magazine and a Master of Environmental Science (MESc) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. His studies focus on global health and the environment, with a regional interest in Latin America.

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