Carrying the Torch: Yale’s Role at COP18

Ban Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, addresses the crowd at COP18 in Doha.

Yale President Richard C. Levin once asked, “How do we prevent the continued consumption of fossil fuels from warming our planet to the point that ecosystems are destroyed, food supplies are threatened, and rising sea levels force hundreds of millions to relocate?”

Last month in Doha, the world sought to find an answer at the 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP18. And a sizeable delegation from Yale was present to address the question.

Yale University has an extensive history of involvement with UNFCCC conferences. “Yale is committed becoming a model university […] and taking a leadership role amongst higher education institutions to respond to the energy challenge,” President Levin has said. Yale’s manifold roles at this annual conference constitute a clear response to that challenge.

This year’s Yale delegation comprised some twenty students. It included classes from the Law School and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES), whose students worked with assorted nongovernmental organizations and even with the delegations of specific nations. There were also six Yale Climate & Energy Institute COP18 Fellows selected from schools across the University, who conducted individual research at the conference.

FES doctoral student Angel Hsu has journeyed to many a COP. In an article for the Huffington Post, she recalls how, at COP15 in Copenhagen, with fifty thousand delegates and dozens of concurrent events, she felt overwhelmed with Twitter updates. “It was chaotic and difficult to keep track of what was happening.” So, to help create clarity in feedback, Angel developed a smartphone and web application called DecisionMakr that synthesizes Twitter with a unique ratings system. Premiered at COP18 in Doha, the app quickly garnered fame among delegates.

Two FES delegates, Vivienne Caballero and Lia Nicholson, organized a well-attended side event, titled “Climate change and the International Court of Justice.” Recently, the Ambassadors for Responsibility of Climate Change requested an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice on state responsibility to mitigate global warming. Panelists addressing this topic included the Permanent Representative of Cape Verde to the UN, FES master’s candidate Dustin Schinn, and others.

Numerous Yale students also helped to organize the Adaptation Practitioners Days as well as the Development & Climate Days, two events taking place alongside the negotiations. The former, hosted by the Global Environment Facility, was an interactive session on climate adaptation financing; the latter, facilitated by the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, focused on “learning-by-doing” and “innovative dialogues between negotiators and policy makers.”

Halfway through the negotiations, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication presented new research.

“The latest research shows that majorities of the public in the U.S., China, and India want their leaders to take action on climate change,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Without civil society–without nongovernmental institutions such as Yale—the international climate negotiations would be seriously weakened. The head of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, has long acknowledged that, through pressure on governments, civil society “plays a major role.”

Figueres put five items on the COP18 agenda, including the extension of the “commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol” and the elimination of the discrepancy between actual national pledges and “what is required to achieve the 2 degrees” limit to global temperature increase.

Did COP18 deliver?

Despite the Kyoto Protocol being the only international agreement with legally binding limits on emissions, it was set to expire on December 31, 2012. Uncertainty dominated the scene in Doha regarding whether Kyoto would be extended for a second commitment period. In a tense turn of events, delegates pulled all-nighters, working from Friday night to Saturday morning as the conference went into overtime. Finally, after 36 hours straight of negotiations, delegates struck a deal and voted to extend Kyoto from 2013 to 2020. The United States, the largest contributor to emissions in aggregate, has refused to ratify Kyoto, in part because it does not set any limits for developing nations such as China, presently the nation with the highest emissions.

Back in COP16 at Cancún, countries had agreed that average global temperature increase should not exceed 2°C. An increase in 2°C is predicted to result in 15-40% of species worldwide facing extinction, to destroy numerous low-lying island nations, and to inflict water shortages on billions of people, worldwide. These are the predictions of the Stern Report, known as the most influential economic report on climate change. These predictions might be realized — because, on its own, the Kyoto package is not sufficient to keep us below a 2-degree limit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the preeminent international scientific authority on global warming, estimates that, based on the current state of negotiations, the average global temperature will likely increase somewhere between 1.8 – 4°C.

This unsettling prediction underscores the responsibility of non-governmental organizations to break governmental deadlocks and to propel international ambition forward. In the words of President Levin, “We cannot wait for our governments to act, though they must act if the problem is ultimately to be solved.”

The introductory speech to Yale’s final side event in Doha was given by none other than chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri.

“Yale is an institution that has a major influence all over the world,” Dr. Pachauri said, “and it is you, young people, who are really going to take the lead in carrying this torch to its logical conclusion.”

With the unequivocal facts presented, let us take this torch to illuminate and glimpse that which lies before us. We shall see the suffering of billions, if we do not act. We need to see decisive action. We need to carry this torch to its just conclusion.

Alexander Vernoit

Alexander Erzini Vernoit is a student at Yale College, Class of '16 (SY), and a member of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition (YSEC). He attended COP18 as a Yale Climate & Energy Institute Fellow.

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