University of Vermont

University Communications

UVM to Copenhagen; Students, Professor Attend U.N. Conference on Climate Change

Release Date: 12-02-2009

Author: Jon C. Reidel
Phone: 802/656-8206 Fax: (802) 656-3203

April Hillman

Why is UVM student April Hillman part of a 25-person youth delegation attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen? "Because they need to see the faces of the young people who will be living with the consequences for the rest of our lives," she says. (Photo courtesy of Hillman)

Sophomore April Hillman has a number of weighty reasons for flying to Copenhagen for the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference. They come in different shades, but essentially boil down to the idea that the future of the planet depends on the outcome of the Dec. 7-18 conference, where a worldwide climate change policy could be ratified to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

Hillman, one of a handful of UVM students and faculty attending, is also a realist and knows that convincing the United States, a non-signee of Kyoto, and other industrial powers to commit to bring emission levels 35-40 percent below 1990 levels — a goal she and many others have set — will be a daunting task. Miffed by President Obama's plans to stop at the conference for only one day, Hillman won't be satisfied if the current administration's goal of reducing emissions levels 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 is the end result.

So why does Hillman think she and her friend Jessica Serrante, a senior at UVM, and a bunch of other college students from across the U.S. will have any impact by going to Copenhagen?

"Because they need to see the faces of the young people who will be living with the consequences for the rest of our lives," says Hillman, who is part of 25-person delegation selected through a nation-wide process by SustainUS, a nonprofit organization of young people advancing sustainable development and youth empowerment in this country. "I feel like a lot of it depends on what the U.S. does because if we commit to a higher standard, so will the other largest polluters. We need to make sure our administration steps up."

Different jobs, same goal

Hillman and Serrante, who arrived for the conference in Copenhagen (COP15) on Nov. 30 as part of a Green Peace Youth Delegation, have busy itineraries. Hillman heads to COP15 after a summer as a fellow with the Avaaz Action Factory in Europe working to pressure politicians to come up with a successful treaty in Copenhagen, and as an activist in Germany, where she attended her first United Nations conference. In Copenhagen she's a member of SustainUS' Agents of Change delegation that focuses on meeting and influencing heads of state. She is keeping a blog that will also be available on the UVM student newspaper the Vermont Cynic's website.

Serrante has been visiting embassies with petitions, letters and photos in support of a stronger treaty with other members of the Greenpeace Student Network and international youth activists who will also participate in an International Youth Vigil. Hillman said she received financial support from UVM's Student Government Association, her hometown state representative Joan Lenes of Shelburne, Vt., Jeffrey Hollander of Seventh Generation, and others. "I couldn't have made the trip without their support," says Hillman, who is dual-majoring in environmental science with a concentration in conservation biology and environmental studies.

"I'm thrilled that students from environmental studies are attending the activist forums at the meetings as representatives of various student advocacy groups," said Saleem Ali, associate professor of environmental studies in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. "Such international activism is an integral part of educating for positive change — a mission which UVM has exemplified at multiple levels."

Ali is making the trip to Copenhagen as an observer for the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-range Future at Boston University. Ali will be writing a report for the Pardee Center, which is recognized by the United Nations as a observer organization, giving him total access to most of the high-level policy sessions as well as the civil society forums.

"I hope to write a series of articles about how to resolve some of the conflicts around climate change and the potential for using this issue as a peace-building strategy between adversaries," he said. "This builds on my earlier work on "peace parks" and the role of science in conflict resolution." Read about Ali's book on peace parks in this 2007 article.

A challenging road ahead

The potential impact of Copenhagen depends on whom you ask. Bill McKibbon, leading environmentalist and scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, considers Copenhagen ground zero for climate change. "I think it's fair to call it the most important international negotiation ever; success or failure will be measured in geological time," he said in a message from his iPod.

Gary Flomenhoft, research associate in the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, adjunct lecturer in CDAE, and expert on renewable energy and sustainable development, applauds the efforts of those in Copenhagen, but doesn't see serious change occurring until people are directly affected. "We will have to feel the consequences personally and deeply or there will be no support for change. The gulf stream will have to stop or something equivalent."

Ali is convinced COP15 will go down as an historic event not due to the potential reaching of an agreement, but because it represents a global acceptance of climate change as a serious environmental challenge. "Earlier meetings were mired in scientific ambivalence or outright denial of the problem," he said. "This time around all players are generally convinced of the salience of the issue."

Burlington attorney Brian Dunkiel, part of the diplomatic delegation to ensure the Pacific island of Palau — which is threatened by a rising sea level — is fairly represented, thinks there's too much emphasis on COP15 and that COP16 in Mexico is where the heavy political lifting will actually occur.

As for the UVM students making the trip to Denmark, it's Copenhagen or bust. "This is the time to fight for a treaty that will truly make a difference," says Hillman. "It absolutely can be done. I want to come back here feeling like I did everything I could to be as influential as possible."