World leaders, scholars and activists will gather in Paris this month for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21. This year, the annual gathering aims to establish, for the first time in more than 20 years of UN negotiations, a binding, international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius.

Four representatives from UVM will make the trip, including three professors and one student. Read on to learn about their work in Paris.

Gina FiorileGina Fiorile

Sophomore environmental studies major

What will you be doing at COP21?

I am a youth delegate to the UNFCCC Climate Conference, and have the honor of representing the voice of youth internationally during the negotiations. On Monday Nov. 30, in conjunction with our collaborators from NOAA and the Association of Science and Technology Centers, the Wild Center's Youth Climate Summit Program will be hosting a panel at the U.S. Center on which I will speaking with the former vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at 1:15 p.m. Paris time. On Dec. 3 at the Cité des Sciences/Universcience center, we will be hosting a similar event at 3 p.m. Paris time to showcase our work as a youth climate organization in addition to the work that is being done by students around the world.

Both of these events will be livestreamed and available on the Association of Science and Technology Centers website.

You've had quite a year. Tell us about the events that have led up to your involvement in the conference.

I have been an intern at the Wild Center, the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks, since early this summer, but I became involved in the Youth Climate Summit Program at the Wild Center as a member of the steering committee when I was in high school. Last year, our Youth Climate Summit model was highlighted as a part of President Obama's Climate Action Plan through the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's Climate Education and Literacy Initiative. This year, I was invited to the White House twice as a representative of the program, in February to receive the "Champion of Change" award and in August to participate in the Back-to-School Climate Education Event. Now that the Youth Climate Summit model has been backed by the White House, our goal is to implement 10 Youth Climate Summits nationally and internationally by creating a network of active youth leaders. So far, I have been able to help organize and attend Youth Climate Summits in Seattle, Detroit, the Adirondacks, Finland, and Vermont in addition to the youth-focused events at COP21.

What are you hoping to share at the conference? And what are you hoping to gain?

Attending COP21 as a youth delegate is an incredible opportunity to share what I've seen happening among students around the country. I want to showcase what actions students have taken to reduce the impacts of climate change in order to exemplify our unified call for strong climate legislation and policy. Through my experiences in Paris, I hope to gain inspiration from what students from around the world are doing to take action on climate change that I do not yet know about. I believe that we are stronger when we work together, and that if everyone did their part in their area of the world, climate change would no longer be a threat. To see and be inspired by other youth who are doing their part will be highly encouraging.

What's your advice to youth who want to get involved in climate activism?

Every individual can take steps to act on climate change no matter their age, interests or ability level. Each person brings valuable and unique skills to the table in the fight against climate change. Engineers can help improve renewable energy technologies, musicians can create an artistic representation of our sustainable goals, writers can communicate thoughts and emotions relating to climate change. No matter who you are, there is something you can do, and something that you need to do for our climate. We are the generation who will bear the most impacts of climate change, and there is no time to lose. Follow your passions, and don't let anyone stop you.

Asim ZiaAsim Zia

Associate professor, Community Development & Applied Economics
Fellow, Gund Institute for Ecological Economics
Director, Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security

What will you be doing at COP21?

I have studied COP conferences since they started, enlisting UVM as an official observer since 2008 through our Office of Sustainability. This allows me to conduct research on negotiators and climate activists from 180 nations over two weeks. My 2013 book on climate governance was informed by this work.

As for COP21, I am interested in climate policy targets being negotiated under the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), a group created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Through ADP, many countries are pledging greenhouse gas mitigation targets for 2020 to 2035, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

I am engaged with technical negotiations on REDD+, a proposed UN plan for reducing tropical deforestation and greenhouse gases, and North-South debates going on for pledges to climate adaptation fund.

As a science leader of an NSF-EPSCOR-funded effort to protect Lake Champlain water quality in the face of climate change, I will also study the pros and cons of various adaptation policies and implementation experiences across the world.

How will your work contribute to event?

Besides observing treaty negotiations on ADP, REDD+ and the climate fund, I will work with official delegations from Pakistan, Peru and other developing countries -- meeting with their negotiators, unpacking the language of the treaty, and developing a consensus position on the treaty clauses.

I will also promote the use of climate early warning systems in developing countries, in partnership with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Norwegian Refugee Council and NGOs. Here is a link to my paper on the subject co-authored with Gund Institute PhD student Courtney Hammond-Wagner.

In my recent blog post on climate change and COP, I argued that long term climate policy needs a new focus on sustainable and resilient community development, not one artificially divided along mitigation and adaptation lines. I will argue this at COP21 and beyond.

In terms of outcomes, what do you see as a best-case scenario?

COP21 is currently our best shot at taking global collective action to bend the greenhouse gas curve. The good news is that more than 80 percent of nations have agreed to participate in INDC commitments. But we must raise the ambition level. Current INDCs will reduce projected global temperatures from 4-5C to 3-3.5C above industrial standards by 2100. However, to achieve the global policy target of two degrees Celsius, a signed Paris Treaty is critical. That can then be improved and strengthened through further negotiations over the next five years.

What are potential roadblocks to progress?

In pre-COP21 negotiations in Bonn earlier this year, developing countries again called for a $100 billion pledge by rich industrialized countries to fund major climate initiatives. This North-South divide, along with questions of historical guilt versus developing countries’ “right to development,” have plagued past COPs, and may again serve as a daunting roadblock to a signed Paris Treaty.

Lini Wollenberg

Lini Wollenberg

Research associate professor, Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources

Fellow, Gund Institute for Ecological Economics

What will you be doing at COP21?

I am going to COP21 to share best practices for low emissions development in agriculture to help slow climate change and mitigate its impacts. These are the primary areas of my research with the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security program of CGIAR, an international research consortium for agriculture.

Agriculture produces more than 10 percent of global greenhouse gases, so it is a major cause of climate change. But it is also a major source for mitigation, having the capacity to sequester carbon and reduce emissions to compensate for nearly all of its emissions. It is critically important to achieve climate targets.

I will attend the Global Landscapes Forum, which is expected to draw massive attention as a side event of COP21. At least two of my research projects will be presented. I will also meet with colleagues to plan our next 5 years of research.

How will your work contribute to event?

We will present one of our projects: CCAFS Mitigation Options Tool, a new resource for policy-makers. It provides better estimates of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and ranks the most effective low-carbon agricultural practices for 34 crops, depending on your soil type and geography. It is simple to use and available for free online.

Low-emissions farming techniques that we are researching will also be presented. For example, the practice of alternate wetting and drying  in paddy rice in Asia can decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 30-50 percent and save water without hurting yields. In developing nations, improving the health and productivity of livestock -- through better vaccines, feed and pasture management -- can improve farmers’ living standards with fewer animals, and therefore less greenhouse gas emissions. Our work with dairy farmers in Kenya to produce more milk with less emissions will also be highlighted.  

This month, my colleagues and I also published a briefing on agriculture’s contributions to national emissions. And my UVM-CCAFS colleague Meryl Richards just led a new analysis of country level climate plans.

In terms of outcomes, what do you see as a best-case scenario?

For me, a best-case scenario would be that world leaders commit to reducing greenhouse gases at levels sufficient to keep the planet under a two-degrees Celsius rise. This would require legally binding commitments from nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- including all the top emitters (U.S., China, Russia, India and Brazil). It would also require significant new financial investment -- potentially through a carbon tax -- to help nations transition to renewable energy systems.

What are potential roadblocks to progress?

International agreements are difficult to achieve. Deep divisions remain among nations about what constitutes a fair distribution of the burden of reduce global greenhouse gases. This is particularly true between rich countries and developing nations. Some say the burden should be calculated by historical emissions, others say by current or future emissions, per capita. And not all countries have the same capacity.

That said, globally, there is a growing awareness that action is urgently required if we are going to stop climate change before massive disruptions become the norm.

Jennie StephensJennie Stephens

Blittersdorf Professor of Science and Policy
Rubenstein School of Environmental and Natural Resources, College of Engineering

Fellow, Gund Institute for Ecological Economics

What will you be doing at COP21?

I am going to COP21 to inform my research on the renewable energy transition, societal responses to climate change, and energy democracy and justice.

Due to increased security following the terrorist attacks in Paris, some of the civil society demonstrations I planned to attend have been drastically reduced in size. The People’s Climate March, a huge march through Paris calling for action on climate change, has been cancelled. So climate activists are thinking creatively about how to spread their messages.

I will also attend the Citizen Summit for Climate, known as the People’s Climate Summit, and connect with several organizations, including Ben and Jerry’s, Union of Concerned Scientists, NOAA, Mothers Out Front, and the Wild Center’s Youth Climate Summit Program

From Paris, I also plan on Skyping into my UVM undergraduate environmental science course to provide my students with a live update.

How does your scholarly work align with COP21?

Several of my UVM Energy-Climate Transitions Research team projects align with COP21. This includes work on energy system innovations, divestment, and the potential for the renewable energy transition to improve workforce diversity, reduce inequality, strengthen communities, and promote a more inclusive and engaged democracy.

I will pay attention to conversations about inequality, gender and renewable energy. As the energy sector transforms, opportunities for a more inclusive workforce are emerging. But we must intentionally prioritize diversity, or the transition to renewable energy could perpetuate and deepen -- rather than reduce -- inequalities. The male-dominated energy sector plays a huge role in determining what is considered practical and possible, so this relates directly to climate mitigation efforts.

I am also very interested to see how COP21 acknowledges and promotes social change, because we know that technological solutions are inadequate. Cultural and political change related to how we live with high consumption expectations is also essential but these social changes are generally not well integrated into these international negotiations. In 2009, I presented my work at a COP side-event that explored tensions regarding carbon capture and storage technology.

What do you think will happen?

I hope that the civil society mobilization and the climate activism surrounding the negotiations in Paris is peaceful and empowers individuals, organizations and communities.

With the cancellation of the large marches in Paris, events in other cities are taking on greater significance. Organizations and climate activists are working hard to adapt and facilitate a productive and peaceful set of civil actions in Paris and beyond, so there is still strong potential for activists to change the discourse and raise expectations.

Even before the attacks in Paris, French authorities were attempting to minimize the impact of activists, and re-introducing border controls to reduce the number of people entering the country to participate in COP-related events. Some climate activists from developing countries had been unsuccessful in getting visas before the shootings. Access is even more difficult now.

Despite these challenges, climate activists and the climate justice movement are more committed than ever to advocate for strong climate action to reduce societal inequalities of all kinds and move toward a more peaceful and resilient world.


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