Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Peachtree to Paris: Emory delegation headed to U.N. climate talks

On a recent Saturday, 30 students represented a country, or block of countries, to simulate the U.N. talks. Naomi Maisel, right, made the case for India. "You have to rethink your reality based on all the countries involved and figure out how to make it work," she says. (

By Carol Clark

More than 40,000 people from around the world are expected to descend on Paris, France, from November 30 to December 11, for what many see as the best chance yet for a universal climate agreement. The goal of the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) is to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Everyone from President Obama to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed will be on the ground in Paris for high-stakes conversations about the fate of the planet. Ten Emory undergraduates and two faculty are also joining the historic event with the status of official U.N. observers.

“This is an unprecedented time,” says Taylor McNair, a senior majoring in environmental sciences and business. “People are coming into this conference with a mindset they have never had before. I’m optimistic that there will be some progress coming out of Paris, and that we will see some serious change during the next few years.”

McNair and three other Emory students will actually spend part of COP21 inside the main hall where delegates from 195 countries will negotiate reductions of their greenhouse gas emissions. And all 10 of the students will be gathering information from the milieu of related conferences, demonstrations, exhibits and informal discussions that will be humming around the main COP21 meeting.

The students will post photos and dispatches on a special web site they are creating for the event (, through the Emory Writing Program's Domain of One's Own. And they will use social media to further connect Emory and the Atlanta community to what’s happening in Paris, as it happens. You can follow their conversations on their Twitter handle @EmoryinParis, and via their hash tag: #PeachtreeToParis. Senior Tyler Stern is helping develop the team's social media platforms, which also include Instagram (EmoryParis15) and Snapchat (EmoryInParis).

After four hours of tense negotiations, students participating in simulated U.N. talks were only able to achieve caps on greenhouse gas emissions for a temperature rise of 3.5 degrees Celsius, short of the 2 degrees goal. 

“Climate change is not an issue that is coming in 100 years. It’s happening now,” says Naomi Maisel, a junior majoring in anthropology who will be making the trip. “We want to convey the sentiments of the people that we meet and give Emory students a sense of how the rest of the world is thinking about and dealing with climate change."

The students plan to also bring back lessons for what everyone can do to get involved. They will help organize an Emory “Climate Week” and a series of COP21 related events on campus in the Spring – including art exhibits, panel discussions and special lectures – in conjunction with the Climate@Emory initiative.

Debating the fate of the planet.
“I’m optimistic that some kind of meaningful deal will be reached in Paris,” says Mae Bowen, a senior majoring in environmental sciences and political science, who is headed for COP21. “But once a deal is made, that’s when the real work starts, making that deal come to fruition.”

The Paris trip is the capstone to a Coalition of the Liberal Arts (CoLA) course, aimed at integrating the liberal arts experience across the humanities and sciences. The course, “Paris is an Explanation: Understanding Climate Change at the 2015 United Nations Meeting in France,” was developed and taught by three faculty: Wesley Longhofer, an expert in organization and management at Goizueta Business School; Eri Saikawa, an expert in climate science in the department of environmental sciences and Rollins School of Public Health; and Sheila Tefft, senior lecturer in the Emory Writing Program. Bowen and another undergraduate, Adam Goldstein, also helped develop the course.

Both Longhofer and Saikawa will accompany the students on the trip to Paris.

Throughout the fall, the students are exploring climate change from environmental, business, media and political perspectives. Saikawa led discussions about the complex atmospheric science surrounding emissions. Longhofer organized mock UN negotiations so that the students could better understand perspectives of the various countries involved. Tefft focused on issues of communications and trained the students in journalistic techniques and technology, including podcasting and social media.

The Emory students have a range of research interests that they plan to hone in on as COP21 is underway. Below are brief bios, and a guide to their plans for Paris.
Taylor McNair

BUSINESS: Taylor McNair is a senior from West Port, Connecticut, majoring in business and environmental sciences. “I have a big interest in renewable energy,” he says. “I’ve had some work experience in that field and it’s helped shape what I think will be the defining challenge of the future: How will we switch from cheap fossil fuels and power our lives and economies with renewable energy?”

He notes that major companies like Google and Facebook have already announced they will be moving toward renewable energy sources for their datasets.

“We need more market-based solutions for addressing climate change,” he says. “It’s beginning to make economic sense to make investments in energy efficiency and renewable fuel sources. I think more people are waking up to the fact that this transition can not only be beneficial from an environmental and health aspect, but also from a financial aspect.”

POLICYMAKING: Mae Bowen is a senior majoring in environmental sciences and political science. Bowen, who is from Panama City, Florida, personally experienced the social and ecological impacts of hurricanes and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even after the beaches near her home were cleaned and declared safe following the spill, tourists did not return for years due to public perceptions and media coverage.
Mae Bowen

“I was fascinated and frustrated by that,” Bowen says. “I’ve been thinking about the best ways to communicate environmental issues ever since.”

Bowen’s other passion is policymaking. She is a member of the Emory International Relations Association – a team of students that travels to universities across the country to participate in simulations of U.N. negotiations, based on real-world situations and research. While these exercises help Bowen see the challenges of policymaking, they have not made her cynical. “The fact that we have people from different countries and cultures coming together to try and solve a global problem like climate change – that’s kind of awesome,” she says. “I’m just so excited to go to COP21 and get to hear the actual deliberations over the issue I care most about.”

The Paris talks may not achieve the goal of reducing emissions to reach the goal of 2 degrees, “but it’s going to take us forward,” Bowen says. “I’m a big picture person. I would rather have a deal that goes part of the way than to have nothing at all. You have to take things one step at a time.”

Savannah Miller
EMORY AND ATLANTA: Savannah Miller, a senior majoring in environmental sciences and creative writing is focused on climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts at the local level. She is currently an intern for the city of Atlanta, working with the team developing a major climate action plan. “Emory was an early supporter of the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge,” Miller says. “The university has been a leader in sustainability for years and our efforts keep gaining momentum.”

While at the Paris talks, she will be researching how other communities from around the world are implementing adaptive technologies and strategies for increasing energy efficiency. “One of our biggest goals is to bring back information about environmental policies and communicate them in a way that reaches our generation,” Miller says.

In addition to contributing to the Emory group web site for COP21, Miller has developed her own site,, for communicating environmental issues. Her first post looked at the connections between climate change and recent historic flooding in her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.
Naomi Maisel

AGRICULTURE: Naomi Maisel, a junior majoring in anthropology, is researching the impact of climate change on agriculture and food security. “Farmers are starting to see effects faster and more intensely, especially in the developing world,” Maiesel says. “We don’t know if a lot of food systems can withstand more or less rainfall, more or less heat, and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide.”

Maisel contacted a farmer outside of Paris who has agreed to give the students a tour of his farm and explain his experience of climate change.

While growing up in San Diego, Maisel recalls that many discussions about climate change were debates about whether it was happening. “Now, most of the conversations I’m hearing revolve around questions like, how bad is it going to be and what are we doing about it,” she says. “People are finally starting to take it seriously. And they realize that it is not just a science problem. It’s an economic issue, a security issue and a public health issue. Everybody is going to be affected, so everybody needs to be involved.”

Clara Perez, a junior majoring in sociology and sustainability, is focused on how climate change will disproportionately impact lower socio-economic groups.

Caiwei Huang (a junior majoring in interdisciplinary studies and political science) and Siyue Zong (a senior environmental sciences major) both want to follow the crucial negotiations of the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters: The United States and China. (Huang is developing a web site to introduce students to the fundamentals of Chinese politics:

Samuel Budnyk, a junior majoring in comparative literature and music, is especially interested in communicating to the general public and hopes to write a post a day for the Emory Wheel during the talks.

Adam Goldstein and Mark Leone (both seniors majoring in business) will be focused on gathering information about climate finance – the move toward investing in low-carbon and more resilient economies.

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