Friday, November 18, 2022

Emory students promote youth power at U.N. conference

Eri Saikawa, associate professor of environmental studies (bottom, right) led a delegation of students to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Egypt. Click here to see bios of the delegation members.

By Carol Clark

Emory students helped raise the profiles of youth activists during this year’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, better known as COP, continuing through Nov. 18 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. 

A delegation of five Emory undergraduates and four graduate students, led by Eri Saikawa, associate professor of environmental sciences, attended the first week of COP as official U.N. observers. They sat in on negotiations and co-hosted a side event with the Climate Justice Program entitled “Youth: From Resistance to Power.” The event featured a panel discussion by four young activists — from Pakistan, Kenya, Mexico and the Philippines — followed by an interactive networking event moderated by the Emory students. 

“It’s inspiring and energizing seeing so many youth raising their voices and pushing for climate action,” says Saikawa. 

Saikawa began leading students from her Climate Change and Society class to the annual global climate talks in 2015, when COP was held in Paris. That year, nearly 200 member countries hammered out the Paris Agreement, aiming to keep the global mean rise in temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. 

Student delegates will share what they learned during this year’s COP at a campus event entitled “Climate Conversations: Advancing Towards Global Justice” on Thursday, Nov. 17 at 6 pm in the Emory Student Center, multi-purpose rooms 5 and 6. Attendees can join in activities geared to the topics of environmental justice, climate and business, urban planning, conservation and more. 

The students will also produce podcasts on different aspects of COP for the Emory Climate Talks AmpliFIRE series. 

Following are brief summaries of the experiences and views of four of the Emory undergraduates who traveled to Egypt for COP. 

"Right after we touched down in Sharm El-Sheikh we grabbed our badges and headed to the conference," says Gabriela Rucker, right, shown with fellow senior Clare McCarthy.

“It was exciting to be immersed among 45,000 people working to generate solutions to the climate crisis," says Gabriela Rucker, a senior majoring in environmental sciences on the social science and policy track. 

Her interest in sustainable agriculture took her to the food-systems pavilion. She learned about programs to compensate farmers for preserving ecosystems and the increasing use of seaweed as a nutrient. “That was cool, right off the bat, to hear about those food solutions.” 

Rucker is a member of the Plastic-Free Emory task force and appreciated insights from Eric Njuguna, an activist from Kenya, during the “Youth: From Resistance to Power” event. 

“The United States exports a significant amount of plastics and other recycling abroad, where it ends up in landfills and becomes another country’s problem,” she says. “Eric Njuguna talked about his experiences dealing with trash from the United States. It’s important that people in the United States understand where our trash goes when we throw it away.” 

The connections she made during COP were a highlight for Rucker. “I met a lot of youth with passion and drive,” she says. “We have our careers in front of us so connecting with fellow youth about where they want to go and what they want to work on was invaluable.” 

Rucker is currently an intern at a solar-power development company. “My dream job would involve building solar plants to provide clean electricity for the United States,” she says. “During the next 20 years we need to build out a significant amount of renewable energy infrastructure.” 

Ultimately, COP further fueled her optimism. “I generally have a lot of hope for the progress of humanity,” Rucker says. “I’ve witnessed throughout my life people’s work toward a cleaner and more equitable society. My hope stems from the people who are doing the work to make that vision happen.”

Senior Jack Miklaucic is grateful for the anonymous donor who funds the trips by Emory students to COP. "It's a tribute to Dr. Saikawa's work that a donor is willing to do this for her students year after year," he says.

“The best part of COP for me was attending events led by civic groups doing energy-justice advocacy, which is the kind of work that I want to do,” says Jack Miklaucic, a senior majoring in environmental sciences and philosophy, politics and law. “They were led by really cool people who are fearless about calling out the fossil fuel companies and speaking truth to power. Hopefully, their examples will make me a more effective activist going forward.” 

Miklaucic plans to attend law school and hopes for a career involved with ensuring that utility companies and other energy providers are better regulated. “I want my work to have a direct, positive impact on society,” he says. 

“Enhancing energy efficiency is a big win for everybody,” Miklaucic adds. “It will improve people’s lives on the economic, climate and health levels. We’re already seeing movement toward more energy efficiency so that provides incentive to keep working towards more.” 

He is optimistic regarding climate solutions. “We were looking at a 3-to-4-degree Celsius rise in the global temperature average a few years ago and that’s no longer likely,” he points out. ”It’s important to stay focused on what kind of impact we can make because every tenth of a degree matters for what kind of world we’re going to live in.” 

Miklaucic appreciated the international perspective he gained from COP. “It was interesting to learn how climate activism is different around the world,” he says. “In some places they are persecuted and outright killed for doing what they do. It drove home to me that while it can be frustrating at times working for energy justice in the United States, it’s also a much safer place to be doing it.” 

"Every single person will be affected," says senior Clare McCarthy of climate change.

Clare McCarthy is a senior majoring in environmental sciences on the community building and social change track. She is also pursuing the 4+1 BS/MPH in environmental health at Rollins School of Public Health. 

She began learning about how the climate crisis is a social justice issue while she was in high school. It made her feel guilty to realize how people in the Global South tend to disproportionately suffer the greatest impacts of climate change as opposed to more privileged people in her hometown, where climate change felt distant. 

“That guilt paralyzed me,” she recalls, “until I came to Emory, when I decided to take action.” McCarthy is involved in efforts to hold the Emory administration accountable to stronger climate action through the Emory Climate Coalition and Emory Climate Reality Project. 

COP helped solidify her interest in loss and damage, or the harmful impacts of climate change, as well as efforts by local communities to adapt. She learned more about these issues first-hand by talking to leaders of nongovernment organizations, such as the International Center for Climate Change and Development, based in Bangladesh. 

“Loss and damage and how to address it became a headline issue for the first time at this year’s COP,” McCarthy says. “While it’s great to see this, it cannot be celebrated as a final victory because it’s way overdue and much more work is needed.” 

Countries in the Global South are asking countries in the Global North to set up a mechanism for financing recovery from both economic and health impacts due to climate events. “They want the money to be payments and not in the form of loans because then they will be in debt,” McCarthy says.

She envisions a career working internationally or within the United States to help communities build their capacity to respond to climate change. 

“It makes me feel hopeful to meet so many impressive people working on solutions,” McCarthy says. “The passion and dedication of my fellow activists, here at Emory and in communities around the world, keeps me going.” 

"Climate change is the greatest challenge that my generation faces," says senior Jackson Pentz, second from right. While in Egypt he visited the Great Sphinx of Giza along with his fellow undergraduates, (from left) Clare McCarthy, Gabriela Rucker, Jack Miklaucic and Nick Chang. 

“A lot of people associate environmental science with governmental policy but I’ve always been interested in business as a way of creating social change,” says Jackson Pentz, a senior majoring in Economics and Environmental Science on the Social Science and Policy Track. Pentz is also a member of the Goizueta Business School’s Environmental Management program. 

At COP he was impressed to learn that companies that compete for market share are actually collaborating on sustainability. “Many businesses are finding that in order to address sustainability issues they need to pool their research-and-development funding and share their knowledge,” he says. “The private sector is taking sustainability seriously and can come together more quickly and effectively than governments.”

Pentz already has a job lined up after he graduates in May. He’ll be working as a business consultant at McKinsey and Company specializing in sustainability and natural resources. 

Thinking about the climate crisis at the global, or even the national, level can make you feel helpless, he says. “But if you zoom in on individuals or organizations at the smaller scale, you start to see lots of positive action that can be replicated to make a bigger impact,” he adds. 

At the “Youth: Resistance to Power” event Pentz was buoyed by the remarks of Ayisha Saddiqa, a young climate justice activist who grew up in Pakistan as the member of an Indigenous community.

“She told us that young people shouldn’t feel responsible for saving the world. That’s obviously too big of a burden,” Pentz says. “But she personally feels responsible for working to help her community. If everybody does something manageable to help those around them, that’s how you start a social movement and collective action to improve things on a global scale.”


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