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What Happened at Copenhagen? Q and A with Neil Leary, Director of the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education at Dickinson College

Neil Leary, Director of the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education at Dickinson College, attended the Copenhagen summit with a group of his students.

Q1: Though the conference was unsuccessful in setting legally binding targets, and the targets set fell short of what is needed to avoid a global temperature increase of 2 degrees C, what positives came out of the conference?

NL: Most importantly, the development of a widespread, international social movement seeking meaningful action on climate change and the large and energetic presence of youth group delegations at the Copenhagen United Nations Climate Change Conference – both essential ingredients for meaningful action by governments.

Q2: What did you get out of attending the conference?

NL: The conference provided a unique and powerful opportunity for my students to learn first-hand about the diverse perspectives and priorities of government and NGO delegates from all over the world, their positions on key issues and motivations for those positions, and the complexities and difficulties of reaching an international agreement on a problem of management of the global commons. Clearly, climate change requires action internationally and nationally by governments, the private sector, and individuals. There is significant support for action in civil society and some/many private sector firms; but awareness, support and willingness to advocate strongly for decisive action among the 190+ government delegations is too weak at present to compel decisive action.

Q3: Some remain hopeful that a UN meeting in Mexico in December 2010 will lead to more binding commitments. What are your thoughts on this?

NL: Realistic expectations need to be set. We will fail if success in Mexico City is defined as accord on comprehensive, legally binding commitments for emission reductions subject to international verification, and on adaptation, technology transfer, finance, REDD+ etc. Given the urgency for proactive action, well before the Mexico meeting the negotiators must figure out and focus on the most important starting pieces for agreements.

Q4: What is next? In light of no legally binding commitments being produced from the Copenhagen summit, how should we proceed?

NL: The US position in Mexico will depend on the political will. In Copenhagen, the US delegation was cognizant of the American public opinion and what the Senate might ratify. Dramatic change requires widespread support among voters for climate change legislation and action including at local, state and national levels. Talk to members of your local government, PTA, church; organize events to raise awareness of the issues; write letters to your local paper; call and write to your state and national legislators.

Q5: What advice would you give a budding environmental studies student eager to work on climate change related issues?

NL: Many different types of knowledge and expertise are needed to effectively respond to climate change. Expect future high demand for people who can work effectively across different disciplines and communities. Learn about the different academic disciplines involved in climate change and related societal issues; learn how to work at the interfaces of these disciplines; learn how to work effectively with science and policy communities; learn to communicate effectively with the public and different user communities.

-Leila Virji ’10

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