Bates College junior Robert Friedman will be missing a couple weeks of class in December. But it's safe to say that he'll be getting a different type of education, as he participates in the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Yes, I wrote about this conference in November 6th's "Conservation in Copenhagen." Yes, I think it's important enough to warrant two successive columns.)
Friedman is part of the Sierra Club's student delegation, a group of high school and college students that will be in Copenhagen from December 4 to 19, as 192 countries attempt to stem climate change by regulating and curtailing greenhouse-gas emissions. In addition to contributing to the international youth conference that will take place two days before the UN event begins, Friedman will blog, Tweet, and vlog as part of the Sierra Student Coalition's media team (follow him at sscinternational.org, and check out highlights at thePhoenix.com/AboutTown). He expects the entire experience to be something of a "whirlwind."
"It was an emotional moment for me," the New York native, who grew up watching his mother fight to clean up the Hudson River, says of the phone call telling him he'd been accepted to the delegation. He's inspired by the fact that young people will play an active role in the conference. "This is our issue — as much as people in power have a right to actually negotiate these things, this is our future they're talking about." To that end, the international student conference will craft policy memos to be distributed to representatives of the 192 countries, highlighting the problems — and solutions — that are most important to the next generation.
Although Friedman fears that "this issue has oversaturated our culture in a way," undercutting its urgency, he remains hopeful that the Copenhagen conference will achieve its goal: a legally binding international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol (from which the United States withdrew, thanks to former president George W. Bush). To do so will require major compromises on the parts of many nations, with many competing interests. It's such a daunting prospect that some opinion leaders have already tried to lower international expectations.
For example, this report appeared in last week's New York Times: "President Obama and other world leaders have decided to put off the difficult task of reaching a climate change agreement at a global climate conference scheduled for next month, agreeing instead to make it the mission of the Copenhagen conference to reach a less specific 'politically binding' agreement that would punt the most difficult issues into the future."
By expressing such doubts, said leaders "put a gun up to the conference's head and pulled the trigger," says Friedman, who hopes to combine environmental activism and law after he graduates from Bates.
"I don't think that they really understand what the implications of climate change are," he adds. And he's particularly disappointed in President Barack Obama's lack of leadership. "I attribute the failure of action to health care and both wars that are going on. He's obviously extremely distracted. But the fact is, climate change is going to happen regardless of whether we pass health care reform. It largely comes down to the US. Obama specifically has not stood up and said, 'This is what I want to see, and I want to see it now.' If he did that, I think it would cause a massive shift. . . . But that could just be me being an idealistic young person."
Here's to that.
Deirdre Fulton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.