Students have front-seat view at world climate talks
Cara Horowitz (left), executive director of the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment, leads her students through a final rundown on the Copenhagen conference. Clockwise from top: Jed Ela, Bianca Zambao da Silva, Dustin Maghamfar, Jesse Swanhuyser. Photos by Rich Schmitt.
After a full semester in a UCLA law class studying everything to do with international climate agreements, attending this month's U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen
, Denmark, will be "like a rock concert for climate geeks," said law student Maya Kuttan.
Kuttan is one of six students hand-picked for a class taught by Cara Horowitz, executive director of the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment. Horowitz designed her class around the U.N.'s December conference, and is taking all six students on the field trip of a lifetime.
The U.N.'s 15th "rock concert for climate geeks" has fueled interest for months as experts wonder whether the Copenhagen conference could result in a detailed successor to the Kyoto Protocols, the international environmental regulations that expire in 2012. UCLA professors Alex Hall and J. David Neelin, both experts on climate change modeling, have helped develop the U.N. climate models. Those models, predicting warming temperatures, rising sea levels and more, will influence the Copenhagen negotiations.
Other Bruins are keeping a close eye on countries' negotiating positions in the lead-up to the conference, but only a few, like Horowitz and her students, are attending. Horowitz's class will attend from Dec. 6-13, for one of the two weeks of the Dec. 7-18 conference.
"We're quite excited," Horowitz said. "We've done a lot of studying, but even as professionals, you can't help but feel a little bit giddy."
Bianca Zambao da Silva was a lawyer in Brazil who worked on financing Kyoto Protocol projects before she enrolled at UCLA law school.
They're credentialed delegates to the conference, which means they'll be able to attend some of the negotiating sessions as different countries hammer out what they're willing to do. It will be a whirlwind week, and the students have to be back at UCLA before finals. They'll probably be camping out to get seats to hear President Barack Obama's speech, staying up late to watch marathon negotiation sessions of international law-making, meeting with other delegates — and cramming for finals.
"Sleep is a small price to pay for more educational experiences at the conference," said Kuttan, who left a few days before the rest of the class to get a leg up. "When else will we have an opportunity like this?"
Horowitz chose her students by application — each has experience in environmental law. Kuttan, a 28-year-old third-year law student, worked on the lawsuit challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's denial of California's requirement for tougher car-emission standards (the denial has since been overturned). Another student, Bianca Zambao da Silva, 29, was a lawyer in Brazil who worked on financing Kyoto Protocol projects.
"I cannot see any better opportunity to experience international law-making," Zambao da Silva said. She's especially interested in meeting with delegates from developing countries to learn about how international finance can build environmental programs in the third world.
Jed Ela, another of Horowitz's law students, is worried that not enough will be accomplished in Copenhagen. Without progress, he said, "I have no doubt that by 2016 or 2020 we will start seeing presidential elections that will focus more or less solely on how we are going to deal with the climate problem."
Law student Jed Ela.
Initially high hopes for the conference have since been tempered by reality, and few are now predicting that a fully developed successor to the Kyoto Protocols will be hammered out by the end of the conference, said Horowitz.
"But recently, there have been good signs of potential progress. The United States and China both announced emission-reduction targets," she said, noting that the U.S., China and India, among the world's biggest polluters, are not part of the Kyoto Protocols. "If China, India or the U.S. agree to binding emission reduction targets, it will be the first time that any of them have done so on an international stage. Whether that's likely to happen, I don't know, but it's certainly possible."
Pledges by individual countries are a possibility, but there's not going to be "a major outcome" from the meeting, predicted Law Professor Kal Raustiala, director of UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations who has written extensively about the Kyoto Protocol treaty.
"A lot of scientists and the NGO community, among others, were hoping for a major series of commitments in a binding form that would look like the Kyoto Protocol – pretty much, Kyoto II," Raustiala said. "The Copenhagen meeting seemed really important a while ago, but now I'm not so sure."
That said, individual agreements from the U.S. or China could have a significant impact, he added.
Cara Horowitz designed her class around the U.N. conference, which begins Monday, Dec. 7.
"The U.S. and China alone are a huge part of the climate problem, and therefore a huge part of the solution on their own," Raustiala said. "There's been an assumption that we should have a universal agreement signed by every country. That's led to heavy compromises and watered-down agreements. If different countries agree to different things, that might be more politically feasible and ultimately better."
Horowitz's students will be doing their share to influence the discussion. After a semester in her international environmental law seminar focusing on climate-change treaties, they're well-versed in the history of the current negotiations, the positions of each countries' delegates, the U.N. Framework Convention for Climate Change and more. They've already scheduled meetings with the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, California's former secretary of the EPA Terry Tamminen, a youth activist group from India and several others.
"We're there to see environmental law in action; to meet with delegates and learn about their perspectives and aims; to help build pressure for a fair, ambitious and binding international deal on limiting greenhouse gases; to build our student's contacts and to share what we've learned with others," Horowitz said.