“Late last year, Ren and around 40 other young Chinese people arrived in Copenhagen, hoping to break the silence of their peers on the international issue of climate change. They constituted the largest Chinese youth group ever to take part in a United Nations climate-change summit.”
-China Dialogue, April 14, 2010
Walking away from last year’s Copenhagen negotiations disillusioned, youth from China and the United States decided to not let last year’s disappointing talks and an unreleased joint statement be the last the world heard (or didn’t) of them. Instead, they decided that if they expected their respective governments to cooperate on climate change, dialogue needed to happen first amongst themselves.
One initiative that sprang from the ashes of the Copenhagen negotiations was the idea for an undergraduate conference that would bring together students from China and the United States to not only learn about the complicated issues of climate change and sustainable development but to begin to understand why their two countries took such opposing and at times controversial positions in the talks. Jiakun Zhao, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis who is originally from China, was first inspired to convene the conference based on the university’s plans to hold a symposium discussing global energy scenarios. While initially intending for an undergraduate component focused on the U.S.-China relationship to piggyback on this larger effort, Zhao found it to be too difficult to navigate the bureaucratic waters of the university.
So she and a few other students decided to form the Washington University Students for International Collaboration on the Environment (WUSICE) group and convene their own conference. Inviting eleven students from Fudan University in Shanghai and eleven undergraduates from Wash U in a competitive application process, WUSICE hosted a five-day conference Nov. 4-9 to discuss climate change and sustainability from the lenses of the world’s top-two emitters of greenhouse gases. Guest lecturers gave a series of talks that examined various aspects of climate change – from the science behind global warming to specific clean energy technologies and policies in place to address its impacts. The students also assumed the roles of negotiators from the U.S. and China – in some cases stepping shoes into the other country’s position – to debate the key issues that often deadlocked the two countries in last year’s debates, including mitigation actions and commitments, financial support of developing country adaptation and mitigation measures, and the controversial measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of Chinese emissions. Their charge? To find common ground on these hot-button issues to draft a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that Zhao plans to present at the UN climate summit next week in Cancun.
“We challenged the 22 delegates with a task that most countries could not complete, to come up with innovative solutions to climate change issues while staying true to their country’s stance,” said Jeremy Pivor, a sophomore and one of the conference organizers.
The task proved to be more challenging than most of the conference delegates had originally envisioned, considering they had about a week to get up to speed on the technicalities of the issues and familiarize themselves with “their” country’s negotiation position. Finding a balance between domestic priorities – which included an emphasis on economic development for both countries – and commonalities on issues that inherently divide the two countries in the real-world talks was easier said than done.
Chang Liu, a junior at Fudan University studying chemistry and economics, echoed this challenge. “Sometimes it’s hard to decide, especially on the issue of environment, whether you should be a politician standing for the benefit of your own country, or an environmentalist contributing to the common good of the world. That balance isn’t easy to strike,” he said.
Despite such differences, however, the students also discovered many similarities. Michael Craig, a graduating senior who studies ecology at Wash U, said that the mock negotiation revealed, “Despite any rifts and differences between our nations, [we] ultimately have very similar concerns and goals.”
In the end, after a half-day’s deliberation that concluded around midnight, the student-delegates came up with a five-page MOU that reaches beyond current positions in some respects and reveals persistent challenges in others. For example, in debating whether the two countries could make deeper climate mitigation commitments, the current lack of domestic climate legislation in the United States caused the students to wonder how much further U.S. action could stretch.
“There was almost nothing the United States could offer to encourage my country [China] to accept any long-term emissions target. Likewise, the U.S. team stubbornly refused to act without any Chinese participation. Yet, by examining the climate change challenge from a global perspective, we were able to agree to actions that would prevent catastrophic climate change,” said Adam Hasz, a junior majoring in ecology and urban studies at Wash U and the Vice President of the Missouri Student Environmental Coalition.
The students had to think creatively to demonstrate how a combination of mid and long-term commitments on the part of the U.S. and China, respectively, might provide greater clarity on greenhouse gas mitigation action to achieve the maximum 2-degree rise in global temperature specified as a goal in the Copenhagen Accord, which was adopted by all but a handful of countries.
Other issues, such as MRV, were more difficult to see eye-to-eye on. The students assigned to deliberate this issue found it impossible at times to move past fundamental disagreements, particularly on questions of whose actions would be subject to international scrutiny, what mechanism would oversee verification, what types of information should be included, and who would fund such endeavors for cash-strapped developing nations. Sound eerily familiar?
Despite these challenges, the resulting document represents a novel, collaborative effort that aspires to demonstrate points of common ground between China and the U.S. that have thus far not been achieved in the negotiations. Zhao will officially reveal the MOU in Cancun during the launch of a more long-term, youth-led cooperative effort called the U.S.-China Youth Climate Exchange. Through this initiative, young people who attended the climate talks in Copenhagen last year are intent on keeping the conversation going and planning to broaden the scope to other major developing countries like India. They hope that their persistent presence at these big international meetings will signal to governments that young people – who will be most affected by the impacts of climate change in the future – care about the issues and mean to stay engaged in the process.
Update: Undergraduates Present MOU to lead U.S. and China Negotiators
Angel Hsu is a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her research focuses on Chinese environmental performance measurement, governance, and policy.