Undergraduates Present MOU to lead U.S. and China Negotiators at UN Climate Summit in Cancun

In the hectic hallway traffic of the Moon Palace Resort, where the UN climate negotiations have been underway since last week, Washington University in St. Louis undergraduates Jiakun Zhao and John Delurey met with lead Chinese negotiator Su Wei. And by a stroke of luck, Jonathan Pershing, a senior U.S. negotiator, happened to walk by in a fortuitous moment reflective of the U.S. and China’s softer and more conciliatory tone in the talks.

Together with Su and Pershing, the students then handed them a copy of a Memorandum of Understanding, which was drafted by undergraduates from their university and Fudan University in China as part of the first student conference on U.S.-China relations regarding climate change and sustainability issues.

“Everything happened so randomly and magically,” Zhao said.

The MOU was officially “launched” in Cancun last Tuesday, November 30, as part of a larger effort between young people from China and the United States. There, Zhao presented what the student-delegates had accomplished during their short mock negotiation as an example of what specific types of collaboration youth can achieve regarding complex climate negotiation issues.

While meeting both the negotiators at once was “unbelievable” to junior John Delurey, who is an Environmental Studies major at Washington University, he recognized the limitations of his and his colleagues’ work. “While the MOU is an important part of the process, we cannot expect the chief negotiators to start seeing eye-to-eye when they read the document,” he said.

Attending the meetings in Cancun has opened his eyes to the realities of the complex process. “Unfortunately, our simulations fall short of a realistic climate negotiation. We were able to compromise on items that they are not allowed to compromise on due to national interest. I do hope, however, that this document inspires them to start prioritizing international interest over national interest,” Delurey added.

The challenges Delurey mentions speak to larger efforts by youth in the climate negotiations. While youth action on China-U.S. collaboration has received considerable media attention in Cancun, the question remains as to whether their efforts are making an impact. Without a doubt, youth will be the demographic most affected by climate change during the years when deadlines for emission targets loom. However, these long-term emission targets have been amongst the most contentious issues here. Trying to find youth-specific issues and defining a specific agenda have certainly been challenges for the youth movement in Cancun.

“It seems like youth need to find some angle that is specific to them to make their case stronger,” said Meng Si, Managing Director for China Dialogue, who traveled to Cancun with the China youth delegation.

In my experience working with the Fudan and Washington University students, what familiarity young people may lack with the technical nuances of the negotiations they are able to make up for it in energy and determination, as Zhao has demonstrated. In the end, exposure to the negotiation process is perhaps the most valuable aspect for young people who may one day become country negotiators themselves.

Photo credit: Jiakun Zhao