Essay | Connecting a college campus to COP26

Glasgow university, with a distinctive central spire, is seen from the air, with a cluster of trees turning autumnal colors in the foreground

As researchers, we're focused on how to connect our university to our local communities. How might Glasgow University, shown here, connect with the community around it? (Ian Dick/Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0)

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Climate, Colleges & Education

By Jane Barkholz and Dr. Robert Orttung

As representatives of George Washington University students and faculty, we’re looking forward to attending COP26 to connect our university to this much broader community of people taking action to address climate change. We want to make new connections and meet people who will support our efforts with their own contributions. We also hope to translate the energy of the meeting in Scotland back to our campus in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. 

Given the importance of addressing climate change in a way that does not reproduce existing inequalities, one of our top goals is to investigate how COP26 decision makers pursue issues of equity. Who will make the decisions about how the world will address climate change going forward? To what extent are they considering how these decisions will affect the poorest countries that may not even be able to send representatives to this meeting? 

We hope that the countries attending will make firm and verifiable commitments to reducing carbon emissions. But, we will look for the ways that the rich countries who created much of the problem will help countries with fewer resources since they bear much of the burden created by climate change. This list should include additional funding, transfers of technology and know-how, and collaborative educational exchanges to co-create collective solutions that address the needs of the poorest. Specifically, with the establishment of the Green Climate Fund in the Paris Agreement, richer countries pledged to contribute $100 billion to poorer countries to help cut emissions. We have not met this goal. We would like to see accountability and enforcement of funding allocations addressed during COP 26.        

As researchers, we are focused on questions of how to improve connections between the university and communities where real people live. We are working to ensure that GW’s knowledge production and teaching efforts address the most pressing problems of citizens in the D.C. metro area. Connecting with a broader international community will hopefully provide new ideas that we can implement in our own neighborhood. The conference will be a success if it helps to identify best practices around the world and plant those ideas in fresh soil. 

In attending COP26 we hope to get further insight into the inner workings of an international climate conference. Tying this effort to our question of equity allows us to examine the benefits and costs of these conferences, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some questions that we will look to investigate include what underlying factors are at play when the world meets to discuss climate change? How are decisions actually made and how does this process affect climate justice efforts? What are the consequences of having these meetings in-person versus virtually? 

Another area of interest is how to measure the success of an international climate conference, like COP 26. Developing these criteria might help us compare this year’s conference to previous ones and evaluate the impact that an international climate conference has on climate policies, the effectiveness of international climate agreements, and the issue of accountability.  

People who have attended previous international climate meetings have told us that this meeting will be much bigger than any conference we have attended in the past. While we are there, we hope to develop ties with the U.N. Secretariat that is coordinating international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are GW alumni working in this organization and we hope to activate their ties to the university to integrate GW’s efforts more deeply into the broader international coalition of groups working to make our day-to-day life more sustainable. 

COP26 requires the global community to take stock of what is at stake and identify how political, scientific, social, and economic factors can lead to a better outlook for our planet in the shortest amount of time. From an academic standpoint, we hope that the opportunity for interaction and idea sharing will foster new ways to approach sustainability at a global, national, and local level. 

We hope to come away from COP26 with a clearer understanding of how climate justice can be adapted to a more tangible and local sphere. Hopefully, COP26 will garner a broader recognition of the effects of climate inaction on everyday life. Acknowledgment of local climate activists and opportunities could provide more direct action. From a student’s perspective, a key takeaway will be finding a way to replicate these climate conferences on a smaller scale to move the planet forward, even amid unknowns.  

About the authors: 

Dr. Robert Orttung is Research Director for Sustainable GW at the George Washington University and Research Professor of International Affairs at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Orttung is the lead PI for a new National Science Foundation project focused on the Arctic entitled Measuring Urban Sustainability in Transition. He is the editor of the Urban Sustainability in the Arctic: Measuring Progress in Circumpolar Cities (NY: Berghahn, 2020). In 2019 he edited Capital Cities and Urban Sustainability (London, Routledge). Orttung received a B.A. in Russian Studies from Stanford University and both a M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Jane Barkholz is a senior at the George Washington University studying Environmental Studies and Public Health. She is currently working as a research assistant for Sustainable GW and has previous experience as a health policy intern. Barkholz’s main research interests are in sustainability, international climate policy, and the intersections between people, planet, and public health. 

Dr. Orttung and Barkholz are both attending COP26.

Editor’s note: Please check back every day, leading up to the beginning of COP26 on Oct. 31, for new pieces from climate leaders in the Planet Forward network.

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