For the first time in the school’s history, Boston College was invited to attend COP26, a two-week United Nations conference on climate change. A group of BC students and faculty will join 20,000 people from around the world in Glasgow, Scotland for the conference.
The team, organized by BC Law professor David Wirth, has been granted observer status, which is given to a number of top research universities around the world.
“This meeting, in my mind, it’s like a hinge in history,” said Philip Landrigan, director of BC’s Global Observatory on Pollution and Health, who helped organize BC’s delegation. “This is the moment where humans could make those decisions that will slow climate change and preserve the Earth for future generations. Or, it could be a missed opportunity.”
The BC delegation will be able to watch some negotiations between delegates from hundreds of countries around the world and participate in environmental presentations and events on global warming.
“This COP26 is an incredibly important meeting,” Landrigan said. “This is where the leaders of almost all the countries of the world are going to come together and basically put on the table their commitments for what actions their counties are going to undertake to meet their obligations under the Paris Climate Accord.”
At COP26—the 26th annual Conference of the Parties—countries will make plans to slow the Earth’s warming so global temperatures don’t rise to more than 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels, a threshold they all agreed upon with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. That degree of warming, however, is rapidly approaching, Landrigan said.
“If we succumb to greed and self-interest and short-term thinking and just continue to proceed along the same reckless path that we’re going today, then we’re basically going to burn the planet up—well, not burn it up, but heat it to the point where the very survival of modern societies is threatened,” Landrigan said.
Due to the gravity of the meeting, it serves as both an opportunity to boost the school’s global standing and provide faculty and students with a slew of new connections and ideas, said David Deese, a BC political science professor who’s leading the University’s team during the second week of the conference.
“Having the BC flag at this COP in Glasgow is pretty cool because it will really lift Boston College’s reputation more generally across the major research universities,” Deese said. “We’re also excited because it feeds into a number of initiatives for units and courses and teaching generally at BC.”
Faculty who attend the conference will have an opportunity to present what they learned to their colleagues when they return to BC as part of a faculty climate research seminar series, Deese said. He’s also excited to use material from the COP26 when he teaches climate negotiation in his classes.
Undergraduate environmental studies students with relevant research interests were also given the chance to apply to attend the COP26. Landrigan believes it will be a transformative experience for these students.
“Students have a whole lifetime of professional accomplishment ahead of them,” Landrigan said. “Seeing what can be done in an international negotiation like this I think is going to change their perspective on how they—some at least—spend the rest of their lives.”
The two-week conference will run from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, and BC will split its attendees into two groups. Tara Pisani-Gareau, director of the BC Environmental Studies program, and Kurt Straif, co-director of the Global Observatory on Pollution and Health, will be leading during the first week, and Deese will lead the second.
The goal is to learn as much as possible, make connections, and bring that information back to the University. Deese, Landrigan, and others involved in the planning process have been meeting weekly to read up on the latest climate science, figure out logistics like lodging, visas, and funding, and determine a schedule so that BC can cover as much ground as possible at the conference.
The plan is for the groups to split up and attend different events, and then reconvene for a lunch break and for dinner to share notes and information. The BC delegation is also planning on sending back a daily blog from the COP26, Landrigan said.
Because the UN only informed BC that it could attend the COP26 about a month ago, Landrigan said, the planning has been challenging. They consulted Harvard and Tufts, both of which have attended COP summits in the past, to learn some tips about what to expect and how best to organize groups.
“We had to put this thing together from scratch in about six or eight weeks. And I’m very proud of the job we’ve done—we’ve got a good team, we’ve got strong leaders,” Landrigan said. “It’s all going to work out, but it took some pretty fast scrambling to put it together.”
With one COP under BC’s belt, Deese hopes that groups who observe the conference in the future will have a fuller experience. This year’s planning committee wasn’t able to secure any outside funding from donors or foundations to bring a big group on such short notice, but it’s grateful that BC has agreed to foot the bill, Deese said.
Despite the hiccups and rushed planning, Deese is excited that BC is stepping up, and that students and faculty will hopefully be able to attend this conference for years to come.
“We won’t have an official role in the actual conference, whereas for the next COP, which will be located in an African country about a year from now, we expect to have a role on the agenda and present some of our research, and have a larger, kind of more official, BC presence,” Deese said.
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