Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Saving the Planet

     I can pretty much guarantee that you've heard about climate change. It's all over the news, especially with the ever-increasing number of extreme storms hitting hard all around the world. We, here at UWC-USA, are big into sustainability (in fact, it's part of our mission statement), recycling, and all that goes into saving the planet. We've watched films, and discussed the issue, and even attended protests, but never have I really understood the severity of the situation until last week.
     My science class is called Environmental Systems. The course covers a bit of all the different sciences and relates them to one another and, more importantly, to global systems (political, economic, social, etc.). Recently we've been talking about climate change, including the history, current situation, and future possibilities. It was interesting, but not anything too exciting or that we'd never heard before.
     This past week, instead of just listening to our teacher, BG, tell us about the current issues, we got to experience first hand the immensity of the situation and the difficulty of solving it. BG organized a mock United Nations Climate Summit. Each of the students in the class was assigned a country (usually a country in a different position than their own; for example, I represented Niger, which is a developing B country, while the U.S. is a developed country) and together, as representatives of the three economic power groups- developed, developing A, and developing B countries- we were supposed to come up with a solution to climate change.
     Sounds easy enough, right? Everyone lowers their carbon emissions, goes green, and we save the planet. NO. There are sooo many factors that have to be taken into account. Like the fact that the developing B countries (Niger, Cambodia, Guatemala, Bangladesh, etc.) will be the countries hit the hardest by rising sea levels; they will lose crucial agricultural land, yet they can't contribute to the global fund or afford green energy sources. Or that developing A countries don't want to contribute to the global fund or reduce emissions because they want to achieve the success and prosperity of the developed countries, who they argue are mainly to blame for climate change and therefore should be the ones to fix the problem. But developed countries don't have that option because the A countries are growing and increasing emissions and, without their participation, the point is moot. There are a lot of factors to consider and, as we learned, its not easy.
     Basically, the way each round worked was that each group decided on a goal and then negotiated terms with the other two groups. At the end of the round, each group presented a:
*CO2 emissions stop year
*CO2 emissions decline start year
*Fractional rate of decline (%/yr)
*REDD rates (reduction in emissions from deforestation and land degradation)
*Afforestation rate
*Contribution to the global fund for climate mitigation and adaptation ($ billion/yr)
     Our goals were to keep the global rise in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius, the carbon levels as low as possible (experts originally set the cap at 350 parts per million, but we've already exceeded that), the sea levels with minimal rise, and the global fund at $100billion. Over the course of a week we participated in ~5 rounds of negotiations, each time plugging the proposals into a computer model which showed us the global effects of our decisions.
     Going into the activity, I didn't expect much. I didn't think our class would really take the summit seriously and I fully expected the whole thing to be fairly boring. I. Was. So. Wrong. You would not believe how fired up people got about defending the positions and contributions of their countries- arguing about climate justice, and economic power, and ratios of contributions. It was really impressive. And really fun. And I definitely learned a lot.
     In the end we managed to keep the rise in temperature to 2.3 degrees Celsius, but this required extreme changes in the ways we were "running our countries". Basically, the developed countries ended up with a rate of decline of 2% starting in 2019, the A countries in the same year with 1.5%, and the B countries in 2035 at a rate of 0.4%. Our deforestation and afforestation rates were 2% and 9% respectively and we reached the global fund agreement with developed countries contributing $65b, A at $30b, and B at $5b. These are really radical changes, but possible, and if the countries of the world could just sit down, realize that all of our lives are at stake here, get over differences and economic and political agendas, and just do it, we could really get somewhere. Saving the planet and stopping climate change is possible, its just going to take some work. And that work needs to happen now, because another thing we learned is that for every single year you wait, the problem becomes exponentially harder to solve.
     Seriously, this was one of the coolest activities I've ever done in a class. It was very real and made me realize not only how grave the global situation is, but that my classmates and I could very well be the ones in these negotiations, calling the shots, in just a few years time.
     So get ready, guys. We're coming to save the planet.

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