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Science & Technology

Climate Change Conference COP22 Energizes Drexel Faculty, Students

By: Ben Seal

December 15, 2016

The central corridor at the COP22 conference in Morocco.

The main corridor at the COP22 climate conference in Morocco.

The outcome of the U.S. presidential election sent Franco Montalto, PhD, into “a bit of a tailspin,” he said. The associate professor in Drexel’s College of Engineering wanted to be optimistic as he prepared to leave just a few days later for Marrakesh, Morocco, to attend the 22nd Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, but he was concerned about what the election could mean for the climate action movement.

After attending the second half of the two-week conference, which started Nov. 7, some of his usual optimism returned. Being plunged into the conference, referred to as COP22, amid a large, diverse community of people working and researching with shared interests in mind gave him just the shot of energy he needed.

“It reminded me again that the climate action movement is now a worldwide phenomenon,” said Montalto, the director of the new North American Hub of the Urban Climate Change Research Network at Drexel, two weeks after returning stateside.

Two Decembers ago in Paris, as a delegation from Drexel observed alongside civil organizations from around the world, international leaders negotiated an agreement to limit the effects of climate change. This year’s conference was expected to address implementation of that landmark agreement and its speedy ratification.

The election of Donald Trump created a shock wave during the first week of COP22, members of Drexel’s contingent said. Trump is reportedly seeking to withdraw from the Paris accord and chose as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who disagrees with the scientific consensus on climate change and has criticized the EPA’s clean power regulations. Initial dismay wore off, though, and the five Drexel students and five professors attending the conference discovered a renewed focus on the issues at hand and a deeper connection to their work.

“It’s one thing to read about innovations that are happening around the world,” said Dalton George, a graduate student in the College of Arts and Science’s Center for Science, Technology and Society. “It’s a completely other thing to actually be there, and to talk to the people who are directly involved with it.”

George was part of the envoy put together by Drexel’s Office of International Programs and the University’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, which secured partial funding for the students and faculty to travel to Morocco. For the second year in a row, Drexel’s observer status for the conference allowed the group to attend meetings, panels and presentations and report on the action taken by the international delegates at COP22. The University was one of a few dozen at COP22 after having demonstrated expertise and prior research in the interdisciplinary areas affected by climate change and being granted permanent observer status after COP21. Drexel faculty hope to take an even larger contingent next year.

The conference presented an opportunity to understand the United States’ place in the climate politics landscape and “invaluable” research experience, George said.

Eugenia Victoria Ellis, PhD, an associate professor of architecture with dual appointments in the College of Engineering and Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, presented research on light, health and energy while in Morocco. She said it was “eye-opening” to realize that, in addition to taking a backseat to other countries in the fight against climate change, the United States is also among the “worst offenders.” Despite some of the sobering statistics shared at the conference about the challenges ahead, she left with a batch of global contacts with whom she can now network as she builds on her research.

For Stephanie Miller, an environmental engineering PhD student who focuses on urban sustainability and resilience, the conference reinforced the value of her studies. The second week relayed the broad message that work on the local and state levels is key to making a difference globally, according to the College of Engineering student.

“I knew before going in that my work was important conceptually,” said Miller. “But after COP, I feel a stronger connection to the research I’m doing, and I’m more motivated.”

Drexel’s cohort had the chance to see speakers including Jonathan Pershing, PhD, the lead climate negotiator for the United States; Brian Deese, President Obama’s senior climate adviser; and Secretary of State John Kerry. Though they all steered away from speculation on where the country is headed under Trump, Hugh Johnson, a senior associate in the Institute for Energy and the Environment, said they nonetheless allayed some concerns.

“Jonathan Pershing talked about how there are 80,000 coal jobs in this country, and there are 2.5 million people employed by renewable energy and the clean energy sectors,” said Johnson, noting an irreversible trend toward clean power.

Much of the progress the country has made “can’t just be rolled back,” he said.

The conference brought together researchers from across the University, ranging in focus from environmental policy and engineering to architecture and sustainability. As Mira Olson, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, said, “Climate impacts all of the research that’s done here.”

Kaitlyn Sniffen, a PhD candidate in civil, architectural and environmental engineering, said COP22 reinforced that a broad coalition of researchers and government leaders will be needed to successfully combat climate change, particularly given its varying effects by region.

“It’s a global issue, but it’s also a very, very local issue, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Sniffen. “It’s going to take a lot of teams and a lot of people thinking about different problems and different solutions.”

With a better understanding of global climate politics and the work being done in diverse fields around the world, Drexel’s team returned from COP22 ready to move forward.

“Despite the possibility that the new administration will no longer be leading the way, those of us who care about these issues have to simply continue to focus on the hard work that has to be done,” said Montalto.