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Drexel Hosts First COP Event, Sends Delegation to COP26

November 22 2021

From left to right: Drexel students Sarah Wetzel, William Newman and Atharva Bhagwat. “This is inside the Plenary, a large room where the delegates from each country and organization gathered for the high-level events. Barack Obama also gave a speech in here a few days prior, which Sarah and I were able to attend,” Newman said. Photo courtesy William Newman.

Drexel University is a permanent observer to United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s annual Conference of Parties (COP), and has sent a delegation of faculty, professional staff and students to the annual international event since 2015. Each year's COP has been an ideal opportunity for Dragons to both learn more about global climate action as well as attend and participate in research and policy panels and discussions. 

This year’s event, the COP26 conference, was held in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 13. It was the first time the event has been held since 2019, but 2021 also marked a significant year of firsts for Drexel at COP, and not just because Drexel has been championing its Climate Year initiative in 2021.

For the first time, the University cohosted an event, formally categorized as a “side event,” at COP: the in-person and virtual “Scaling Up: Case Studies in Collaborations between Cities and Higher Education Institutions,” which was held Nov. 10 to discuss how universities and cities can partner for work related to climate considerations.

The event featured two Drexel faculty (School of Education Associate Clinical Professor Kristy Kelly, PhD, and College of Engineering Professor Franco Montalto, PhD) as panelists. They were joined by speakers from nine countries and six continents, some of whom are involved in the Urban Climate Change Research Network (whose North American Hub is housed at Drexel and run by Montalto) and the University Climate Change Coalition (which Drexel joined last spring as part of its Climate Year initiative).

Kristy Kelly, center, on stage at Drexel’s “Scaling Up: Case Studies in Collaborations between Cities and Higher Education Institutions” event.  Photo courtesy Sarah Wetzel.
Kristy Kelly, center, on stage at Drexel’s “Scaling Up: Case Studies in Collaborations between Cities and Higher Education Institutions” event. Photo courtesy Sarah Wetzel.

Additionally, this year, all of Drexel’s undergraduate student attendees had previously taken a class related to COP: the “Great Works: Climate Action” colloquium course in the Pennoni Honors College taught by the Office of Global Engagement’s Director of Global Engagement Adam Zahn, who also attended COP26. Held during the spring of 2021, the course took an in-depth look at issues and negotiations discussed at COP over the years and featured a range of guest speakers with COP experience. 

To commemorate the Drexel contingent who traveled or virtually attended events at COP26 this year, DrexelNow asked those students, faculty and professional staff to reflect on their experience. Below are some of their lightly edited responses:

Atharva Bhagwat, custom-designed major ’23 (Computing Technology for Sustainability and Society), Pennoni Honors College

Atharva Bhagwat in front of a COP26 sign. Photo courtesy Atharva Bhagwat.
Atharva Bhagwat in front of a COP26 sign. Photo courtesy Atharva Bhagwat.

Q: What made you want to be involved with COP26? 

A: For the better part of the last decade, working towards climate action has been an integral part of my life and identity. I am grateful I was able to attend COP26 to further my journey into this realm. 

Q: What was your favorite part of the experience?

A: It’s hard to pick one! Some of my favorite things were: meeting the most diverse group of people I will ever meet; being at a UN conference in which every single country on this planet was represented; getting to interact with influential figures such as [Secretary-General of the United Nations] Antonio Guterres, [United States Secretary of Transportation] Pete Buttigieg, [former Secretary-General of the United Nations] Ban Ki-Moon, etc.; and being able to get involved with the UN Youth Constituency (YOUNGO) and advocate on the behalf of the youth with negotiation teams from different country delegations.

From left to right: Sarah Wetzel, Atharva Bhagwat and UNFCCC High-Level Champion of Chile Gonzalo Muñoz. Photo courtesy Atharva Bhagwat.
From left to right: Sarah Wetzel, Atharva Bhagwat and UNFCCC High-Level Champion of Chile Gonzalo Muñoz. Photo courtesy Atharva Bhagwat.

Q: What was your takeaway from COP26?

A: Individual actions matter a whole lot more than we think. As an individual, I was always skeptical of the impact my actions would have. However, at COP26, I saw developing countries request monetary assistance from developed countries that was promised a decade ago to help them undergo sustainable development, only for the developed countries to deflect a part of the expectation to the private sector, who then signaled to demand generation [Editor’s note: demand generation is, in simple terms, a multilayered approach to drive awareness and interest] being one of their motivating factors for making that contribution. Our collective efforts will cause this demand generation, hence each of our individual actions matter. Take those eco-conscious steps, and tell everyone you know to take them too. 

Alyssa Kemp, environmental engineering ’25, College of Engineering

Alyssa Kemp photographed at the conference. Photo courtesy Alyssa Kemp.
Alyssa Kemp photographed at the conference. Photo courtesy Alyssa Kemp.

Q: What made you want to be involved with COP26?

A: I knew I wanted to attend COP26 as soon as I learned about the conference and the opportunity to be an observer at the event representing the “Drexel in the Climate Action” class. I never imagined I would be selected to go this year, but I am so grateful for the chance to attend COP26. Being selected to attend the most important climate conference was an honor and I was excited to be a part of the epicenter of climate negotiations with its outcomes affecting everyone on the planet.

Q: What was your favorite part of the experience?

A: Choosing a favorite part in my experience at COP26 is a difficult task as the activities that I was able to partake in were varied in nature. I was able to walk in climate change protests alongside internationally renowned activists as well as sit in sessions with world leaders just an arm’s length away. I made connections with delegates from across the world and listened to Indigenous leaders, climate scientists, and government officials. The conference was an astounding opportunity that deepened my understanding of climate change and its effects on society. 

Q: What was your takeaway from COP26?

A: The largest takeaway I have is that the impact of people to unite peacefully to create change is powerful and inspiring. 

Franco Montalto, PhD, professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, College of Engineering

A screenshot of Franco Montalto virtually speaking at Drexel's co-hosted COP26 event. Photo courtesy Adam Zahn.
A screenshot of Franco Montalto virtually speaking at Drexel's co-hosted COP26 event. Photo courtesy Adam Zahn.

Q: What made you want to be involved with COP26?

A: I have been part of Drexel’s COP delegations going back to 2015. Unfortunately, I could not attend in person this year due to a variety of factors, but the opportunity to help organize Drexel’s first official side-event was something I could not turn down. I’m working extensively with our Climate and Sustainability working group, and senior administration at the University, at ramping up and formalizing Drexel’s climate work. The chance to use the COP side event to gather best practices for how do to this important work was extremely exciting. 

Q: What was your favorite part of the experience?

A: I loved seeing Drexel’s climate commitment extend to the global stage through this side event. 

Q: What was your takeaway from COP26?

A: My takeaway this year was similar to my takeaway from previous COP’s. The “parties” can and will do what they can, but there is a real need for climate action among “sub-national actors” — of which universities are one key example. Universities need to be examples of climate leadership, teach the skills that students need to develop climate solutions, and orient their research enterprise around the needs of vulnerable communities.

William Newman, computer science ’24, College of Computing & Informatics

From left to right: Kristy Kelly, Atharva Bhagwat, William Newman, Sarah Wetzel, Anita Forrester. “This was the first night we met up, and we’re outside the front of The Dome, a famous building in Edinburgh,” Newman said. Photo courtesy William Newman.
From left to right: Kristy Kelly, Atharva Bhagwat, William Newman, Sarah Wetzel, Anita Forrester. “This was the first night we met up, and we’re outside the front of The Dome, a famous building in Edinburgh,” Newman said. Photo courtesy William Newman.

Q: What made you want to be involved with COP26?

A: Attending COP would finally give me a perspective into the real decision-making processes behind some of the global efforts to thwart climate change. To see leaders and their people from all over the world collaborate in an effort to make the future a better place could not only give me some hope about our potentially dismal future, but also help me become a better informed individual on the matter. 

Q: What was your favorite part of the experience?

A: For me, that would be seeing and hearing people from literally all over the globe. Up until this point, I’ve had basically zero exposure to most of the countries on this planet. But hearing their accents and languages and watching their cultures interact with one another really personified previously faceless portions of the globe for me. 

A group outside the conference, including, from left to right, UNFCCC High-Level Climate Action Champion of United Kingdom Nigel Topping, William Newman, Juliete Martínez Oyarzún (a climate activist from Chile), Sarah Wetzel and Atharva Bhagwat. Third from the right is UNFCCC High-Level Champion of Chile Gonzalo Muñoz. Photo courtesy William Newman.
A group outside the conference, including, from left to right, UNFCCC High-Level Climate Action Champion of United Kingdom Nigel Topping, William Newman, Juliete Martínez Oyarzún (a climate activist from Chile), Sarah Wetzel and Atharva Bhagwat. Third from the right is UNFCCC High-Level Champion of Chile Gonzalo Muñoz. Photo courtesy William Newman.

Q: What was your takeaway from COP26?

A: Things are grim, but not hopeless. Unfortunately, climate change is further along than I initially knew. We’ve already crossed a few points of no return. Much of the permafrost will thaw, most glaciers will melt, sea levels will noticeably rise, and natural disasters will continue to become more severe. Action at this point is just to avoid the worst-case scenario. After attending COP, I do believe action will be taken, but the most optimistic outcome seems unlikely. Over the next decade, I’d expect to see the planet on track for somewhere in the middle of the worst- and best-case scenarios. While much of the action is caught up in process and politics as it always has been, the pressure is growing rapidly on those in charge. 

Niyi Onanuga, architecture ’25, Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design

Niyi Onanuga at COP26. Photo courtesy Niyi Onanuga.
Niyi Onanuga at COP26. Photo courtesy Niyi Onanuga.

Q: What made you want to be involved with COP26?

A: I wanted to be a part of COP26, or any COP really, after watching “The Island President,” which is a movie about the president of the Maldives sending awareness about how island nations would be impacted by global warming and rising sea levels. After watching this, I was not only made aware of UNFCCC, but it bolstered my passion for climate change advocacy.

Q: What was your favorite part of the experience?

A: My favorite experience was a roundtable discussion on the role of neighborhoods and what makes a neighborhood, held by the Resilience Lab at COP26. This event allowed all participants to hold an open discussion about what neighborhoods look like and will have to look like in the future to create sustainable communities. In addition, I met some high-level professionals there such as a sustainability engineer from Foster and Partners and a few chiefs of sustainability for a few nations in Africa and Pacific Islands.

From left to right: Sarah Wetzel, Atharva Bhagwat, William Newman and Niyi Onanuga. Photo courtesy Atharva Bhagwat.
From left to right: Sarah Wetzel, Atharva Bhagwat, William Newman and Niyi Onanuga. Photo courtesy Atharva Bhagwat.

Q: What was your takeaway from COP26?

A: My biggest takeaway is that climate change impacts far more than just the literal ecosystems and biomes worldwide. Rising sea levels and global warming are serious concerns, but the issue isn’t that those are happenings, the biggest issues are what come after. Loss of fertile land, loss of residential land, unbalancing food webs, increase in urban pollution, and so much more come with climate change. Thus, climate action has to explore more than just the environmental science aspect or the political aspects of these issues.

Sarah Wetzel, public health ’23, Dornsife School of Public Health

Q: What made you want to be involved with COP26?

A: Like many of my peers, I’ve always been invested in the fight against climate change, but I’ve never been given the space to do anything substantial. Now, as a public health student, I am learning concrete ways to improve lives and address some of the inequities in our society. I originally saw COP26 as an opportunity to learn more about ending the inequities caused by climate change.

A group of climate scientists and students at COP26. From left to right: Texas Tech University Paul Whitfield Horn Distinguished Professor and Endowed Chair in Public Policy and Public Law Katherine Hayhoe, PhD; Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies Gavin Schmidt, PhD; Princeton University PhD candidate Maya Chung; and, far right, Sarah Wetzel. Photo courtesy Sarah Wetzel.
A group of climate scientists and students at COP26. From left to right: Texas Tech University Paul Whitfield Horn Distinguished Professor and Endowed Chair in Public Policy and Public Law Katherine Hayhoe, PhD; Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies Gavin Schmidt, PhD; Princeton University PhD candidate Maya Chung; and, far right, Sarah Wetzel. Photo courtesy Sarah Wetzel.

Q: What was your favorite part of the experience?

A: COP26 was an incredible learning experience, but in a bigger way it feels like a turning point. I’ve heard so many people say that COP is only the beginning — that the real work starts when everyone goes back to their countries. I’ve loved learning that they truly mean that. Restructuring our societies will require immense effort, but it is the only way we have a fighting chance. For example, I’ve been so inspired by young activists here — not just the ones in the streets, but the ones who engage with politicians and organizations throughout the year. It’s easy in developed countries to be apathetic about such an overwhelming issue, but these activists can’t afford to wait. It’s not about press conferences and flashy cars for them. So it was really inspirational to learn that many people are not waiting for political compromises, but making real, concrete strides in climate action. 

Q: What was your takeaway from COP26?

The Drexel delegation for the second week of COP26 at Loch Ness. From left to right: William Newman, Sarah Wetxel, School of Education EdD candidate Anita Forrester, Kristy Kelly (behind Forrester), Niyi Onanuga and Atharva Bhagwat. Photo courtesy Atharva Bhagwat.
The Drexel delegation for the second week of COP26 at Loch Ness. From left to right: William Newman, Sarah Wetxel, School of Education EdD candidate Anita Forrester, Kristy Kelly (behind Forrester), Niyi Onanuga and Atharva Bhagwat. Photo courtesy Atharva Bhagwat.

A: I’ve heard from young women who have no choice but to advocate for their communities, which are burning, contaminated by pollution from mines, or devastated by poverty. I want everyone to understand how vital this issue is. Young people, especially young girls, who are Indigenous or whose countries have been exploited for centuries, are doing more meaningful work than many of the ministers and big heads walking around in suits. Like many students and faculty at Drexel, I am incredibly privileged. I want to urge all of us to use that privilege to save lives.

Climate change is the single greatest issue facing humanity today. Every one of us has to get involved, and there are simple ways to do that, but we have to stay invested in this fight. Every single discipline must be involved — environmental science, education, public health, public policy, engineering, business — or people will continue to die.

Adam Zahn, director of global engagement, Office of Global Engagement

Adam Zahn at COP26. Photo courtesy Adam Zahn.
Adam Zahn at COP26. Photo courtesy Adam Zahn.

Q: What made you want to be involved with COP26?

A: This year’s COP26 was Drexel’s sixth year participating in the annual event. I have been organizing the annual delegation in partnership with Hugh Johnson, senior associate in the Office of Research and Innovation, and Franco Montalto, PhD, professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural & Environmental Engineering.

Q: What was your favorite part of the experience?

A: My engagement in COP stems from my interest in international negotiations. The collaborations between policymakers, industry, and higher education at COP are critical for establishing mechanisms for real change in our global approach to climate change. These synergies are similar to the ways in which Drexel seeks to partner with industry and international institutions in solving some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Q: What was your takeaway from COP26?

A: This year’s COP presented many challenges, particularly concerns around the exclusion of organizations with decreased access to vaccines or limitations on travel. Still, a greater emphasis on the rights of indigenous peoples was highlighted during this year’s event to the enthusiasm of the participants. My biggest joy in attending COP is witnessing our students’ commitment to global civic engagement through climate action and supporting Drexel’s increasing role at the COP proceedings.