Reflections on Tracking Warsaw

December 10, 2013

After spending the past semester learning about global environmental negotiations, our class had the opportunity to follow COP19 in Warsaw this November. Tracking the negotiations provided the perfect platform for applying our knowledge and testing what we’d learned. Our class watched live streams of the negotiations, followed key related Twitter hashtags, reviewed Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) reports each morning, and met daily to discuss how important climate change issues were proceeding.

Before Warsaw and this class, I had never followed an environmental negotiation before. I rarely looked at Twitter, and I hadn’t even heard of ENB. When we were told – with little guidance – to “follow the negotiations,” I felt a lot of trepidation and confusion. Luckily, as with most things in life, the best way to learn was to jump in. And the negotiations certainly provide a lot of material to jump in to! With so many countries, industries, and NGOs involved, not to mention adding science, economics, and politics into the mix, there was a LOT going on.

My favorite part of following the negotiations was setting up TweetDeck and slowly adjusting to the deluge of information flying at you every second. It was amazing to watch live updates from all over the world by everyone involved, including the everyday concerned citizen. As topics or catchy quotes would take over Twitter, I learned how quickly information can spread – and how events that feel personal, like the Philippines negotiator declaring a fast or when roughly 800 people walked out of the negotiations in protest, become rallying points for citizens paying attention abroad. I realized how everyone wants to be involved, and in a process like this, negotiations can feel painfully slow and inadequate. Rallying points give people something to hold on to, to feel hopeful about, and to promote the ultimate cause of combatting climate change.

While I learned a lot by following these negotiations, I think the most salient piece of knowledge I’ve gained is just how colossal the challenge of negotiations is, and how difficult it is to make headway in agreements. I knew from our class studies of previous negotiations that not much has been accomplished to address climate change, and I knew how many issues were intertwined in the discussion (ranging from mitigation to loss and damage to adaptation and more). But it wasn’t until watching the live stream that I realized how truly slow the process can be. Even as each country stood up and said essentially the same generic thing about the need to address climate change, there was still the crucial problem of reconciling vastly divergent opinions on how to actually accomplish anything of substance.

With so many invested players, climate change negotiations are overwhelming to say the least. While the optimist in me still clings to the hope that the global community will reach a strong enough agreement to significantly combat climate change in 2015 and protect the earth for both current and future generations, the reality of the situation is often disheartening. Not as much happened at Warsaw as I had hoped going in to the negotiations, but I have a much better understanding and appreciation for the challenge that all parties involved face: how to balance the personal with the global? The economic with the social and the political? The practical with the ideal? As I continue in my studies, it will be impossible for me to stay separate from critical questions like these. Part of being a scientist nowadays, especially given the state of the environment, involves engagement in important political conversations. I am grateful for this class because it gave me the vocabulary, knowledge, and practice to engage in the processes through which science and policy interact, and I look forward with cautious hope to the 2015 meeting in Paris!

--Kelsey Boulanger