Student climate activists share conference experience

Dalhousie, King’s students' attendance at COP16 in Cancun wasn't fun in the sun

Lars Boggild (right) Robin Tress (middle) attended the COP16 in Cancun this past December. (Photo: Belinda Alzner)

International conferences aren't all boardrooms and politics. They can offer unique opportunities to get involved with local communities and learn from the brightest business minds in the world.

Canadian youth delegates to the COP16 spoke Thursday evening about their experience joining the discussion for climate change action. It was the first of the College of Sustainability's winter public lecture series at Dalhousie University.

Last month, Lars Boggild, Robin Tress and Emilie Novaczek were among Canada's 29 youth delegates who went to Cancun, Mexico, for the 16th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Brittany Maguire represented the home team that organized events in Halifax.

In addition to representing Canadian youth, the students served as a watchdog for the country's negotiator and politicians.

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Canadian youth delegates tell a crowded room at Dal about their participation in the COP16. (Photo: Belinda Alzner)

Boggild, Tress and Maguire told the crowd they were disappointed in the way Canada was represented at the conference.

Most countries took about 10 minutes to explain their stance on climate change and what they wanted out of the conference. John Baird, Canada's minister of environment at the time, said everything he had to say in a mere three minutes, Novaczek, a combined honours in biology and sustainability student at King's, said via Skype.

Novaczek said Baird called the now-denounced Copenhagen Accord "groundbreaking" and claimed Canada was doing its part by committing 0.3 per cent of GDP to foreign aid. Yet the federal government has promised 0.7 per cent.

"Canada is Canada. The government is a different thing," said Boggild, a second-year political science and sustainability student at Dal. "I don't have much faith in the current government."

Delegates in the community

While in Cancun, the delegates conducted workshops for students at local schools. They taught children ranging from grades 5 to 12 about climate change. Those in Grade 12 also learned about climate change policy.

As part of the workshops, the delegates encouraged each student to write a message expressing how they felt about climate change to the Canadian government, international community, or any other group.

Novaczek described one "politically aware seventh grader" who wrote a message to the Canadian government. It read: "The Conservative party should start conserving something worthwhile."

One Grade 5 student simply wrote, "I want the Earth to be able to live the way it was meant to be."

The messages were compiled and made into giant puppets, which were brought into the conference centre in Cancun. The delegates tried to get the puppets inside the boardroom to Baird, but were stopped by security.

Money talks

While at the conference, Boggild attended the World Climate Summit session. He got to sit in on discussions with CEOs and chief sustainability officers of some of the world's largest companies, such as Nike, where they had informal talks about sustainability from a business perspective.

"They seemed to immediately get it," Boggild recalled. "Many of these companies see sustainability as just another dimension of competitiveness."

He said they're tired of being seen as part of the climate change problem.

Boggild said Hannah Jones, vice-president of sustainable business for Nike, told the businesses that they need to separate themselves from those that have historically and contemporarily done environmental damage, such as the oil industry.

Tress, a biology and environmental science student at Dal, said that despite lingering ethical issues with big business, she feels "that in the very short amount of time that we have to make a real difference, working with 51 per cent of the money in the world is probably a good idea."

Despite the action and visibility of the youth delegates, the Climate Action Network gave Canada the "Colossal Fossil" award at the end of the conference.

"We were deemed the most obstructive," Tress said. She paused and added, "and most not useful country."

"It was really unfortunate," said Novaczek. "I know how much we're capable of and how much will there is in the Canadian population."

While the agreement made in Cancun is not legally binding, Boggild believes it sets a precedent for future negotiations.

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