Who are the Yale students in Durban?

FES masters students Lauren Graham, Chris Colvin, Mark Redmond, Jonathan Smith, Amit Ashkenazy and Max Song making friends at the Opening Plenary session of the COP-17 Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa

By Angel Hsu and Grant Tolley

Negotiators from 194 countries and observers from nearly 1, 400 organizations are trickling into the bustling halls of the International Convention Centre (ICC) Durban today for the global climate talks.  Among them are 26 graduate students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES), who are participating in the negotiations as a capstone to a semester of learning about global climate change governance in theory and by working directly with a stakeholder in practice.

Historically, F&ES has a long tradition of participating in international environmental conferences as a way of bringing to life the challenge of developing institutions and treaties to deal with pressing environmental issues.  In the age of “conference diplomacy” that has emerged since the momentous Rio Earth Summit in 1992, international environmental conferences such as the one here in Durban have become modus operandi for countries to collaborate.  One of the first conferences F&ES students attended was for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) meeting in 2008, which was also held in Durban.

A view of the Durban Exhibition Centre.

Now Yale F&ES students are wading in the same waters of the Indian Ocean as their predecessors – but facing a much different climate.  In 2008 – prior to the watershed Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 – worldwide attention and urgency to address climate change was at a peak.  The aftershock of the financial crisis had not yet fully been felt globally.  Even though the latest research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a future of climate-inflicted disruption of global ecosystems and increased human suffering, most climate policy experts are only cautiously optimistic that substantive progress will be reached in Durban to keep faith in the “traveling circus” – in the words of spokesman for the European Union Arthur Runge-Metzger – of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Who comprises the Yale delegation and what role are they playing in Durban? Students represent three courses at F&ES:  International Organizations and Conferences, Environmental Diplomacy Practicum, and the Environmental Protection Clinic.  During the semester, they have been working with various stakeholders to understand a particular country or organization’s position in the negotiations.  These include: the World Resources Institute, Red Cross, IDB, COICA, an alliance of Latvian environmental NGOs, Islands First, the People’s Republic of China, and the UN Permanent Missions of the Maldives and Afghanistan. In most cases, students have been directly involved in assisting these countries and organizations in developing a strategy for engagement and advancing a particular goal in the talks.  On the ground, they are working closely with their stakeholders to follow issues, reach out to key representatives, and, of course, write and analyze what they’re observing and learning from this rare opportunity.

At 11:30 am EST on Thursday, Dec. 1, several students will be skyping in live to F&ES (Sage Hall, Room 24) to provide an on-the-ground update of all the action in Durban.  We hope that you’ll be able to join in the conversation, but if not – please follow our blog, leave us comments or questions you’d like us to ask the participants here, and follow us on Twitter (@ecoangelhsu)!