It was my first time attending the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This 19th COP was held in Warsaw this year from November 11 to 23. As a Yup’ik Eskimo from Alaska whose family has seen the impacts of climate change firsthand, it was an honor to attend this international convention on behalf of Yale University. I learned about the process of international negotiations, and heard what the world leaders who populate the COP are planning to do to address climate change.
The outcome of the COP will affect my family and my future personally. In my home state of Alaska, my village of Dillingham is one of nearly two hundred Alaskan Native villages at risk of coastal erosion from lower sea-ice levels and rising seas. My family’s salmon fish camp has lost a warehouse to erosion already. We’ve seen invasive species invading our forests and infecting our salmon because warmer temperatures are allowing them to survive in Alaska. People have fallen through the abnormally thin ice on the rivers, lakes and oceans we use for transportation during the winter, because the ice has not been thick enough for us to do traditional ice fishing and hunting. Warmer temperatures are changing our way of life in a way that our elders say they have not seen before.
So I went to Warsaw with a personal stake. I was both heartened and taken aback to learn that many other people around the world have similar concerns and also have seen changes to their livelihoods. While at the COP, I worked with the Red Cross Climate Center, whose efforts help ensure that vulnerable communities become more prepared to adapt to a changing climate, and face reduced risks from climate disasters such as deadly hurricanes and severe drought. I helped with the Center’s Development and Climate Days (D&C Days) side event, which invited policymakers and other leaders from around the world to a two-day conference to learn more about climate change and how to prepare for it.
I was also involved in the deliberations of Arctic peoples and states, the Indigenous Caucus, the US delegation, and the younger generation’s caucus, or “YOUNGO.” They all had a similar message: our leaders must produce strong mitigation and adaptation measures to reduce the impacts of climate change.
Some highlights include meeting with former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, who is a strong advocate for helping people vulnerable to climate change. I was also able to meet some youth delegates from the Arctic and the Caribbean Islands, who had a side event called “Portraits of Resilience” to show their own pictures and stories of how climate change is affecting their communities and their future. I witnessed a walkout protest by non-governmental organizations that said the COP delegates were not doing enough to take strong measures against climate change. I was involved with both the YOUNGO and Indigenous Caucus while they passed resolutions urging leaders to address the threats of climate change. And I was able to chat and ask questions with top US delegate officials while attending their high-level negotiation events.
I was at COP for its second week, when the high-level negotiations between the nations occur. This year’s COP was supposed to lay the groundwork for a groundbreaking 2015 COP in Paris, which is expected to achieve big results in emissions reductions. While some believed that the negotiations did not achieve this, nations did agree to finish making plans for their “contributions” to reduce climate change emissions by the 2015 conference, to the best of their ability. The “contributions” language was weaker than what the US delegation wanted. The US asked nations to make firm “commitments” on how much they would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Since it will be up to the nations themselves to come up with this “contribution” level, I went to the side events and negotiations of the US delegation as much as I could, to see what our leaders were saying. At one of the side events, I was able to meet with Council for Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley, who is a top environmental advisor to President Obama. The US delegation stated that the US is on target to reduce their greenhouse emissions by at least 17 percent by 2020.
Since it is unlikely that the US will institute new emissions rules by passing legislation through Congress, it will be up to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control emissions through new regulations. The US Supreme Court handed the EPA a victory in 2007 when it ruled that EPA could regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants. Now, new EPA rules on emissions may be central for the US to achieve its greenhouse reduction goals. In October, I was able to go to the first of 11 listening sessions across the US by the EPA on proposed rules to reduce emissions from power plants. This effort could cut emissions and help with America’s commitments, since power plants contributed 40 percent of the US carbon emissions in 2012. The new set of proposed rules will be subject to a forthcoming ruling by the Supreme Court though, which will determine how much authority the EPA has to regulate certain emissions.
Moving forward, it will be important for US officials to better understand the emissions science in order to achieve our emissions reductions goals. A new study released in late November found that methane emissions are perhaps 50 percent higher than the EPA had anticipated. Methane is emitted from agriculture sources and from fossil fuel sources such as natural gas, and though it does not remain in the atmosphere as long, it is four times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Emissions of methane may increase due to large finds in hard-rock natural gas deposits in the U.S. The increased use of fracking may pose a challenge to America’s ability to achieve its emissions goals as stated in Warsaw.
It will be interesting to watch what regulations the Obama Administration will propose moving forward. With the new study on methane, as well as another study released this week that says Arctic methane is leaking into the atmosphere at an alarming rate, a reduction in carbon emissions cannot be the only answer. One thing is certain: a legal framework by the US and individual nations must lead the way to reduce climate emissions, as nations agreed to in Warsaw.
Verner Wilson, III is a first-year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is originally from Bristol Bay, Alaska, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 from Brown University. He previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund, as well as a coalition of Alaska Native tribes, on issues related to sustainable wild salmon fisheries, environmental justice, mining, oil and gas, and climate change.