What students say about climate change

On Dec. 12, 2015, Cameron Pulley, a graduating senior at Washington University in St. Louis, boarded a plane for the second leg of his trip home from the Conference of the Parties (COP21) climate negotiations in Paris. Having left in a hurry, he was still wearing a business suit. He sat down next to an older man, who asked him what a young guy like him was doing in a suit.

Washington University students Taylor Blevin and Talia Rubnitz advocating for a low limit on carbon emissions at COP21 in Paris.

“I’m coming back from the climate change negotiations in Paris,” Cameron said.

“You don’t really believe all that, do you?” the man said.

It was a bad moment for Pulley, who is an international and area studies and environmental policy major in Arts & Sciences. “We had spent a week talking with people from all over the world about the steps we need to take to survive as a species and the first question I get in America is, ‘You don’t really believe that, do you?’ ” he said.

But he didn’t argue; instead he turned to his seat partner and talked with him, searching through conversation for common ground.

In the end, this meant a two-hour conversation about the California drought and the price of almonds.

But Pulley, together with the five other Washington University students who went to the climate negotiations with him, are well prepared, resilient, tough-minded and in this fight for the duration.

You could say it is their lives’ work. “I’m 21 now,” said Nick Annin, a junior majoring in international and area studies in Arts & Sciences. “Let’s say I’m going to be on the planet for another 70 years. That’s a long time, and if we’re already experiencing the effects of climate change, it’s hard to imagine what the planet is going to be like when I’m 90, if nothing is done.”

“This is not an issue that’s going to be solved by a couple of years of effort,” Pulley said. “Our lifetime will be dedicated to it; it’s really going to be our generation’s problem to deal with.”

“Sometimes I feel that our generation doesn’t have enough control over these decisions,” said Amanda Bender, a fourth-year graduate student in earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences, and the alternate delegate to the conference this year. “Older people who are now in the position of setting policy don’t necessarily have our interests at heart. As a student you can feel a bit helpless.”

Riding the dragon

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the students’ resolve as clearly as the fact that they flew to Paris just weeks after the terrorist attacks there.

“I remember I was sitting on my couch and saw something pop up on my phone,” said Taylor Blevin, a junior majoring in chemical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science and economics in Arts & Sciences. “It was two weeks to the day before I was supposed to leave. And then I found out that the apartment where we were staying is a block away from the Bataclan,” the theater where 89 people were killed.

“My plane was empty,” said Talia Rubnitz, a senior in international and area studies in Arts & Sciences. “I took a picture, and the entire plane within the view of the camera was empty. It was really kind of eerie.”

But if they went in nervous, they were quickly swept up by the excitement of a meeting attended by 150 heads of state. The first speaker Rubnitz heard was Francois Hollande, president of France, who said that he was very grateful to the delegates who had come despite the attacks, and that people like them who show up in times like this are going to create this change — this necessary change in the world.

The students, who had been following minute alterations to the wording of the text of the agreement, went to Paris hesitant to expect too much — this was, after all, the 21st attempt at a global climate treaty and arguments over words or phrases can be disheartening — and came home feeling cautiously optimistic or even flat out hopeful.

Also part of the Washington University delegation were Anu Hittle, an instructor in international affairs, and Beth Martin, a senior lecturer in environmental studies who taught the COP preparation seminar. Martin is no casual optimist, having earned a living working on hazardous waste cleanup and in Washington University’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic, and even she felt buoyed and encouraged.

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