Vermont Education Goes Global At Paris Climate Talks

Nov 25, 2015

As leaders in more than 150 countries prepare to meet in Paris with an eye toward forming a landmark climate agreement, some students at both Vermont Law School and the University of Vermont are preparing to make contributions of their own to the international effort to address climate change.

UVM sophomore Gina Fiorile plans to showcase a climate education model based on "youth climate summits." The model was adopted from a program run by the Wild Center in the Adirondacks, where Fiorile grew up. This year, there were youth climate summits across the U.S. and internationally; Fiorile is going to Paris with the Wild Center in an effort to spread the idea even more.

A group of Vermont Law School students plans to attend the talks as advisors that could influence domestic policy - in Myanmar. The 10 students are part of Professor Tracy Bach's "Observer Delegation Course," in which they're assigned by the United Nations to help support a "least developed country" - one of the 50 poorest nations in the world - at the Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris. They'll also be blogging regularly from Paris.

Bach says the global meeting gives her class an opportunity to bring Vermont's environmentalist philosophy far outside the state's borders.

"Vermont leads," she said in an interview. "We're a small state - of course we always have to start with that - 650,000 people. But we lead when it comes to climate change awareness and action."

"A lot of what we are doing at the state level is exactly the kind of effort that our whole country needs to do in order to live up to our pledges to our international neighbors." - Vermont Law School Professor Tracy Bach

Bach cited Vermont's renewable energy portfolio standards and the state's use of renewable energy, and said Vermonters are setting an example in fighting climate change.

"We're a group of people that tend to work hard to make good policy and then we take on the obligations to carry it out," she said. "And so a lot of what we are doing at the state level is exactly the kind of effort that our whole country needs to do in order to live up to our pledges to our international neighbors."

Although Bach's class isn't affiliated with Fiorile's efforts at events related to the summit, the UVM student plans to pitch an international audience on the idea of youth climate summits.

Youth Climate Summits Go Global

UVM hosted the second annual Vermont Youth Climate Summit on Nov. 20. But the idea came to Vermont with Fiorile, a sophomore from New York who helped organize the Adirondack Youth Climate Summit with the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, N.Y.

UVM Professor Jon Erickson met Fiorile before she came to UVM while he was making a documentary film about the Adirondack summit. He says that when Fiorile came to UVM as a student, she suggested starting a similar event in Vermont.

Students attending the summit are responsible for developing a climate action plan for their schools. Erickson says it's not abstract; the work is expected to yield a measurable difference.

"Every school in one way or another is starting to track their greenhouse gas emissions, creating an accounting for their greenhouse gas emissions," Erickson said outside a classroom at this year's climate summit.

"We've now had over 30 Vermont high schools, so we're getting close to half of all over Vermont high schools, private and public, attending these summits and actively doing climate action planning." - UVM Professor Jon Erickson

He said the students are tasked with working on every part of the process: "Track your greenhouse gas emissions, make an action plan to reduce them, implement them, and then manage those plans from year to year, from class to class, from student to student."

He said the Vermont summits already have a lot of buy-in around the state.

"We've now had over 30 Vermont high schools, so we're getting close to half of all of Vermont high schools, private and public, attending these summits and actively doing climate action planning."

Fiorile's goal in Paris is to spread the idea even more.

"I will be going as a youth delegate with the Wild Center," she said in an interview, "and we're hosting two events that will be taking place while the negotiations are going on, and those events will be focused on youth engagement in climate change."

Helping Myanmar

Bach's Vermont Law School class will be closer to the talks. That class is serving, in essence, as extra staff for the Myanmar government. Bach says this assistance is important to the world's poor nations.

"People in the environmental ministry tend to be foresters, they tend to be water biologists, they tend to come from a scientific background," she said from Paris. "They tend not to have policy training and almost never have legal training."

Bach also said the legal enforcement agencies in such countries also tend not to devote resources to environmental issues as Vermont or the U.S. does. She says her class - though they're technically not lawyers yet - helps Myanmar's delegation to the talks with policy briefs and by attending various sessions at the conference.

She said that support is especially important this year as the parties work to draft a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol - the agreement that has governed international climate change commitments for a decade.

"This COP is all about negotiating a new treaty," Bach said, "and treaty language is legal language and you have to have some background in it to understand it. So we've been working with this delegation for - this will be the second year - and so we're helping to build that capacity because you don't have to be law trained to do it, but you have to have a measure of experience."

Bach says her 10 students will be attending in two groups of five - one group at each week of the conference. They've all spent the semester developing an expertise in a climate-related field, which they will use to help Myanmar officials plan their climate strategy.