Ben Breslau, Student, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Upon entering COP22 on Monday I struggled with what to do next. What did any of this matter if the U.S. government refuses to help us? Fortunately, over the course of this week at the conference, I came to understand that I am far from alone in the pursuit of a healthier planet. Individuals, corporations, and governments from around the world are working harder than ever to solve the issues that lay ahead. And our young generation has a greater potential than ever to completely reshape our world for the better.

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COP22 higher education panel. Photo: Christen Bellucci

On our first night at the conference, all of the UConn students entered a panel of faculty from around the world, discussing the role of Higher Education in future environmentalism. Professors spoke in French and English about how important it is that every college student learns about sustainability. As our generation is the one bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, it is vital that we are all equipped with the knowledge of how climate change and other environmental issues occur, how they relate to issues of social justice and economics, and how to create lasting solutions. It is important not only to teach sustainability, but also to make the lessons memorable; as with any subject, students are most likely to remember the lessons that are interesting, engaging, and relatable. Luckily, UConn students and faculty are pursuing this goal by promoting a new environmental literacy/sustainability general education requirement through a student-circulated petition and a faculty-led workgroup. It would be wonderful for our university to be on the short list of schools around the world that have adopted such a requirement. So how exactly can we, as students and faculty, construct these programs for more schools besides our own? Networking. Luckily, we had numerous opportunities to network and exchange ideas with a host of other people throughout the conference.

On Monday night, several of us were stuck waiting for our bus back to the hotel. Luckily, a potentially troubling situation quickly turned into a great opportunity. As we waited, we began to exchange information with some of the other conference attendees.

Mostafa, for example, is a journalist from Cairo. For the last few years, his work has granted him unique opportunities on the front lines of our changing world. Mostafa has seen the death and destruction caused by Syria’s civil war, and the plight of the now impoverished refugees trapped in Jordan and other countries. And of course, he was actively involved in the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations that removed Hosni Mubarak from his decades-long rule. He also had to watch helplessly, first as the extremely conservative Mohammad Morsi was elected, then as Morsi was forcibly deposed by Abdel al-Sisi and his military companions. Now, Mostafa and his friends — who, like us, want a nation of more democracy and transparency — are stuck under military rule with no sign of an election in the foreseeable future. Interestingly, we observed how the Arab Spring, and other recent events like the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, share similar social trends: the population at-large seems to be sick of ineffective “establishment” governments, but there is a strong divide as to what should replace the current world order.

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Students (Ben Breslau, Stephanie Hubli and Wyatt Million) and OEP Director Rich Miller learn about sustainable heating solutions at the COP22 Green Zone. Photo: Christen Bellucci

Before Mostafa boarded his bus, I asked him for advice about what we could do to counter our potentially regressive regime. He said: “Be patient. Unlike us, you’ll have a midterm election in two years, and another presidential election in four. Before then, we can all form a more connected international community.” We exchanged information, and will hopefully continue to build grassroots international support for climate awareness and action.

As the week went on, our group continued to ask ourselves what many Americans have recently been asking: How has our nation, and even our world, become so polarized? On Wednesday, we brainstormed this question with students from other American Universities and the Moroccan University of Cadi Ayyad. We gathered in one of the large university’s boardrooms with local students, as well as students from American schools such as the University of Denver, Columbia University, University of St. Louis, and several from Historically Black Colleges and Universities cohort. After introductions, UConn professor Oksan Bayulgen observed: In our generation, there are some teens and young adults who, like us, are incredibly passionate and active about a wide range of issues. But there are also many who show nearly complete apathy towards anything controversial or political. I, and some of the other American students, suggested that many of us are stuck in online echo chambers — we follow people and ‘news’ sources that align with our pre-existing ideas, and fear or condemn those with different outlooks. People also suggested that many American millennials need to be reached in areas of their life that matter to them. Examples include eco-friendly fashion, green community service, and sustainable diets. Some of the Moroccan students expanded on this notion and suggested that environmentalism is also a subject that too often is presented as abstract. Students need to learn, from a very early age, that sustainability is a real-world issue that affects us all.

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Cadi Ayyad University, co-host of the Colleges United for Climate Action networking event

I spoke later with Zakaria, a local student who runs “Science Caravans” with some of the other students who were at the networking event. They travel to local high schools and demonstrate simple experiments that explain how climate change works. Other Moroccan students suggested more outreach with a stronger focus on human rights and social justice issues that accompany climate challenges. This promotes community service and engages poor and minority stakeholders in the battle to avert a climate crisis.

Throughout the conference, we spotted many more opportunities to improve our generation’s global networking. For example, one of the many NGOs presenting in the Civil Societies pavilion held student gatherings throughout one of the days. While we weren’t able to attend ourselves, we gathered information about the organization, called Sustaining All Life. A U.S.-based group, they encourage exactly the information exchanges and conferences that we support.

I’m happy to say that I feel much more positive about our generation after all of these networking encounters. This, coupled with a Northeastern U.S. college sustainability conference I attended two weeks ago, has shown me that our generation is very proactive, especially in the face of disaster. All it takes is a coordinated effort!