Colby Attains Official United Nations Observer Status for Climate Change

Now, the College will have more chances to participate in the global climate conversation

An aerial view of the narrow port between the Pacific Ocean (at the top) and lagoon in Funafuti, Tuvalu. The low-lying South Pacific island nation of about 11,000 people has been classified as "extremely vulnerable" to climate change. Earlier this month, Colby made its first submission to the UN climate convention, weighing in on how to pay for loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change on small island nations. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
By Abigail Curtis
February 24, 2023

The Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has formally accepted Colby as an observer organization. 

By achieving the status of observer organization, the College will have more opportunities to participate in and influence the global climate conversation, including at the yearly climate change gatherings called Conference of the Parties, said Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Stacy-ann Robinson. She was part of the College’s delegation to COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last fall as a provisionally admitted observer organization. 

It was powerful for the Colby delegates to be in Egypt when world leaders and diplomats ultimately agreed to the long-awaited goal of establishing a fund to help poor and vulnerable countries, including small island nations, better manage the climate disasters exacerbated by rich, industrialized nations, she said. But simply attending the annual climate change summits will not be enough. 

“As observers, we can’t only attend COP,” she said. “We also need to find ways to engage in the process throughout the year.”

A role as a global citizen

With that in mind, Colby earlier this month made its first submission to the UN climate convention, weighing in on how to pay for loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change. As of Feb. 22, the College was one of just two observer organizations to make a submission on this topic, with the World Wildlife Fund being the other. 

The submission process is a way for both participating nations and observers, such as Colby, to share thoughts on issues used to shape climate negotiations throughout the year. The negotiations will culminate later this year at COP28 in Dubai. 

Stacy-ann Robison
Stacy-ann Robinson, assistant professor of environmental studies, speaks on a panel at 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt. (Photo courtesy Kerill O’Neill)

“This is another way in which you can have your voice heard,” said Robinson, the coordinating lead author for the submission. “What we’re doing is contributing a perspective to the conversation. The important thing is that we’ve provided a strong contribution. We’ve shared our views. It demonstrates how seriously the College wants to focus on this and how seriously the College takes its role as a global citizen.” 

Recognizing advocacy

In the submission, which was written after asking for input from faculty, staff, and students, Colby recognized the longtime advocacy efforts of the Alliance of Small Island States, which in 1991 began calling for an insurance mechanism to deal with the consequences of actual and expected sea-level rise. 

“Since then, the alliance has been instrumental in establishing a focus on loss and damage, an issue that is of critical importance to those developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” the document said. “Some of which are on the brink of geographical and cultural extinction.” 

The College also stressed the importance of making sure any institutional structure created in support of addressing loss and damage be informed by science and of reimagining the ways that loss and damage can be funded, including long-overdue reforms to international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. 

“One of the [things] we’re arguing for is that flexibility should be one of the principles guiding the new loss-and-damage funding arrangements,” Robinson said. 

Promoting accountability

Accountability is another one, according to Samuel Apoya ’26, a computer science and economics double major from Ghana. He contributed his thoughts for the College’s loss-and-damage submission because he’s seen firsthand what people and countries experience during extreme natural hazards like wildfires, which are common in his country. 

In response, government officials in developing nations seek emergency funds from organizations such as the International Monetary Fund but often misuse the money, Apoya said. 

“Before victims get their share of the money, the politicians who were supposed to see to the proper disbursement of the aid would have embezzled great amounts of the money, and victims would only end up with negligible kinds of aid such as drinks, rice, and toiletries,” he said. 

Apoya said it is critical for the United Nations to ensure there is a trusted, non-political body for developing nations to ensure that the monies are properly disbursed. Robinson agreed, saying that one of the reasons Colby’s submission called on the UN to explore the possibility of direct cash transfers to individuals, households, and communities was to ensure that those most affected are those that benefit from the financing.

A need for passionate people

Kerill O’Neill, the Julian D. Taylor Professor of Classics and special assistant to the provost for humanities initiatives, hopes that the formalization of Colby’s status will mean more people from the community will have the opportunity to attend the COP gatherings. He was part of last fall’s delegation to Egypt, and he believes the world needs dedicated, committed students to help confront the climate crisis.  

“We want passionate people who have a sense of social justice and a kind of conscience to be not just observing but eventually doing the negotiations and building the capacity for those who currently can’t represent themselves,” he said. 

Robinson said that the College will continue to seek out ideas and input from the campus community. 

“We’ve had the experience of participating in COP. We’ve had the opportunity to make a submission,” she said. “Now is the time we need to be making an engagement strategy for the College around this.” 

Faculty, staff, students, and alumni with ideas for engaging in the climate negotiations process should get in touch with Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Denise Bruesewitz, the College’s designated contact person, at [email protected]