COP27 Inspires Colby Delegation to Think Bigger

President David A. Greene asks, ‘Can we do more?’

protestors at UN World Climate Conference COP27
Participants in a demonstration at the UN Climate Summit COP27 hold placards and banners. (Photo by Christophe Gateau/picture alliance via Getty Images)
By Abigail Curtis
December 5, 2022

Amid the scramble of meetings, negotiations, and more at the United Nations’ international climate change conference last month in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, the Colby delegation who attended COP27 were inspired to ask a question. 

They wondered if the College, with its robust environmental studies program, might be able to play a bigger role in the way that issues of climate change and sustainability are taught and learned in colleges and universities around the world. 

“It’s hard to be there and not think to yourself, ‘Boy, we need to do more in this world,’” said President David A. Greene, part of the five-person Colby delegation. “Colby needs to do more. Everybody needs to do more. And is there a special niche that we have, a place where we can play at the highest levels on this, and have an impact? Not just to feel good, but to actually do something that would have an impact on this?” 

The College’s contingent at the conference also included Stacy-ann Robinson, assistant professor of environmental studies and an expert on Small Island Developing States; Kerill O’Neill, the Julian D. Taylor Professor of Classics and special assistant to the provost for humanities initiatives; Nadia El-Shaarawi, assistant professor of global studies; and Chloe Shader ’24, an environmental policy major. 

They shared thoughts about COP27 at the Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center, with all attendees saying it was an overwhelming and unforgettable experience, especially with a breakthrough agreement as an outcome. 

World leaders and diplomats ultimately agreed to establish a fund to help poor and vulnerable countries better manage the climate disasters exacerbated by rich, industrialized nations, something that Robinson described as a positive and long-awaited outcome.  

“You might have heard many things, including that COP27 was a failure, and many of those narratives are dominating the airwaves right now,” she said at a recent panel discussion about the conference. “One of the things that came out of COP was the establishment of a financial mechanism for loss and damage. … If we are able to establish financial arrangements for loss and damage, an issue that is of exponential importance in the global South, how can that be a failure?” 

A way to help

The delegation had observer status at COP27, which brought more than 35,000 world leaders, scientists, environmental activists, journalists, and members of civil society together in the Red Sea resort community.

O’Neill said that at events at the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion, he heard people talking about being excluded from important conversations, despite the disproportionate impact the climate crisis has on Black and brown people around the world. 

“A few of them lamented that if they were ever allowed into the room, they did not have the capacity to represent themselves or to negotiate effectively,” he said. 

As he, Robinson, and Greene, who attended the conference’s first week together, brainstormed ideas, they thought there could be an opportunity for Colby to help by creating a kind of climate and environmental justice school. 

“Which would gather people together from under-resourced nations to actually develop the capacity to represent themselves effectively,” O’Neill said. “Because the way things are set up now if you’re not in those negotiations, there will be inevitable, terrible violations of human rights. … If we can do anything to help that, it would be an enormous achievement for Colby and an enormous service to the fight against the climate crisis.”

Challenges and hopes

Robinson said that several things struck her about COP27: its huge size, that fossil fuel companies were represented, and that a number of private planes carried participants to Sharm El-Sheikh. 

“It really reminded me of the importance of distinguishing between luxury emissions and subsistence emissions,” she said. 

Stacy-ann Robinson, assistant professor of environmental studies, speaks on a panel at COP27, the United Nations climate change conference, in Egypt. (Photo courtesy Kerill O’Neill.)

She also wanted to look out for vulnerable communities such as the Small Island Developing States to make sure that their rights were respected in each and every space where they participated. 

That wasn’t always the case. 

“One thing that I observed in the actual negotiating rooms was just the number of observers that were forced to sit on the floor, or not even let into the negotiating room,” she said. “That bothered me because there’s no equal participant that is on the floor. There is no equal participant that has been excluded from the table. If there isn’t a place set for them, then they have been marginalized.” 

El-Shaarawi and Shader, who attended the conference’s second and final week, witnessed as negotiations began to happen at a furious pace, with participants sometimes enduring marathon all-night sessions as they tried to find common ground. They listened as representatives from richer and poorer nations grappled with the idea of loss and damage. 

It was powerful to see developing nations demanding their rights on the world stage, El-Shaarawi said. But the flip side was also true, as they saw how negotiators ultimately refused to call for a phaseout of oil, coal, and gas

“We watched, also, as Saudi Arabia basically said, ‘No, we won’t sign this. We don’t even want the document to say fossil fuels,’” El-Shaarawi said, calling it “disheartening.” 

Still, the entire experience was more hopeful than she had expected it to be. 

“I had come into it anticipating that I was going to feel disappointed,” she said. “But there was something that felt really valuable and amazing about seeing all of these countries together … and the ways in which some of the more vulnerable countries who are more affected by climate change, the ways that they work together, and really fought for loss and damage and other forms of change.” 

For Shader, the negotiation process was fascinating. But also important, she thought, was what happened outside of the official meetings. 

“There are so many people who are meeting each other and inspiring each other, and so much change that’s happening on more of a grassroots level,” she said. “I think I was really inspired by the youth activists especially. … I think it would be really cool to be more involved with them as Colby.” 

“Can we do something much bigger even than what we’re doing right now, because of the incredible assets that we have?” Greene asked. “We have a community that cares so much about these issues and is so deeply invested in them.” 

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