A delegation of Virginia Tech faculty and students attended the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid in December.

The annual meeting of the U.N.’s Conference of the Parties is a global effort to bring together governments, scientists, activists, and nongovernmental organizations to assess progress in dealing with climate change. A central aim of this year’s conference was to clarify articles of the Paris Climate Agreement, which is set to go into effect this year.

This was the third year Virginia Tech has participated as an observer organization, a designation that allows delegation members to attend open sessions and present at side events.

“The goal of being an observer organization is that it allows our professors to showcase the work we are doing in terms of climate change and make submissions based on science,” explained Carol Franco, senior research associate in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “But the most important goal is having the chance to allow our students to go and experience firsthand high level policy development around the subject of climate change.”

Franco had multiple roles at the recent conference. In addition to leading the Virginia Tech delegation, she participated as a member of the Dominican Republic delegation and as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assesses the science related to climate change.

Franco was joined at the conference by Professor John McGee and Assistant Professor Stella Schons, her colleagues in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, and Associate Professor Lynn Resler of the Department of Geography. Franco and Schons coordinated and presented a side session on collaborative research across academic institutions throughout the Americas.

“Our aim was to discuss how governments and academic sectors across countries in Latin America can cooperate to come up with solutions to address climate change in the region,” noted Schons, who is helping to spearhead a partnership between Virginia Tech and two universities in Brazil. “We cannot tackle climate change without tackling development challenges and processes.”

Three women and one man standing together in front of a long table with a large COP25 banner hung behind it.
Virginia Tech’s faculty delegation at the 2019 U.N. Climate Change Conference included, left to right, Stella Schons, Carol Franco, and John McGee of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, and Lynn Resler of the Department of Geography.

The two undergraduate students who attended were enrolled in Franco’s Climate Change and International Policy Framework course, for which the conference is a study abroad option.

“This opportunity was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” said Owen Callahan, a junior majoring in psychology in the College of Science. “I was able to network and meet people from all around the world, students and professors and other experts, and better understand the issues on climate change.”

Ryan Mahoney, a senior majoring in environmental resources management in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, added, “If anything, I learned how important it is to start movements locally. Starting from scratch and thinking small lays the blueprint for reaching broader goals.”

For Franco, these kinds of learning experiences are invaluable for students.

“It’s important that our students participate because it allows them to learn how other countries are being impacted and how policy change happens,” she said. “It’s a great networking opportunity: they meet students from other universities and talk with high level people in government and NGOs, and they come away with an understanding that we all have the same goal when it comes to climate change.”

Franco and the other faculty members noted that their participation at the conference was significantly supported by both department heads — Jay Sullivan of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and Tom Crawford of the Department of Geography — and by Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Given the substantial implications of climate change on natural resources policy, economics, and availability, it is crucial that our college has representation at this event,” Resler said. “We have the opportunity to contribute to the understanding and mitigation of climate change impacts across the globe.”

The next United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021.

Written by David Fleming

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