USC

Trojans watch, analyze United Nations COP26 Climate Change Conference from afar

One professor even created a “research bubble” to analyze the events of the conference as they are happening in Glasgow, Scotland.

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The USC community is joining world leaders, climate activists and scientists in participating in the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). The goal of the conference, which began Oct. 31, and will end Nov. 12, is to address the global climate crisis and decelerate climate change.

While the conference is happening far away in Glasgow, Scotland, USC students and faculty are still actively engaging with the event.

Associate professor of international relations and environmental studies Shannon Gibson is attending COP26 virtually from Catalina Island with one of her classes.

The class was originally supposed to travel to Glasgow for their studies, but the COVID-19 pandemic derailed their plans. Gibson then creatively pivoted to a Catalina Island, “research bubble” format so her students could still analyze the conference together.

The class sleeps during the day and streams the official COP26 events at night—from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m.— to analyze how NGOs and activists influence climate policies. Each student, she said, has their own actors and issues within the talks that they are tracking for as they watch.

The trip is inspired by Gibson’s visit to the 2009 COP15 conference in Copenhagen as a graduate student.

“We...thought that we were going to come in and change the world and to watch [COP15] sort of unravel. To me, it was one of the most educational things that I experienced as a student,” she said.

Since COP15, Gibson has attended three other COPs. Those experiences seeing the inner workings of international relations were fundamental in making this year’s class trip a reality.

“We’ve always really wanted to provide opportunities for students to engage in that same sort of experiential learning where we kind of bring the classroom to the field,” she said.

The professor has long dreamed of creating a research class around the COP conference because it is a chance to see “every aspect” of international relations at once.

Outside of managing the class, Gibson also spoke on a panel Wednesday hosted by the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future. Directors Robert Shrum and Mark Murphy moderated a discussion on the importance of the summit, and suggested actions against climate change.

Professor Gibson joined Monalisa Chatterjee, professor of environmental studies, and an incoming researcher at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy Robert O’Brien on the panel.

One line of discussion was that conferences like COP26 have historically not led to much change, leading experts to be skeptical of what exactly they can accomplish.

“I would say that there was some pessimism among the panelists as to what could be achieved,” Shrum said. “But there was also an underlying optimism that at some point we would have to confront this and we would have to step up and deal with climate in a serious way.”

COP26, Shrum said, has exceeded expectations thus far.

“I think that while these conferences inevitably fall short, more got done in Glasgow than people assume would happen,” he said.

Shrum explained that the conference thus far has had some “very interesting” developments occur between participating leaders, including an agreement on methane and deforestation.

However, just because promises were made between leaders does not mean the issues discussed at the conference will be solved immediately, especially without an agreed upon method of enforcement.

“These kinds of agreements assume that people are going to keep their word,” Shrum said. “And there’s no precise enforcement mechanism. There’s going to be a reporting mechanism…but as the panel made clear yesterday, it’s not yet obvious whether or not this will be self-reporting or a more neutral reporting system.”

USC President Carol Folt also engaged with the events of the COP26 conference. On Nov. 3, she was joined by 2021 valedictorian Tianna Shaw-Wakeman in speaking with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — who attended the conference in Glasgow — over Facebook Live.

Folt specifically highlighted USC’s sustainability efforts, including plans to achieve zero waste, reduce the use of water on campus, and more long term goals set for 2028.

L.A. City Chief Sustainability Officer Lauren Faber and Los Angeles Business Council President, Mary Leslie were also on the call, and the panel asked Garcetti questions about sustainability in Los Angeles and the rest of the world.

The group also discussed the impact of young climate activists as changemakers in academic, business and public sectors across Los Angeles.

To Gibson, it is important these young activists and students tune into what is happening at the COP26 because their generation will bear the brunt of what happens if global leaders get it wrong.

“To be honest, this is the generation that’s going to be dealing with the ramifications of if we fail, right?” she said.

She also recognized that students are the ones who will be tackling the climate crisis in the future.

“When we talk about transitioning to a green, sustainable future, it’s going to require innovative technology,” Gibson said. “These are going to be the innovations that students right now in their teens and early 20s are hopefully going to bring forward.”