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Elise Voorhis


Elise at COP21

Program: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
Fall 2015
Award Recipient:
SIS Travel Grant




This year I was lucky enough to be one of the thirty-two thousand people to participate in the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This conference, in particular, became a pivotal moment in the history of climate action due to the combined efforts of 185 Heads of State committing to policy reform on climate change. The resulting “Paris Agreement” highlighted this hybrid bottom-up/top-down approach to global climate policy by using more definitive language than its predecessors, the Kyoto Protocol and Copenhagen Accord. The key to all of this was the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions that both developed and developing countries established before the start of the conference. These individual commitments, while not legally binding, are furthering global action on climate change more than any other process so far. At the moment, the conference is being touted as either a success or a failure depending on which media source you pick. Yet, I would claim that it is both. It is a success because countries are finally working together to address climate change with concrete commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it is also a failure because the current global commitments do not add up to a target below 2 degrees Celsius. As an environmentalist, it is hard to stay optimistic about the science, as the planet will continue to warm beyond safe levels. As a foreign affairs academic, I am thrilled that countries are cooperating bilaterally and multilaterally to achieve a common goal of saving the planet. I have hopes that these commitments could blossom into something that is neither too little nor too late, but I am realistic enough to know that the global community still has a long, hard road ahead of them to mitigate and adapt to many of the changes climate change will have on the planet.

      The next COP will be in Marrakesh, Morocco, where countries will report on the actions taken to implement this year’s commitments. I hope to be able to participate next year as well. COP21 was an eye-opening experience and a perfect blend of environmentalism and international relations. As an observer, I was able to go to various meetings and panels on a variety of topics, but I focused particularly on fossil fuel divestment and renewable energy development. I was able to meet people of different nationalities and organizations. I had a long conversation with the diplomat from Burkina Faso, I spoke with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, and I held informational interviews with representatives from the International Energy Agency, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, and the International Renewable Energy Agency. I saw former Vice President Al Gore speak and I reconnected with my former colleagues from the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In the end, COP21 was like a giant job fair for environmentalists and it was exhilarating.

      This experience was definitely the highlight of my graduate career. This has only furthered my passion in energy and climate change issues and I hope to work for one of the many organizations I met at the conference. I bring back with me to American University firsthand experience at one of the greatest gatherings of people from across the globe. I am so thankful for this experience and I hope to use it to its fullest potential in the coming years.