Minnesota students get a front row seat to COP28 in Dubai

Four people stand in front of flags and a large dome building.
Macalester student Camellia Schwartzman (first from left) and three of her classmates visited Dubai to witness this year's United Nations' climate summit, COP28.
Courtesy of Roopali Phadke

Among those watching the world try to get on track with climate change is a group of students from St. Paul’s Macalester College. They traveled more than 7,000 miles to watch the UN’s annual climate meeting, COP28.

On day one, world leaders reached an agreement on what’s called a loss-and-damage fund to help vulnerable countries recover from disasters and sea level rise. But there’s still a lot to work out — including a key question of what nations plan to do about fossil fuels.

More than 70,000 delegates, plus spectators are gathered there at the end of what’s expected to be the hottest year on record. MPR News host Cathy Wurzer checked in with Macalester Environmental Studies Professor Roopali Phadke and student Camellia Schwartzman from their hotel in Dubai.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: We're going to go to Dubai right now where earlier today United Nations Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell urged governments to stop the worst effects of climate change.

SIMON STIELL: At the end of next week, we need COP to deliver a bullet train to speed up climate action. We currently have an old caboose chugging over rickety tracks. But the tools are all there on the table. The technologies and solutions exist. It's time for governments and negotiators to pick them up and put them to work.

CATHY WURZER: Among those watching the world try to get back on track is a group of students from St. Paul's Macalester College. They traveled more than 7,000 miles to watch the UN's annual climate meeting, COP28. On day one, world leaders reached an agreement on what's called a loss and damage fund to help vulnerable countries recover from disasters and sea level rise.

But there's still a lot of work to do, including a key question of what nations plan to do about fossil fuels. More than 70,000 delegates plus spectators are gathered there at the end of what's expected to be the hottest year on record. For more, I checked in with Macalester Environmental Studies Professor Roopali Phadke and student Camellia Schwartzman from their hotel in Dubai, and I asked them to give the rest of us a glimpse into what COP is like.

CAMELLIA SCHWARTZMAN: The typical day starts off with entering the security lines, and it can take as long as one to two hours. And I'm surrounded by people from all over, and so I look at their little badges and it tells me what country they're from or what party they're representing. It's so interesting to see what bag they're carrying, what NGO they're supporting.

I have a past because I'm a civil society observer. So through Macalester, our delegation is civil society. We're not participating in the discussions, we're just observing them. And my focus is on sustainable cities and development, and that includes everything from building materials to just transitions to cleaner energy. So in particular, I've been attending talks hosted by individual countries where they highlight their sustainable cities and development.

I looked at Korea. I listened to their mayors speak about a large city of about a million people, and he's trying to be more sustainable. And they just built over 400 kilometers of bike lanes and incentivized public transport by providing free transport cards. And similarly, in Japan, there is something similar.

They provided subsidies for PV panels and storage for solar. So I'm listening to a lot of different examples of sustainable cities, and I even got to listen to some sustainable city policies that are being implemented in Minnesota. And that includes electric bike rebates, [INAUDIBLE] grants, and weatherization plans.

And so the implementation of these more efficient heating and cooling systems, and better weatherization-- for example, better insulation of your house or building-- and then increase of green spaces in cities. I've been noticing and trying to put into context how that's beneficial for the public health and the environment.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. That's a lot, obviously. Professor, Camellia looking at sustainable cities, and I wonder. What are the other research topics that your other students are looking at?

ROOPALI PHADKE: Yeah. They're looking at a number of topics. Camellia just mentioned sustainable cities. We're looking at forestry, health, carbon credits, agriculture. Climate change is about everything, and our students are interested in the continuum as well.

We've had a chance to talk before. I've been bringing students to COP for nearly a decade. And really, we're training them to be future climate leaders who understand how complex science policy is, and these are going to be the delegates and the negotiators of the future. So we're not going to solve this. We're going to continue to have these annual COP meetings.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering, Professor, as you say, you've been taking students to Cop now for the past decade or so. A big topic at this year's meeting is how countries are looking at their progress toward the goals of the Paris Agreement where, I believe, we talked at that point.

We all know that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions much faster to keep warming to 1 and 1/2 degrees, probably even 2 degrees. What's the commitment that you've seen so far to that? What have you heard?

ROOPALI PHADKE: Well, the money is flowing at COP. It really is. And that's one thing I've observed that's quite different from previous meetings. The pledges, the commitments are being launched every day. So we heard Kamala Harris just yesterday pledging $3 billion for the Green Climate Fund.

On the first day, we heard commitments for the new loss and damage fund from the EU, from the United Arab Emirates, and from other countries. There are new pledges and commitments to address renewable energy, tropical diseases, gender and climate, and so it feels like we are at a place as a global community where we're starting to invest in all of these different approaches, these sort of multifaceted solutions.

That said, I think the elephant in the room around emissions is around fossil fuels. It's really easy to talk about all this good stuff that we want to invest in, and the challenge is that we have yet to see if the final document that comes out of this meeting will address fossil fuel phase out. And I think as we look back historically, this is going to be remembered as the fossil fuel COP because there's so much controversy around fossil fuels.

There's controversy around the COP president's leadership, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, who is also the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. We're seeing a lot of pressure from civil society groups for a fast and full phase out of fossil fuels, and so that's a really different challenge than putting more money on the table for green energy.

CATHY WURZER: I believe he's framed this as a phase down rather than a phase out.

ROOPALI PHADKE: Well, I think what we want to see is a phase out, but what we may end up with is a phase down. And we saw this with coal. At this point, we're seeing coal phase out in the US. And at the COP, we still continue to see the language of unabated coal. So that's not about totally stopping coal, it's about abating the emissions through lots of techniques, like carbon credits. So this is a similar thing we're seeing with fossil fuels.

CATHY WURZER: And of course, a lot of this, Camellia, as you know, deals with politics, right? How has what you're viewing changed your understanding of climate politics? Has it made you more or less hopeful about the future?

CAMELLIA SCHWARTZMAN: I think that's a heavy question. I have not yet taken Roopali's environmental politics and policy class. I'm taking that next semester. So I think after this experience, I'll bring that to the class next semester, and I'll probably get a better context of what I'm experiencing right now.

I mean, my major is physics, so I wasn't very well versed in climate policy before coming into this. I've always been interested in it, but I really am more of the technical person. I know more about how solar works or how nuclear energy works and what we need to do to make our buildings more energy efficient.

Whether Section B of the Paris Accords follows this line or if we need to get rid of this thing-- I was not following that much at all. But it definitely has cemented my understanding of how difficult it is to get policies passed, especially when there's so many competing interests. So we see that with different countries wanting different things. But I definitely see how difficult it is to get climate policy passed on the world level.

CATHY WURZER: And I'm wondering, Professor, is what Camellia is saying, is it also underscored with your other students, too? As we've been talking about potential changes and money flowing-- but as you say, we're still talking about coal and fossil fuels, and there's a political throughline to that. Would you agree?

ROOPALI PHADKE: There is. I watch the emotions of students as they arrive and as the week progresses, and it's so amazing to be here. And I have to say that the Dubai venue is beautiful, really a stunning place to be and to learn. And as the days wear on, the complexities grow, and what starts as this sort of unbridled enthusiasm starts to diminish as we watch how complicated it is.

To answer the question about, do we do we feel hopeful when we're here? I think-- and I've seen this over the years-- that where the hope emanates for us when we come to these meetings is a chance to meet people from literally all over the world.

We meet them on the metro. We meet them in the cafeteria line. We sit next to them in these high level sessions. And just seeing the level of commitment is staggering.

What I have noticed, and this is a place that I derive hope from, is these delegates get younger and younger every year. It is amazing. We see delegates in their 20s now. And in part, that's because they started this work as youth. And so they have been to many COPs already by the time that they're in their 20s. They understand how this system is, and they are very eager to make it work.

CATHY WURZER: Camellia, you and I were talking off air that no matter where you go, you always run into Minnesotans.

CAMELLIA SCHWARTZMAN: Yes.

CATHY WURZER: It sounds like there are a number of Minnesotans at COP.

CAMELLIA SCHWARTZMAN: There are a large number of Minnesotans at COP. I know that the University of Minnesota has a delegation of quite a few. We saw a random guy from Saint John's at a NASA event of all places. He was just walking around, and he saw our badge that says Macalester and was like, wait a second.

And on the metro this morning, we were in the woman's only car-- which, I will say, I've really enjoyed. That's a special thing about Dubai I've never seen before where it's specifically only for women. Two people from the climate gen, they were also Minnesotans. So it was so fascinating how many Minnesotans we're seeing all over the place.

CATHY WURZER: Well, I wish you both. You'll be there for how long now, Professor? How many more days?

ROOPALI PHADKE: This group of students is here for another few days, and then they need to return to exams. But we have another group of five students arriving on December 7th, and they will be here for an exciting time, that second group, because that's when the negotiations will really hit their pace.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. Sounds exciting. I appreciate your time, both of you. Thank you so very much. Best of luck.

ROOPALI PHADKE: You're welcome. Thank you, Cathy.

CAMELLIA SCHWARTZMAN: Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Macalester College Professor Roopali Phadke and student Camellia Schwartzman from Dubai where they're watching this year's United Nations climate talks. As you heard Camellia say, they're not the only Minnesotans at COP28. You can tune in to Climate Cast next week to hear from a Saint John's University student who is also watching the negotiations.

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