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U of M students attending climate talks hope for progress

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The 15 University of Minnesota students attending the climate change conference in Mexico this week know there isn't as much interest in the event back home as there was during the same conference in Denmark a year earlier.

But several of them are expressing hope that enough progress will be made at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun to make up for some of the disappointment after the Copenhagen conference. 

"Going in to Copenhagen, that was a story of heightened expectations and the world looking on," said University of Minnesota senior Andy Pearson, who is one of nine undergraduate students traveling with a delegation led by state Sen. Ellen Anderson and state Rep. Kate Knuth. "The storyline in Cancun here is one of extremely low expectations, which in a sort of ironic way means that I think there's more possibilities for a positive and satisfactory outcome."

The binding international agreement that many countries hoped would come out of the 2009 conference in Copenhagen didn't happen. And whereas President Barack Obama and many world leaders attended that conference, Obama has no plans to appear at the conference in Cancun.

"It's unbelievably complex to work through all these issues and keep everybody happy."

Still, Pearson and the other students said they hope to see a plan come out of Cancun that would help developing countries satisfy their needs for energy in more sustainable ways. University of Minnesota Ph.D. student Sarah Burridge said developed nations could get credit for emissions reductions if they participate in a fund that helps the developing nations.

But Burridge, who studies conservation biology, said watching some of the negotiations and attending side events has helped her understand how complicated climate change policy is. 

"It's unbelievably complex to work through all these issues and keep everybody happy," she said. "People seem really committed, but it'd be easy to get discouraged."

Ph.D. student Philip Vaughter, who studies emissions trading schemes, said the conference has opened his eyes to possibilities for collaboration between countries on climate change research. For example, he said, Japan developed a sophisticated satellite system to track deforestation, but the U.S. developed its own system rather than collaborating.

"It would be very interesting if we just used one instead of reinventing the wheel every time we look at a problem with the environment," Vaughter said.

The students have been writing about their experiences as conference academic observers for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and also have a blog

The students return to Minnesota on Sunday and will speak at a public forum on Thursday, Dec. 9, at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment.

(MPR's Sam Choo contributed to this report.)