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UN opportunity through IU is preparing next generation of climate leaders

Feb 29, 2024

According to the United Nations, global surface temperatures have increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period in the last two millennia. The years 2015 to 2019 were the five warmest years on record, and 2010 to 2019 was the warmest decade on record.

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues humans are facing, and since 2018, Indiana University students have been at the most important climate policy negotiating table in the world: the United Nations Conference of the Parties.

IU is one of the only universities in the world to send students to the United Nations Conference of the Parties and to focus heavily on ... IU is one of the only universities in the world to send students to the United Nations Conference of the Parties and to focus heavily on undergraduate participation. Photo courtesy of Marria Peduto

The annual global climate change conference brings together countries that have joined — or are “party to” — the international treaty called the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Attendees include presidents and prime ministers, scientists and scholars, and, for the last six conferences, IU undergraduate and graduate students.

Students in the international climate government course, taught by Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies associate professor Jessica O’Reilly, are some of the only college students in attendance. IU is one of the few universities in the world to send students as delegates and to focus heavily on undergraduate participation.

“Every student who has an opportunity to be on a delegation gets a flying head start to learn what it means to be a climate professional and what their career options are,” O’Reilly said. “One of the things that excites me about the meeting is the diversity in attendees. There are policy-makers, but there are also local city planners and scientists and CEOs. It’s a master class for climate solutions.”

The breadth and depth of this experience are evidenced by the diverse paths alumni of the program have taken. Several are furthering their studies in graduate school, medical school and law school. Kyle Tucker, who took his first flight ever to attend COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, received the prestigious Marshall Scholarship this fall. He plans to spend a year studying global security challenges in the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London, followed by another year in the Strategic Studies program at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Marria Peduto in front of the COP27 sign. Marria Peduto, who attended COP27, is now doing research on coastal ecosystem restoration in Bali on a Fulbright scholarship. Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Lugar School

Marria Peduto, who attended COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, is now doing research on coastal ecosystem restoration and community economic development in Bali on a Fulbright scholarship. She is one of 13 Fulbright recipients who made IU a top producer for the Fulbright U.S. Student program for 2023-24.

“My Fulbright research project is actually a direct result of my research at COP,” Peduto said. “I attended events at the Indonesia pavilion and the Oceans pavilion, which inspired me to examine how coral reef and mangrove restoration projects are carried out in Indonesia. I can confidently say that all of my coursework and global experiences through IU have culminated in the work I’m doing today.”

Other IU alumni who are former COP delegates are climate policy leaders working for organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, NASA, and several state and local governments across the country.

Alexa Blanton, who attended COP23 in Bonn, Germany, is head of fundraising at Climate Clock, telling the story of the organization to grab the attention of potential donors. She said her passion for climate activism and confidence to speak to people about the issue were a direct result of her experience at COP.

“Jessy has always made it very clear to IU delegates that you are not at COP as a student; you are there as an expert doing research,” Blanton said. “I really took that to heart, and by the end of the week I had approached people like Oregon Governor Kate Brown and the U.N. deputy high commissioner for human rights. It was so validating to have people like that validate my questions and insights as good ones.”

Because Blanton recognizes the invaluable experiences that attending COP provides, she has helped launch an exclusive internship for students in the Hamilton Lugar School. She said that because these students spend a semester doing in-depth research on specific climate policy areas, they are able to provide members of her organization— who are largely artists, activists and creatives — with the most up-to-date information.

IU alumna Alexa Blanton, left, attended COP23 in Bonn, Germany, and is now head of fundraising at Climate Clock. She helped launch an exc... IU alumna Alexa Blanton, left, attended COP23 in Bonn, Germany, and is now head of fundraising at Climate Clock. She helped launch an exclusive internship for students in the Hamilton Lugar School. Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Lugar School

Alex Kessaris, who attended COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, pursued a career in the renewable energy industry because of his experience at the U.N. conference. His research during the conference showed him the tangible global climate action that could result from industry decarbonization and inspired him to pursue a business minor at IU.

Now he works as a renewable energy portfolio analyst at National Cooperative Bank, which finances developers installing community solar around the country. This effort relies on state initiatives that allow households to opt to receive their power from a solar facility in exchange for a rebate on their energy bills. Kessaris said that giving individuals a say in where their power comes from takes some of the response to climate change away from politicians and puts it into the hands of local communities.

O’Reilly said the collaborative, interdisciplinary spirit and diverse academic strengths at IU Bloomington have made it possible to offer the opportunity to attend COP to such a wide range of students.

“Climate change is an issue that requires attention from every direction, so when I put together a delegation, I try to make sure the students I choose have diverse interests and career goals,” O’Reilly said. “It’s really fulfilling to see that strategy play out and witness the impactful work that these alumni are doing across sectors.”

Author

IU Newsroom

Marah Yankey

Deputy director for storytelling

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