COP21 in Review: What Students Learned at the World’s Biggest Climate Conference

February 11, 2016

Tim Lucas, 919/613-8084,

By Lyndsi Lewis
Nicholas School Social Media Specialist

DURHAM, N.C. – As part of last fall’s UN Climate Change Negotiations Practicum (“Duke to Paris”) course, seven Nicholas School students, including Jessica McDonald, MEM 2016, Theodore Koboski, MEM 2016, and PhD student Emily Pechar, traveled to the City of Light in December to attend the COP21 Climate Conference. What followed was a whirlwind two-week immersion in discussions on the forefront of climate change with the world’s leading influencers in the field.

The student-led practicum – now in its fifth year – is an independent-study course focusing on international climate change negotiations and policies under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Over the course of a semester, students gain a comprehensive understanding of international climate change issues, regulatory policies, negotiation processes and the political dynamics of the UNFCCC. At semester’s end, they head to the year’s COP conference where they apply what they’ve learned as expert consultants for participating countries or NGOs.

Two months after their once-in-a-lifetime experience, the 2015 crop of students are still reflecting on what they learned.

“The Nic School experience is all about building knowledge and skills that can be applied to solve real world environmental challenges,” McDonald says. “In this Practicum we had the opportunity to study a topic we’re passionate about, delve into a specific issue of our choosing within the climate policy sphere, and then work with a client in a dynamic, multicultural hands-on setting to push forward new ideas and knowledge within the multilateral process.

“I believe that learning in a classroom setting is necessary, but there is truly no better way to learn than by immersing yourself in what you're studying,” she says.
Since the course’s inception five years ago, enrolled students have attended COP conferences around the globe. Broken into teams, they have worked with participating COP countries such as Palau, Bangladesh, Mexico, and the Philippines, and with NGOs such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the International Institute for Environment and Development.

“This year we wanted to offer students a more in-depth understanding of the UNFCCC process and the history of the climate change negotiations so that by the time they attended the negotiations, they have a strong understanding of its history, dynamics and trajectory, the key issues under debate, and the positions of the main negotiating blocks of countries,” says Pechar, who has co-led and designed the curriculum for the course for the past two years with the advising of Duke faculty members Jonathan Wiener and Billy Pizer.

As a student leader, Pechar is also responsible for identifying and recruiting clients to work with students, and handling fundraising and logistics to get students to the negotiations.

To be as useful as possible to their clients, this year she asked each student in the Duke practicum to pursue an in-depth focus on one specific climate policy issue – ideally one that would be relevant to their client’s top priorities at the Paris negotiations – and help "teach" that issue to their classmates through policy memos and student-led lectures.

Upon arrival in Paris, the students went to work applying what they had learned by speaking on their clients’ behalf as experts in panel discussions on topics ranging from ecosystem-based adaptation to gender and climate change.

"Experiencing policy in action tends to make students want to get more involved in the issue. Most of our Practicum alumni are now in highly relevant jobs in the government, UN agencies, and think tanks working on climate change issues.”

   Emily Pechar, PhD student and course organizer


Their agenda also included meetings with high-level climate leaders such as U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as well as the head of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, members of the State Department's negotiating team, and negotiators for several other countries including the Dominican Republic and Canada.

While the negotiations themselves were the chief focus at COP, the students often found that the real action and excitement occurred outside the main conference venue, in the surrounding halls and side-events where attendees gathered to share insights on different aspects of climate policy.

“As a student, I was in heaven,” said McDonald of the experience. “Everyday I raced around the venue from one event to another, learning about transformational climate finance, the dissemination of renewable energy, and the possibilities of carbon clubs, among many other topics.

“By attending these events and witnessing the negotiating process, I more deeply recognize the importance of cross-cutting collaboration, incentivizing participation, and listening to all perspectives through stakeholder engagement,” she says.

“I don't think the depth or magnitude of COP21 really sunk in for me until after I left Paris,” says Koboski. “While you're at the conference, there's so much happening at such a fast pace that there isn't time to process. Looking back, I realize just how fortunate I was to have such an experience. To attend any COP is an incredible opportunity, but to attend COP21 in particular given the outcome is something really special. Never again will I be in one place with thousands of the most important and effective environmental problem-solvers all around me.”

That response is exactly what Pechar strives for each year.

“The hope is that students will gain first-hand knowledge and experience about the climate negotiations, and be in positions to think hard and creatively about finding solutions and contributing to the process once they graduate,” she says. “Experiencing policy in action tends to make students want to get more involved in the issue.”

In addition to fostering in-depth experiential learning, the practicum also provides a platform for students to network with global environmental leaders at the COP conference, Pechar notes. In recent years, many students have made lasting professional connections that led to future research opportunities or post-graduation jobs.

“Most of our Practicum alumni are now in highly relevant jobs in the government, UN agencies, and think tanks working on climate change issues,” she says.

Koboski believes taking part in the practicum could be a transformational experience for any student interested in environmental policy.

“This kind of inspiration can't be found from within the walls of academia. It comes from casting off the ‘student’ cloak and climbing into the ring with the leaders and the doers who are changing our world for the better,” he says. “The Nic School experience is not complete until each student has an experience like this – when they're reminded of why they spend those long nights reading or those countless weekends in the lab.”

In addition to taking eight students – seven of them from the Nic School – to Paris this year, the practicum also took six students to a pre-COP negotiating session in Bonn, Germany, in October.  Thirteen students in all were enrolled in the course.