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Law students, professor join international convention on climate change

February 22, 2010
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Amanda Atherton in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Drake Professor Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center, and two second-year law students were among a select group of United States students and scholars to attend an international conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Students Amanda Atherton and Keith Duffy joined Hamilton at the 15th round of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change last December, as part of a non-governmental organization, the World Federation of United Nations Associations (www.wfuna.org).

The goal of the convention was to bring nations together to discuss ways to reduce carbon emissions, deal with climate change and develop a Copenhagen Protocol that will replace the Kyoto Protocol that will expire in 2012.

There, the group received a close-up view of the hot issues and arguments by international leaders, while gaining insight into the role of agriculture in effecting climate change.

Hamilton also was privileged to attend the official conference side event, "Beyond Copenhagen: Agriculture and Forestry Are Part of the Solution," at which more than 400 people met to discuss the role of agriculture in climate change.

"The main message was food security, poverty reduction and climate change are inexorably linked," Hamilton said. "Agriculture and forestry play major roles in the climate change debate both in adaptation and in mitigation. Any agreement coming out of Copenhagen that does not address the role of agriculture will not succeed."

"We essentially have the technology necessary to avoid this problem, and changing our land use practices can mitigate much of the problem we have created," said Atheron, of Fenton, Mich. "Even some innovators have shown that energy-efficient production is not only good for the environment, but is a more profitable business model."

In addition to the role of agriculture, the Drake group learned about the significant differences in how nations view global warming and how each country is working to reverse the effects of carbon emissions.

"Northern developed countries have caused most of the problem, but southern nations, particularly island nations, are disproportionately affected by climate change," Atherton said.

"The island nations of Tuvalu and the Maldives have pressed this point intensely, and justifiably so, as they are anticipated to be completely underwater within 100 years if emissions continue at the present pace."

The students also found that the denial of climate change is far more prevalent in the United States than elsewhere in the world, which proved to be problematic in negotiations.

"The most recent United States survey on climate change shows that 57 percent of people think climate change is happening, 36 percent believe it is caused by humans, and 35 percent believe it is a 'very serious' problem," Atherton said.

"However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that it is more than 90 percent probable that climate change is caused by humans. Everyone else seems to accept this but us," she added.

In spite of the obstacles in reaching consensus about climate change, the international convention finally resulted in the Copenhagen Accord, which includes the following provisions:

  • The U.S. and other developed nations will finance $100 billion to aid developing countries in paying for the drastic changes that may be necessary as a result of climate change.
  • China, the world's leading emitter of carbon dioxide, will have its carbon emissions independently verified.
  • Carbon emissions will be limited to 450 parts per million in the atmosphere, for an overall temperature increase of 2 degrees.

"We are a long way from a treaty that will bring real change, as the language of the accord is quite weak," Atherton said. "Part of the problem is that much here is decided by consensus rather than majority, which makes it extremely difficult to get anything done. However, the alternative presents the issues of sovereignty and willing participation."

The United Nations aims to develop a legally binding agreement to enact the provisions discussed in Copenhagen at the next round of the convention, which will be held this year in Mexico City, Mexico.