Dec 14, 2017

Working at the UN COP23 Climate Conference

By Elizabeth Reichart

Elizabeth Reichart holds her UN Secretariat badge at COP23, an annual conference of parties hosted by the United Nations that brings international political and environmental leaders together for climate action.

You could say my Fulbright experience has been one ever-accelerating wild ride into the thorny depths of research, but I could never have predicted it would bring me face-to-face with the President of France, Emmanuel Macron. Until, that is, I started working at the United Nations and he walked up to me for a chat.

What is a good opening line in a conversation with one of the leaders of the free world? Do I tell him he was the subject of my undergraduate thesis? Maybe chat about the World Cup? Nothing, not even my years of French courses, could have prepared me for the unmatched chaotic joy of working at the UN COP23 Climate Conference, which is exactly what I embarked upon this past November.

A journalist grantee based in Bonn, Germany, I recount these events two months into my year of researching the economic structure that supports renewable energy in Germany. My Fulbright turned out to be the right grant in the right place at the right time; shortly after submitting my application, the United Nations announced that the charming city of Bonn would be the location of the 2017 UN COP23 Climate Conference. COP21 resulted in the groundbreaking Paris Agreement, setting a 2-degree celsius ceiling and changing the course of our collective history on this spinning rock; Nations and their leaders declared we no longer will live in a world wherein countries will not be held accountable to the goals of global climate action. In my new German home, I was about to witness international cooperation once more at both a macro and micro level. That Cleveland high schooler who once loved Ohio Model United Nations could have never dreamed up an opportunity and a challenge such as this. 

Elizabeth Reichart receives her COP23 Climate Change Challenge Winner Award from Lord Mayor of Bonn Ashok Alexander Sridharan.

As a Greening Ambassador for United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), I worked for the conference in a sustainability communications role, speaking to delegations on the measures taken by the UN to avoid, reduce, and offset carbon emissions. The role brought me into contact with a group of diverse, charismatic volunteers from around the world that have fundamentally made me a more inquisitive person. I cannot overstate the privilege it was to serve with passionate, accomplished environmentalists hailing from Columbia, Vietnam, Mexico, and even right here in Nordrhein-Westfalen, who will remain my close friends and role models for years to come. 

For journalists, access is everything, and I discovered it in spades. Every 15 minutes, a new panel on renewable energy was beginning, chockful of experts from businesses, universities, NGO’s, and government bureaus. I inexplicably found myself discussing discount rates on a World Bank Facebook live chat with Nobel Prize-winning economist Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the famed “the Stern Report”. Not so much discussing as Lord Stern living true to his name and sternly defending the main tenant of his award-winning research to me, all while I stood with my jaw on the floor at having a lecture-for-one with the global authority on how markets will react to climate change. For my environmental economic research, this was the pinnacle of what I had set out to do when writing my grant over a year ago. I’m not one to get starstruck, but as an aspiring journalist, it doesn’t get much better than to meeting Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman while washing your hands in the bathroom. I quickly learned this is a quotidian run-in at a UN conference whereupon the whole world of climate action converges.

I wear many hats: that of a Fulbright Scholar, an American, a cultural ambassador, an environmentalist. Climate change is an interesting discourse to be apart of as a wearer of all four. The stigma attached to the current U.S. administration’s non-action on climate change, or rather, non-recognition of the phenomena, was palpable in the conference halls, but the heartening counter-programming of “America’s Pledge: We’re Still In” was a profound show of international cooperation that impressed many delegations and Chancellor Angela Merkel herself. “I very much welcome this [America’s Pledge] because it underlines the importance of climate protection in large parts of the United States irrespective of President Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement,” Merkel said while opening the high-plenary session of COP23. Watching Dr. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the country I have come to live and research in, urgently address the world, surrounded by my inspiring greening ambassador colleagues is a moment I will cherish for a lifetime.

Reichart, center, starts her day at COP23 with the UNFCCC Greening Ambassador team, comprised of environmental students and professionals from around the globe.

Throughout the conference, the UNFCCC ran a project proposal competition that challenged volunteers to submit an idea that combines sustainability with community outreach and volunteerism. At the end of the conference, I was named the winner of this competition for my project proposal that would pair the best of volunteerism with the urgent need for lower emissions in agriculture. Part of my Fulbright proposal has included auditing sustainability economics courses in the Master of Food and Agricultural Economics program at the University of Bonn. However, while exploring the full curriculum of this degree, I have become deeply interested in agricultural topics that I would have never otherwise been exposed to. The AFECO program embarks on a week of agricultural related field trips throughout Germany, and during these excursions, I was able to take a magnifying glass to the economics of German farming. My project derives out of a necessity that small-scale farmers not get left behind when it comes to decarbonization 10-20 years down the road. In my proposal, I created SASP: the Student Agricultural Solar Partnership, comprised of German engineering students who would partner up with small-scale farmers in Nordrhein Westfalen to analyze, install, and evaluate solar irrigation pumps on small farms. The farmer and a government subsidy would split installed infrastructure costs (typically a few pumps and panels). SASP students educate the farmer on use and the farmers can use SASP as a continual resource for system maintenance, in addition to the benefit of being exposed to solar as an easy “gateway renewable”.

The Mayor of Bonn, Ashok Alexander Sridharan, presented me with my award on the floor of the old Bundestag, now part of the UN Campus since Bonn is no longer the capital of Germany. I proudly told him I was a Fulbright Grantee from the U.S., to which he responded, “You Fulbrighters, always doing great things.” Well, I couldn’t argue with that.

“Bonjour Madame.”

Macron had just come from a bold speech on the plenary floor in which he pledged France’s support in funding the IPCC and fast action on climate action financing. “I would like to see the European countries at our side all together. We can compensate for the loss of US funding...I hope Europe can replace the US as a climate leader and I can tell you that France is ready for that," declared Macron to a room standing in ovation. Monsieur Macron walked over to me in my UN Volunteer uniform, surrounded by security.

“Bonjour Madame,” he said to me. I finally found the words.

“Allez les bleus, Monsieur le President.” It was a French football chant I had learned when I attended a France-England friendly match a few months earlier.

“Le bleu, c’est vous,” he said. We are all in this together.

The “fight against climate change” makes it sound like we as an Earth battling outerspace aliens, when in truth, there is reckoning to be had within ourselves. During this internal audit, the worst of humanity will reveal itself, I have no doubt. But in this struggle, I find assurance in the fact that this defining historical endeavor will be a triumphant one, a necessary one, built on mutual understanding that we are all in the same canoe. My Fulbright experience revealed unto me this understanding in the fullest; to the Fulbright commission, the U.S. and German governments, and all of the entities that work every day to build cultural bridges, I am forever grateful. 

Elizabeth Reichart is a 2017-2018 grantee of the Fulbright Scholarship Young American Journalism Award. She graduated in 2017 from High Point University with a Bachelors of Arts and Sciences in International Business and a Bachelors of Arts in Graphic Design with a minor in French. Elizabeth is currently spending a year in Bonn where she has been researching the financial structures that support renewable energy in Germany. Her research method focuses on interviews conducted with renewables experts from NGO’s, the German government, and German industry in addition to coursework at the Universität Bonn. 

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