Climate Conference of Madrid, Spain
by Shelby Toles
As a political science student, being a representative for a scientific organization was intimidating at first. I admit that I was nervous my political background would not be sufficient for my representation of the ACS. However, that was not the case. Through our visits to the US State Department, the US Embassy of Poland, and overall participation at the UN conference in Poland, I realized that we ACS students were being exposed to the merging of science and politics, with one being just as important as the other. It is no question that climate change is both a scientific and political issue, and it should be treated as such. However, for years, politicians have jumped through hoops to create solutions to scientific problems without the scientific backing. At the same time, scientists have also struggled to make significant progress with major issues because they lack a connection to the political world. However, with the recent increase of urgency to create a viable, long term solution to what UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, described as “the defining issue of this generation,” these two worlds are coming together more than they ever have before to combat the growing threat of climate change. After the 2019 ACS national meeting in Orlando, my ACS sponsor, Dr. Gregory Foy, told me that what it means to be a chemist is now changing. He says that it is not just about balancing equations and titration anymore, but now scientists have to be politically literate for their work to make a difference. The same goes for politicians, in order for real problems to be solved, they need to be familiar with the scientific explanations of complex problems such as climate change. To me, a United Nations conference about climate change seems to be the perfect scenario where these two worlds can meet each other halfway. At COP 24, that is exactly what I saw.
The United Nations is an intergovernmental organization consisting of almost every country on Earth. Its goal is to maintain peace, security, and good relationships among member states. However, the UN has recently shifted its primary focus on to combatting climate change. Being a participant of COP 24 made this evident to me. As I stated before, the current Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has said several times that “climate change is the defining issue of our time.” While at the conference, I sat in on a private meeting where I heard Guterres give a talk over the urgency of the risks of climate change. At this meeting, he urged the younger generation that if something is not done soon, “it may be too late.” He referred to the findings of the IPCC report, where they found that the world is not on track to meet the 2020 goals of the Paris Agreement. This is the reason why the discussion at COP 24 was centered around agreeing on a set of rules or guidelines for Member States to follow in order to get back on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. For a while, during the second week of the conference, we were afraid that there would be no agreement because of the pushback from certain Member States. Russia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the US were Member States who denied the findings of the IPCC report and did not agree that we needed a set of guidelines at all. The US showed their non-support by not having much of a presence at the conference, which is due to Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris Agreement altogether. As an American at the conference, I was disappointed to see such a lack of US presence and support. However, my disappointment was compensated by the generous presence of the US private sector, whose banner read out “We’re Still In.” Their purpose of being at this conference was to ensure that the private sector of the US would still abide by the UN guidelines and stay in the Paris Agreement. Seeing this was encouraging to me and the rest of my team. Knowing that we are not out was a good symbol of hope.
The conference wrapped up with a last-minute agreement on the guidelines to create a rulebook for the Paris Agreement. This was a relief, considering that we had fears no agreement would be made at all. In leaving the conference and coming back home, I felt that I had a new perspective of how important this issue really is. Since my return I have made better efforts to educate my friends and family about the dangers of climate change. I am now looking forward to seeing how COP 25 will pan out, and I am curious to know how they plan to implement the rulebook they agreed upon at COP 24. This experience with the ACS and with the United Nations has been a journey that I will not ever forget. I was blessed to be a part of my ACS team, and I hope that I can continue work with them in the future.