Threats of climate catastrophe and ongoing pressure from student activists have catalyzed universities to adopt international standards for environmental stewardship and spur new research and remediation efforts that span from grassroots to global. As such, schools including Northwestern University are now playing an increasingly important role in setting climate change policy worldwide and achieving impact at scale.
Delegates from Northwestern will be at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow over the next two weeks. The faculty and student participants will join nearly 200 world leaders and tens of thousands of negotiators, government representatives and citizens to observe, share knowledge from their own research and bring back insights to broaden perspectives and share with the Northwestern community.
The delegates are supported by the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs at Northwestern University. The process for petitioning access at the UN summit, as well as soliciting and reviewing proposals for delegate credentials, was also supported by the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and faculty domain experts.
“Some members of our delegation will conduct research to better understand global governance institutions; others will engage in advocacy to offer delegates new ideas and solutions,” said Annelise Riles, executive director of the Northwestern Buffett Institute and one of the faculty attending COP26. “These are both important ways that universities can contribute to a more just and sustainable world.”
Vulnerable communities and the disproportionate impact that climate change has on them, from food insecurity to displacement to health impacts, are at the core of the Northwestern delegates’ research. In addition to Annelise Riles, the delegates are:
Diana Elhard, a political science Ph.D. candidate who will conduct dissertation research while at COP26. Her work focuses on equity in climate finance distribution and the role vulnerability to climate change plays in shaping financial outcomes, and builds on her past visits and that of other teammates to various delegations around the world.
“COP has become a site where academics and scholars are more present in delegations,” Elhard said. “Some of their roles are to share their expertise. For me, I’m excited to share more about this experience and the value of studying sites of international negotiation with the Northwestern community. I had the opportunity to attend my first COP during my final year of my undergraduate experience, which led me to the questions that I am pursuing now as a Ph.D. student.”
Reynaldo Morales, an assistant professor at Medill and faculty fellow at Northwestern Buffett, is playing a more active role while at the conference. He is participating as a member of the Local Communities and Indigenous People’s Platform to ensure the interests of sovereign groups — as communities who stand to lose the most in the fight against climate change — are observed in language and negotiations. Morales will participate in dialogues with leaders and organizations on the global stage about the issues and struggles of Peru's Amazonian Indigenous nations as well as other international Indigenous Peoples’ communities, more specifically on their governance systems and constitutional recognition, and in the context of COP26 on how they are specifically being impacted by climate change. He will also introduce his own research on Indigenous rights to genetic resources and knowledge systems to facilitate the interconnection with the Convention on Biological Diversity in which he had participated and the interrelation of all the global SDGs.
Klaus Weber is deputy director of the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs and a professor of environmental sustainability at the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern. Weber teaches courses on corporate sustainability and researches the globalization of economic policies and business practices.
Alexandra Tarzikhan is the Schuette Clinical Fellow at the Health and Human Rights Center for International Human Rights at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Her interests lie at the intersection of peace, security and climate change in Somalia and promoting human rights and the environment in Ghana’s cocoa sector.
Mallory Megumi Fallin is a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and will observe how health equity is being integrated into climate change priorities globally as a piece of her dissertation research.
Margaret Grace O’Connell is a chemical and biological engineering Ph.D. student in the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern.
Marie Allison is a third-year student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.
The interdisciplinary group of researchers and leaders reflects research from multiple corners of the Northwestern campus and across the world targeting climate change and disparities. It also reflects a wider invitation from COP26 to bring academic research and expert viewpoints to the center stage.
“Universities are in a unique position to catalyze meaningful climate action, as centers of scientific knowledge and institutions that bridge generations, unbeholden to the short-term election or business cycles of governments and corporations,” Riles said. “We have a responsibility to foster intergenerational justice — to work alongside the youth we serve to address the climate change challenges they’re poised to inherit.”
Universities traditionally haven’t had a seat at the table in major outcomes-based global climate meetings. But as delegations have shifted, Northwestern delegates this year will be in the blue zone, where government leaders enter negotiations about policy and set targets around greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability.
Delegates also have potential to gain deeper knowledge about climate negotiations, bringing back key observations to research and programming.