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Students from Hawaiʻi among thousands to travel to UN Climate Change conference in Egypt

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Diego Rivera
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Left to right: Co-Director of the William S. Richardson School of Law Environmental Law Program David Forman, evening part-time student Elizabeth Songvilay, third year student Diego Rivera, Director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity at the U.S. Department of Energy Shalanda Baker, second year student Emily Sarasa, and Co-Director Richard Wallsgrove

The United Nations Climate Change conference has drawn delegations from around the world— including here in Hawaiʻi.

More than 30,000 people came to the UN conference to tackle the most pressing challenges of climate change. World leaders and grassroots advocates alike met to negotiate solutions on issues of climate finance, energy transitions, and infrastructure adaptation. Among the many delegations representing Hawaiʻi was a group of UH law students.

Richard Wallsgrove led the delegation. He’s a professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

“I think it's important for students to see this really important issue being tackled on the ground,” said Wallsgrove. This is the third group of students that Wallsgrove has taken to a UN climate conference. “You can track these negotiations from afar, but it's not quite the same as being in the room.”

In addition to pursuing law, student Diego Rivera works with the nonprofit Maui Tomorrow Foundation to ensure that environmental impact statements take into account the impacts on Native Hawaiian cultural sites. Rivera wanted to observe how indigenous peoples are involved in the process at COP27. He says he was disappointed to find a lack of representation.

“There’s this Western notion of what it takes to solve climate change. And that's moving money around through market based solutions, and carbon credits and whatnot. And that whole idea is at odds with how indigenous peoples exist within the world and how we know that the climate crisis should be solved,” said Rivera.

Law student Elizabeth Songvilay studied international affairs as an undergrad and was excited to observe the negotiations. But she said the pacing of talks left something to be desired.

“I don't know why I'm surprised. But it felt very slow when we were there,” said Songvilay. “On the one hand, it was really cool to see all of these countries and non-governmental parties in one place and hopefully with the same goals. But are we going to take action on all of the things that were discussed?”

One bright spot of this year’s gathering was the broad support for youth advocacy. In his opening remarks, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell made a commitment to champion the concerns of young people.

“I intend to listen closely to their voices, particularly those of the youth, making sure they can be clearly heard, and importantly, felt,” said Stiell.

Wallsgrove said this is a notable shift in tone from just a few years ago. “Five years ago, now, my first COP with students, the youth voice was there, but it wasn't, I would say loud,” said Wallsgrove.

“At this COP27, the voice is loud, and it's being listened to. The students are motivated by that, because they understand that they are that voice.”

Rivera said that voice wasn’t limited to the negotiations. “Even outside of meetings and panels there were, I want to say protests more or less every single morning that we were there. And they were all led by youth,” said Rivera.

In Rivera’s eyes, the problem of climate change isn’t going away, but neither are young voices.

Savannah Harriman-Pote is a producer for The Conversation and Manu Minute. Contact her at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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