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Ohio State students travel to Dubai for climate conference

United Nations COP28 served as a classroom for climate education

In early December, delegations from around the world gathered in Dubai for the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28). Among the 70,000 attendees were 10 undergraduate students, two professors and the director of Global Education from The Ohio State University.

“It was exciting,” said Nicholas Breyfogle, associate professor in the Department of History. “The goal was to take these students to the climate negotiations so they could be there, on the ground, and really engage with some of the most important discussions of their lives.”

Breyfogle had worked for just over a year with his colleague Bart Elmore, professor in the Department of History, to create a study abroad experience that centered around the conference. The result is Politics of Climate: the United Nations Summit education abroad program.

While history may have seemed like an unusual avenue to approach climate change, Breyfogle said, it’s a smart way to lay a foundation to understand the issues involved.

“We are historians who study the past in an effort to use that knowledge and understanding to engage with the world we live in today,” he said. “It helps us understand where we are now and gives us some guidance for how we might act and what choices we might make.”

Unlike traditional study abroad programs, which allow students to spend an extended period of time in one place, the bulk of the program took place on the Columbus campus. It wasn’t until the end of the semester that the group flew to Dubai.

“These weren’t students who wanted to go to an interesting place,” Elmore said. “These were students who we selected via an application process, who made the case to us that they wanted to be there because this was a matter that was critical to their lives.”

In addition to experiencing the negotiations, they wanted the students to develop professionally. 

“There were amazing networking opportunities for them,” Breyfogle said. “I think that was part of the educational experience, that kind of networking and seeing how that all works. How do you meet people? How do you connect? How do you build with people towards the goals you have?” Ohio State students and faculty meet with Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther (far left).

Isabella Guinigundo, a fourth-year women’s, gender and sexuality studies major, had specific networking goals for the trip. As the co-founder of the Youth Climate Finance Alliance, she wanted to be ready for the organization’s next steps after graduation.

“I went into the trip thinking about the exact connections I want to make for work,” she said. “I came away from COP28 knowing all these new people that I never would have met, never would have engaged with had I not been there. And I do think that the program Nick and Bart put together allowed us to do a lot of preparation ahead of time, thinking about how we were going to engage once we got there.” 

The group met with Columbus’ mayor, Andrew Ginther, at the conference. Representing the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Ginther was seeking ideas to bring back to Columbus. He even asked the Buckeye delegation for help.

“We said, ‘We’re going to be here for a couple more days. What would you like to learn?’” Elmore said. “He gave us a list of things he wanted to learn more about. Then we asked ourselves, ‘The mayor is looking for these things, how can we go get them?’ Beyond the educational component, we were thinking about the community, thinking about the city.”

The size of the group meant that it could divide and attend events happening at the same time, which made for a more engaged experience for everyone, Elmore said.

“Having a group of 10 helped us in ways that other universities did not have. Most universities were either bringing a single graduate student or a few students. … We were the anomaly. We found that by having so many people, we could be in all different rooms. So, the educational component was magnified by 10, because of the 10.”

More students also meant more perspectives. In addition to Guinigundo, students majoring in the arts, science, engineering, public policy and agriculture were also on the trip.

“We had a wide range of interests and expertise and background knowledge, which was exceptional to have because the students learned from each other,” Breyfogle said. “You had some who knew the science up and down and others who were all about policy. It was amazing to watch them.”

This interdisciplinary approach reflects the complex nature of the climate change problem, Guinigundo said. She encouraged students who are interested to apply to the program, even if they don’t have a science background.

“This crisis is so huge that we need people in every sector, in every industry, to become engaged in the work for climate justice,” she said.

Elmore echoed this.

“What I realized is that this conference is about everything,” he said. “The future of the world is going to be shaped by what’s happening with the climate. This is the ideal conference for every discipline to attend.”

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