York College professors traveled to COP 21 in Paris

Julia Scheib
York College professors Greg Foy and Keith Peterman with student Gilbert Vial in the media center at COP 21.

York College professors Greg Foy and Keith Peterman both said they were heartened by the results of the latest round of global climate talks in Paris.

The professors weren't watching the negotiations on TV — they were on the scene, observing and reporting what they saw on their blog, "Global Hot Topic," and mentoring college students who were also there to observe.

Foy teaches analytical chemistry, and Peterman teaches sustainability and environmental studies.

Through the American Chemical Society, Foy said, he and Peterman serve as mentors to a group of college students chosen to attend the conference.

The professors have traveled to each Conference of Parties as part of this program for the past six years. This year, they accompanied the four students who traveled to Paris for the second week of the negotiations.

This photo shows members of a group with the American Chemical Society who traveled to COP 21. From left,  Gregory Foy, Thomas Di Nardo, Gilbert Vial, Nina Diklich, Gregory Margida, Jill Leaness, Prakriti Shrestha, Wilmarie Marerro-Ortiz and Keith Peterman stand in front of a glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris.

"This year was amazing," Foy said when asked how the conference in Paris measured up to the five others he'd seen up close. "The fact that 196 countries came to an agreement was a huge step forward in battling climate change."

At each of the previous COPs, he said, there was "clearly less agreement among the parties."

In the past, he said, our country has actively worked against an agreement.

"At this one, the U.S. took an aggressive leadership role — that's how it was reported in the press briefings," he said.

The ACS had passes that allowed students and their mentors to mingle with officials and members of other organizations who attended the conference.

Perspectives: Gilbert Vial, a senior studying forensic chemistry at York College, was one of the eight students chosen to attend the conference this year.

Vial, who holds dual citizenship in France and the U.S., said he is preparing to give a talk for members of the ACS that will focus on the differing perspectives in the two countries when it comes to awareness and acceptance of the concept of human-caused climate change.

Attending the conference really opened his eyes to the fact that the U.S. is an outlier in this respect.

"We're one of the few countries where it's a debate as to whether climate change is real," he said.

Vial said he and other students had a small meeting with Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the EPA, while at the conference.

In response to a question about what young people can do about climate change, he said, McCarthy advised them to get the facts out there.

Results: The agreement formed in Paris states that countries will try to limit the global temperature increase to below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and below 1.5 degrees if possible. The earth has already warmed 1 degree C.

It also states that each country will come back every five years with a nationally determined contribution, an updated statement of its intended progress on reducing carbon emissions.

Many of the countries offered intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) in advance of the conference. The contributions represented what was politically feasible in each country, Foy said.

Some are applauding the agreement and some are outraged by it. Renowned climate scientist and activist James Hansen called the conference a "fraud."

"It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises," he told The Guardian last week.

Hansen and 16 other scientists released a report last July that states that since the Earth's ice sheets are melting faster than was previously thought, even a 2-degree rise in global temperatures would be "highly dangerous," The Guardian reports.

Baby steps: Foy said he felt "extremely hopeful" after the historic agreement was made.

"The agreement does not provide a way to effectively limit a temperature rise to below 2 degrees C," he said. "But if you look at the other side of that, you have a worldwide agreement that has been able to overcome all the political hurdles ...

"Now we can take baby steps toward working toward emissions reductions," he said.

Foy believes that, rather than hurting the economy, transitioning to a zero-emissions society will spur economic growth.

Peterman referred to the agreement itself as a baby step.

"But," he said, "we have finally as a global society stood up and taken the first step forward."

He said he believes the challenge of transitioning to a post-carbon society presents "extraordinary opportunities" for future generations.

— Reach Julia Scheib at jscheib@yorkdispatch.com.