COP28 gives USC students hands-on experience with global environmental policy

December 20, 2023, Kathryn Royster

Since fall 2021, Associate Professor (Teaching) of Environmental Studies, Political Science and International Relations Shannon Gibson has shepherded a small group of USC students through  the annual United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change. The conference brings together a wide variety of people–heads of state, high-ranking policymakers, media, activists, and more–to address the impacts and root causes of climate change and work toward solutions. It culminates each year in a unanimous treaty (usually referred to as an agreement) that lays out next steps for participating nations.

This year’s agreement included language calling on all parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade.” The language was milder than that favored by many policymakers and activists, but still marks the first time a COP agreement has explicitly recognized the need to eliminate fossil fuels from the international energy system.

This year was also remarkable for Gibson and her students, as it marked the first time that students could participate in COP as part of a for-credit course, ENST 499 Global Climate Negotiations: Policy Research and Communications. Developed with support from a USC Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability Teaching Innovation Award, the course organized graduate and undergraduate students into research clusters around the topics of civil society (i.e., climate activism), climate finance, and climate change mitigation.

a professor and her students smile while standing in front of a large cardinal-and-gold "W" graphic on the side of a corrugated steel building
Environmental studies professor Shannon Gibson (center, in gray jacket) arrives at the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island for a pre-COP28 communications and planning retreat with students from her ENST 499: Global Climate Negotiations course. Students, L-R: Abhay Manchala, Will Erens, Christina Chkarboul, Andrew Bawiec, Eesha Rangani, TJ Martynowicz, and Tiya Jain. (Note: not all ENST 499 students are pictured.)

Students’ work focused on learning the history and processes of COP, how to conduct qualitative research, how to communicate about climate policy to a general audience, and analysis of COP28 activities and policies. They also completed a pre-COP28 communications and planning retreat at the Wrigley Institute’s Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island before attending COP28 remotely from the USC Sustainability Hub on the University Park Campus.

“This experience really shows students the underbelly of global politics, sort of ‘how the sausage gets made’ when it comes to climate treaties. They get to see all the prep work by various stakeholders, the normative battles that emerge over various issues, and then how the treaty text unfolds in real time,” Gibson says.

However, the firsthand exposure to policymaking was not her only goal for the course. As the students gained research experience, she also wanted them to learn how to translate that research for a non-academic, non-specialist audience.

“I’ve come to realize that we’re not going to solve the climate crisis or inspire new young activists by publishing yet another peer-reviewed journal article that sits behind a paywall,” Gibson says. “I really wanted to shift this course to focusing on everyday communications–social media, YouTube, blogs, and so forth–where it will hopefully reach the people who really matter and who need to be engaged.”

While attending COP, Gibson often sees her students gain a “healthy dose of cynicism” as they witness the realities of policymaking, see how activists are sometimes literally shut out of discussions, and watch nations greenwash policies or resist urgent change. At the same time, however, she feels optimistic. Many of her students told her they were inspired by the work of activists and vulnerable nations, and she knows their work helps shed light on the more problematic aspects of COP, such as the presence of large numbers of fossil fuel lobbyists and the potential conflicts of interest posed by hosting the conference in locations whose economies are almost entirely dependent on oil.

Keep reading for her students’ firsthand accounts of what they learned from ENST 499 and COP28. (Student submissions have been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

Students share their COP28 experiences

Andrew Bawiec (they/he) ’25

Environmental studies major, theatre and GIS & sustainability science minors

I have a strong interest in climate justice issues. I did an internship in summer 2021 investigating flooding inequities in Maryland, and I attended the National Environmental Justice Conference in March 2023. However, my exposure to climate justice issues was limited to the United States. I took this course to expand my climate justice perspectives outside of the U.S. and the Global North.

I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer number of advocates fighting for “radical” climate justice. In the U.S., it sometimes feels that ideas like decolonization and anti-capitalism are niche concepts that very few people would support or advocate for in public. However, there are thousands if not millions of advocates around the globe fighting for these issues, especially from the Global South and Indigenous Peoples. It was refreshing and inspiring to escape my Global North bubble.

Giancarlo Ceja (he/him) ’24

Environmental studies and international relations majors, web technologies and applications minor

I was surprised by the disconnect that existed between the COP28 presidency and civil society. Throughout the conference, the president would regularly proclaim COP28 as the “north star” for climate governance and combating climate change. At the same time, onlookers were rightfully critical of weak texts and the unwillingness to call for a phase-out of fossil fuels.

Learning about the differing viewpoints that the Global North and Global South have on tackling climate change was extremely important, seeing as there is a large disconnect regarding the role of markets, sequestration methods, and alternative energy. As decisions at COP are made by consensus, it is critical to understand these divides that prevent certain language from making it into agreements.

Will Erens (he/him) ’25

Political economy major, environmental studies minor

I have always been interested in the politics of environmentalism and climate change, but have always focused on domestic U.S. policies. I had a really strong understanding of where the U.S. was trending, the kinds of bills in the pipeline, and programs that work within our borders. But, to truly understand how climate change is being dealt with, I needed a global perspective.

Getting to focus on climate finance, something I had heard of but not truly understood, was unique. I would not have predicted in August that I would follow climate finance as closely as I did. It became a major focus of COP28, and so many events from so many different angles intersected with the subject and gave me diverse insights into how our world is tackling our green transition. I learned about loss and damage, adaptation (beyond mitigation), barriers to capital mobilization, and local sustainability efforts.

We are not there…yet. [The Paris Agreement] outlined a goal of limiting global warming to under 2 degrees of warming, with a target of 1.5 degrees, and COP28 began the process of implementing major components of Paris. But the final decision is far from enough to truly get at the scale of our global green transition. It does not specify how to mobilize the trillions of dollars we need for climate finance. However, I am looking forward to watching COP29 in Baku next year and seeing how a year of private sector shifts and national plans will push ambition at an international level.

Abhay Manchala (he/him) ’24

Environmental studies major (B.S. and M.A.)

I’m deeply passionate about communicating environmental issues to the general public, and this course gave me the outlet to communicate current climate issues (about COP28, global environmental policy, and the UNFCCC) to a wide variety of audiences. I was also interested in getting hands-on experience in recent climate change issues. So many of our classes discuss historical environmental science and policy, and our textbooks may be a few years old. What is the state of the environment and global environmental policy now? This class allowed me to learn about and answer those questions.

What surprised me the most was the dynamism of the work I did. Even though it was demanding, I picked up new skills and found myself working on many different kinds of projects (interviews, research protocols, communication strategies, blogs, YouTube videos, and more) and was always interested in learning more. In simpler terms, the class got me hooked!

Altogether, it was eye-opening because it showed me the duality of the climate process. There’s a lot of performative work and false promises given out by rich countries and fossil fuel interests, but you’re also able to see the deeply passionate pleas of countries on the front line of the climate crisis. The juxtaposition of these two completely different approaches to climate change showed me that there’s so much more work to do to implement the solutions we need for climate change now.

Eesha Rangani (she/her) ’28

Marine biology Ph.D. student

My participation in COP27 last year in Egypt exposed me to the intricacies of the COP process, revealing gaps in my understanding. This course presented an invaluable opportunity to deepen my knowledge about COPs, fostering a more comprehensive understanding of global climate initiatives. Additionally, my academic background highlighted a crucial gap in training: the translation of scientific findings into effective policies and communication strategies for wider audiences. With this course, I aimed to bridge this divide and enhance my skills in merging scientific knowledge with impactful policy implementation.

During COP28 itself, notably surprising was the considerable presence of fossil fuel lobbyists, highlighting the complex and often contentious nature of discussions around climate policy. The stark contrast between the pursuit of sustainable solutions and the evident influence of vested interests underscored the challenges faced in achieving collective, environmentally conscious decision-making on a global scale.

At the same time, my experience showed me the pivotal role of civil society in the climate movement. Interacting with diverse groups such as youth, Indigenous communities, policymakers, and business owners allowed me to grasp the multifaceted contributions each entity makes towards climate action. The depth of involvement from civil society became evident, and I firmly believe that their collective push for a fair and just transition away from fossil fuels is instrumental in winning the climate battle. The experience underscored the significance of collaboration and inclusive participation for a sustainable and equitable future.

Cora Sverdrup (she/her) ’24

Environmental studies and anthropology majors

Ever since I came to USC and joined the Environmental Studies Program, I have questioned where I fit within the fight against climate change. I know I want to have a climate justice-centered career path, but I do not know how to best utilize my education to do so. This course ultimately gave me the opportunity to explore environmental policy on a global scale and see firsthand how the world makes decisions to mitigate climate change.

I came into this course very blind to the nuances of conducting COP research. Honestly, I don’t think I truly understood the importance and complexity of what we were doing until I saw the COP happening in real time. Whether it was jumping between COP meetings and press conferences, learning what negotiations were happening behind closed doors, or analyzing decision texts, there was always something interesting and impactful going on. This also made me realize how important the communications aspect of this course was. As Gibson Climate Justice Lab members, it was our responsibility to synthesize all of these complex events and processes for a public audience. This part of the experience was much more difficult than I had imagined, yet incredibly rewarding.

The most important thing I learned is that our current global system of environmental governance is not perfect. With all of the different actors, constituencies, and interest groups we are dealing with, it can be easy for the voices of those most impacted by climate change to be pushed into the background. But this is also the reason why I believe that spaces similar to the Gibson Climate Justice Lab are so important. We need both research and media focused on the voices fighting for climate justice in order to better understand how the COP can be improved to include these voices in climate policy creation.

Visit the Gibson Climate Justice Lab website >>

Read Shannon Gibson’s article on loss and damage at COP28 >>