Commodores at COP26: Vanderbilt Students Attend Prominent Climate Conference

Riley Black

Vanderbilt students recently had the chance to attend the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland. These students participated in discussions at the prominent environmental conference, putting Vanderbilt alongside delegations from nearly 200 countries during the negotiations towards a new international climate agreement. 

COP26 comes at a time when the effects of climate change have become increasingly more destructive. Both the causes and effects of climate change, however, are unequally distributed across the world. The UN states that “the 100 least-emitting countries generate 3 percent of total emissions,” while “the 10 countries with the largest emissions contribute 68 percent” of global emissions. Despite these minimal contributions, developing countries face the effects of climate change more intensely. Vulnerable and marginalized populations within these countries (and in developed countries such as the U.S.) face negative consequences exacerbated by structural inequalities. 

Supporters of the COP conferences have cited them as a way to organize all countries and populations in the fight against climate change, with government representatives, scientists, and activists in attendance. Sophomore Chandler Quaile, one of the students in attendance, cited their experience “listening to education ministers and engaging with indigenous activists and scholars” as a positive element of COP26. Senior Ellie Miller, another student in attendance, said that “in a way, [COP26] is a sort of check for countries that produce a significant amount of emissions or do not have a history of strong climate change legislation.” 

The 14 Vanderbilt students in attendance came as part of Climate Change and the Global Response: A Multi-Disciplinary Perspective Honors Seminar, a class taught by Dr. Leah Dundon, director of the Vanderbilt Climate Change Initiative. These students were granted “Observer” status by the UN as part of the “research and independent NGO” constituency. This allowed them to attend discussions, speaker events, and press conferences in the “blue zone,” the space for official negotiations at COP26.  

A primary issue that these students highlighted was the importance of young people in combating climate change, especially in the wake of perceived inaction by world leaders. COP26 has received criticism from many youth activists as being an ineffective catalyst for climate action. Miller highlighted this generation divide in climate action, emphasizing that “students and young people will be the ones to solve the problem of climate change,” as they “will be facing the consequences of climate change for far longer than our world leaders will be.” 

Quaile echoed these sentiments, stating that “student leaders have often been the driving engine behind social change and social reform, and have not backed down from waging the good fight.” Quaile presented at COP26 on the issue of engaging youth in climate action, as well as in a debrief conference on “Regreening without Displacement.” 

The role of young people in climate action has been visible on Vanderbilt’s campus. During the students’ time at COP26, Chancellor Daniel Diermeier announced that the university was joining the UN-backed Race to Zero coalition, pledging to attain net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Vanderbilt has also faced calls to divest from fossil fuels from student organizations such as DivestVU and Dores Divest

Miller and Quaile’s final reflections repeated a desire for young people to pursue action against climate change. Miller stated that “young people have the foresight to see the dangers that lie ahead if effective climate policy is not implemented, making us a powerful force in the climate movement.” Quaile urged students to “take this critical moment in history and internalize the urgency of the now, finding ways to engage with the climate crisis at hand in any and all subjects they choose to pursue.”

Image Credit: Photo by Jacob Wilentz