Swarthmore Granted NGO Observer Status by United Nations

by Liz Casey '14
Alex Ahn '15
Alex Ahn '15

After a lengthy application process, Swarthmore College was recently granted NGO observer status by the United Nations, and is sending a delegation of two students and one professor to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in Warsaw, Poland. This week, Alex Ahn '15 and Laura Rigell '15 are traveling with Carol Nackenoff, Richter Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Environmental Studies program, to observe negotiations and interact with other NGOs and activist groups.

The idea for the application and the ensuing trip was galvanized by a visit from Christiana Figueres '79, executive secretary of the UNFCC. In September 2012, she visited campus to deliver a talk on climate change and meet with students and professors. During her time on campus, Figueres met with Giovanna Di Chiro, the Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change. Di Chiro, whose research focuses on the intersections of environmental science and policy, and invited Figueres to speak with her class and other students interested in environmental studies. Through these conversations, Di Chiro and a few interested students began to wonder what it would take to be able to participate in annual climate change summits like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

A student-run committee led by Di Chiro, Vice President for College and Community Relations Maurice Eldridge '61, and President Rebecca Chopp began the process of applying for United Nations NGO observer status last spring. Along with detailing the structure and nature of the College, the committee also had to compile evidence of environmental activism on campus. Di Chiro then submitted the application on behalf of the College.

"Because so many members of our community are involved in environmental activism and the improvement of sustainable practices on campus, we had plenty of convincing material," says Ahn, a biology major from Tenafly, N.J., who has spent time researching the adaptation of biological systems to climate change.

The College and committee learned of the success of its application in August of this year, leaving little time for planning or funding. Nackenoff, the chair of the Environmental Studies Program, began planning the trip along with Ben Goloff '15 and Ahn. Goloff, a biology major with a special major in environmental governance, is heavily involved in Ecosphere, Earthlust, and is spearheading the effort to improve and expand the Environmental Studies program at Swarthmore. The trip is being fully funded by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responisbility.

The delegation, which will participate in the first week of the convention starting on Nov. 11, has full access to any state representative, activist organization, or scholarly expert who will be present at the conference and the numerous side events that are hosted every day. Although the most substantive and consequential negotiations at the conferences typically occur behind closed doors, the delegation will have the opportunity to sit in and observe the official United Nations sessions. In these sessions and in the side events, the Swarthmore delegation will hear from the 196 delegates to the U.N. and other NGOs as to how they plan to reduce emissions and enforce the policies set by the Kyoto Protocol.

Outside of observing the official negotiations, "one of the central objectives of our trip, and a key goal of many NGO organizations who will be represented at the conference, will be to network and form collaborative relationships with as many groups rom around the world as possible," Ahn says. The delegation will also have the unique opportunity to meet with Executive Secretary Figueres '79 and Anne Kolker '08, an international climate change negotiator for the U.S. State Department.

The delegation hopes to use this rare opportunity to bring the campus community closer to the international climate movement, to form productive, lasting partnerships with organizations they meet at the conference, and bring new perspectives from around the world into how Swarthmore as an institution approaches sustainability. The group plans to produce a live blog of the events they attend while at the conference. In addition, upon their return they will present to various groups, classes, the administration, and the College as a whole. 

"It is a great opportunity to see first-hand both the possibilities and the difficulties that go towards these types of UN conferences," says Di Chiro. "These students have the rare opportunity to bring these reflections back to our campus to better our community."