Yale Climate Conference

Sep. 18-19, 2017

Reporting by Chunyang Ding and Treston Codrington

Hundreds hear the Climate Change Conference opening session, moderated by John Kerry (YC ’66) at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies on Monday. This is the first of five sessions over the next two days led by the Kerry Initiative. Mr. Kerry opens the conference with a focus on “laying out an agenda” on what he calls a non-partisan issue, and a call on the students to fill a void currently in politics.

Kerry moderated a panel of public and private leaders in discussing the future of energy policy in America. The tone of the panel was focused on actions by regional and private sector groups, rather than the leadership from the national government, in light of signals from the Trump administration to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords.

“The good news is we have the means to meet the challenge of climate change” said Kerry, in his opening statement. “The solution is energy policy.”

The panel featured Dr. Ernie Moniz, the former Secretary of Energy under President Obama’s second term, as well as private leaders like Mr. Tony Earley, the Chairman of PG&E, America’s largest electric utility. Overall, the panel was cautiously optimistic with how America is still able to meet climate targets through energy policy changes. Their diverse perspectives shed new light on the complex technological and ultimately political aspects of creating new energy policy.

The Burke auditorium in Kroon Hall was filled to capacity with students, professors, and leaders across the Yale community, many eager to better understand the current political environment. “I’m wondering if the global community, without the leadership of the United States, can proceed to make more progress,” said Tatsuro Imai, a Masters student in Global Affairs. Like many others in the audience, Imai was interested in the relationship between the public and private sectors on energy policy.

Several panelists focused on the importance of stability in the marketplace, emphasizing the ability for innovation to occur but stressing the potential challenges faced in shifting regulatory standards. Although most of the discussion were centered on how businesses and regional governments could create new innovations in renewable energies and making more technologies run on electricity, Kerry returned the conversation to what students could do at the end, calling on students for grassroots accountibility.

“Companies do listen to the requests of their consumers, so making sure we support the companies that make those initiatives is very important,” said Ihna Mangundayao SY ’18, a political science and Energy Studies major attending the session.

“This is a time filled with both promise and challenges,” said Kerry in the closing statement. The next two days will feature four more panel discussions, culminating in a sold-out closing session at Woolsey Hall with Leonardo DiCaprio.

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In the closing session of this week’s Yale Climate Conference, actor and film producer Leonardo DiCaprio and former Secretary of State and Yale Distinguished Fellow for Global Affairs John Kerry discussed citizen engagement and climate activism. DiCaprio and Kerry charged students to join the push for climate action and lamented the strong opposition to climate science in the US.

A packed Woolsey Hall erupted in cheers as Leonardo DiCaprio and John Kerry took the stage on Tuesday. Kerry’s introductory remarks set the tone for the evening, in which he declared to the audience, “You are the agents of change that we need.” Leo joined Kerry in stating that, “We all must do more now. We have to take these matters into our own hands.”

DiCaprio showed a trailer for his upcoming environmental documentary, Before the Flood. He shared proof of some of the environmental degradation he witnessed around the world. From the soot covered ice caps of Greenland to rural refugees fleeing desertification to the raging wildfires in the American West, DiCaprio concluded that the evidence of climate change and its impacts was “so incredibly obvious.” He expressed his frustration with American climate deniers in business and government, especially since climate change is increasingly accepted around the world. “Why do [climate deniers] have such a stranglehold on our political system, while in other countries they talk about climate change as if it were gravity?” As he spoke, Hurricane Maria ravaged Caribbean islands already worn out from this year’s unusually devastating hurricane season.

DiCaprio highlighted three things all citizens could do to participate in action against climate change. First, he called everyone to vote in the midterm elections for congressmen who believe in climate change and are committed to taking action against it. Secondly, he encouraged people to harness their consumer power to support environmentally-responsible companies and boycott those whose business harms the planet or funds climate deniers. Lastly, he urged Tuesday’s audience to organize and support non-profit organizations “that work to implement climate solutions and defend the last wild places on our planet.”

Kerry and DiCaprio also shared messages specifically for Yale students. Leo encouraged students to “become the next great climate scientist or the next great public servant, like our host John Kerry, and to commit your career to making a difference on this issue.” Kerry reminded students that the goal of a Yale education is not just to make successful careers but to learn to become better citizens. “You cannot go to a great university like Yale and not accept [this] great responsibility.”

Student reactions aligned with the speakers. “I enjoyed how they both emphasized…that there are innovative ways that we can [use] our science and knowledge to really make a difference. You have to take charge yourself,” Meh Nadeen ‘19 said. Ewurama Okai ‘17 concurred. “The most striking thing about the session was the emphasis on the personal responsibility to educate oneself about climate change.” Another student, Sophia ‘19, was most taken with the emphasis placed on consumer responsibility. “We shouldn’t be just thinking about big-scale politicians who are climate change deniers,” she said. “We have to research what we support directly and indirectly with our purchases.”

As much as students were inspired to take responsibility for their own knowledge of climate change, they also saw the need to engage those who deny the science of climate change. “I agree with John Kerry that it is our responsibility to try to get every on board [on climate action],” Gabriella ’19 said. “We have to keep engaging with people who might not agree with us.” Okai noted that dialogue on climate change must relate to the personal experiences of those who may see it as a far away issue. “It involves connecting their world view to the issue, rather than simply assuming that the issue of climate change should hold equal importance for everyone.” Nadeen is one of many who can testify about the health impacts of climate change. “Growing up in Saudi Arabia, pollution has had a huge effect on my own body. I now have asthma.” A 2015 EPA study showed that measures taken to avert climate change improve human health. An experiment in reducing vehicle emissions also resulted in 15 to 30 percent decreases in inflammatory markers in children’s lungs.

“To climate deniers,” Nadeen finished, “open your eyes.”

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