United Nations Climate Conference

Conference report

Georgia Behrens & Katherine Middleton

Who are you, and what is AMSA Code Green?
We are Katherine Middleton and Georgia Behrens, second-year medical students with a passion for the environment and health. With a national team, we run AMSA Code Green, which is AMSA’s climate change and health project. We provide a platform for Australian medical students to respond to our planet’s health emergency – educating, engaging and advocating on the health challenges posed by climate change. In May 2018, we joined the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA) delegation to the United Nations (UN) Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany. We spent two weeks watching, learning, sightseeing, and doing a bit of casual international environmental activism.

What is the UN Climate Conference?
The UN Climate Conference is an international meeting of diplomats, policy-makers, scientists, academics and non-governmental organisations, all working together to confront the challenges posed by climate change.[1] This meeting occurs every year in Bonn, Germany, and focuses on continual implementation of the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement, which came into force in late 2016, unites countries around the world to take action on climate change. 178 countries are currently signed up as parties to the Paris Agreement, and are thus committed to acting for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The Paris Agreement commits nations to actively prevent increases in global temperatures to well below 2oC. The key aim of this year’s UN Climate Conference was to develop the operating manual for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, also known as the “Paris AgreementRulebook”. This rulebook will be a guide for all involved countries as to how they should go about conducting climate change mitigation and adaptation activities in the upcoming years.[2] The rulebook is due to be finalised at the end of 2018 at the 24th Conference of Parties (COP24) in Katowice, Poland. The significance of COP24 has earned its name “Paris 2.0” (COP21 was where the Paris Agreement was signed).

Why do medical students go?
At every UN Climate Conference, hundreds of people from around the world come as “observers” to watch, learn and contribute to the UN Climate process, even though they are not parties to the Paris Agreement. Youth observers (‘YOUNGOs’) are a particularly important group at every conference, as the UN “recognizes the key role that youth play in tackling climate change”.[3] The IFMSA has been sending youth observers to UN Climate Conferences for a number of years. This is because the IFMSA believes that climate change is an immense global health issue, an issue which future medical doctors should be working hard to address as a matter of urgency. The preamble of the Paris Agreement acknowledges “climate change is a common concern of humankind” and states that climate action must respect “obligations on human rights [including] the right to health”.[4] Over the past few years, IFMSA delegates have been working hard at UN Climate Conferences to ensure that parties to the Paris Agreement remember that climate change is a significant health issue. What did we do there? We did so many wonderful things while attending the conference. First and foremost, we had the opportunity to meet amazing people from around the world, all working incredibly hard to fight climate change and ensure the ongoing health of our planet. These included other globally-minded medical students and youth environmental activists from a wide variety of countries. We also had the privilege to interact with representatives from the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the Executive Secretary of the UN’s main climate change organisation, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). We sat in on the international negotiation sessions between different countries about the Paris Rulebook, which was an incredible experience. Getting to see how the UN works in reality is a fascinating (if sometimes bewildering) experience. Alongside the negotiations, we were able to attend a range of presentations and workshops that were being run at the conference. This included the WHO’s talk regarding health impacts of air pollution; a legal team aiding a group of Swiss grandparents in their action of suing the government for a lack of action towards climate change; and many presentations addressing the need to empower women and youth to lead the charge on climate activism. Finally, we got involved in a bit of activism to help remind all the delegates of the urgent health issues posed by climate change. In both weeks of the conference, the IFMSA delegation held a little “action” in the main lobby where we dressed up in lab coats, stethoscopes and more. We were extremely appreciative at how well-received we were, and the never-ending interest of others regarding climate change and health.

What did we learn?
There is a tremendous amount of bureaucracy. At first, it seemed a bit overwhelming and sometimes even counterproductive. But as the week progressed, its purpose became evident. The complexity of climate action on a global scale is such that a one-size-fits-all approach to climate mitigation is not feasible. Discussions within the conference were at times tense for this reason. A phrase we heard time and time again was the need for a “just transition” towards a more renewable future. It taught us that at a global level, climate action needs to be well considered and carefully planned, which is the key to the UNFCCC process. Climate action can seem complex in a developed country such as Australia, and global climate action is no different. However, young people are playing a key role in shaping climate action. The voices of YOUNGOs are surprisingly being listened to, especially as the youth are increasingly contributing to UN processes. We also learnt that Pacific nations, in particular Fiji, are leading the way in the climate change conversation. The Fijian COP23 President called for an international dialogue, whereby party delegates and stakeholders levelled to share stories and take stock of collective efforts to achieve targets of Paris Agreement. A Talanoa is a traditional word used in Fiji to describe a process of sharing ideas, skills and experiences through storytelling.[5] We were fortunate enough to join with other YOUNGOs in our own Talanoa, where youth from all around the world shared stories about the following questions with regards to climate change: Where are we? Where do we want to go? How do we get there? From this sharing of stories we came to realise that globally, we are all in a similar place in terms of climate change, but it is manifesting differently across nations. We all think that education, in a way that people can understand and relate to their own lives, is of utmost importance moving forward. However, climate change cannot be approached from only one discipline. It needs to become integrated into all aspects of public policy. These stories from our peers were inspiring and invigorating. We learnt about the current state of affairs around the world, and became hopeful that if we work together we can figure out how to effectively tackle climate change.


Photo credits
Georgia Behrens & Katherine Middleton

Conflicts of interest
None declared

georgia.behrens@amsa.org.au katherine.middleton@amsa.org.au

1. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). What are United Nations Climate Change Conferences? [Internet]. New York City, US: UNFCCC; 2018 [updated n.d.; cited 2018 Oct 5]. Available from: https://unfccc. int/process/conferences/what-are-united-nations-climatechange-conferences
2. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Understanding the UN Climate Change Regime [Internet]. New York City, US: UNFCCC; 2018 [updated n.d.; cited 2018 Oct 5]. Available from: https://bigpicture. unfccc.int/
3. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Partnerships [Internet]. New York City, US: UNFCCC; 2018 [updated n.d.; cited 2018 Oct 5]. Available from: https://unfccc.int/topics/education-and-outreach/ workstreams/youth-engagement/partnerships
4. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Paris Agreement [Internet]. New York City, US: UNFCCC; 2018 [updated n.d.; cited 2018 Oct 5]. Available from: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/english_ paris_agreement.pdf
5. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 2018 Talanoa Dialogue Platform [Internet]. UNFCCC. New York City, US: UNFCCC; 2018 [updated n.d.; cited 2018 Oct 5]. Available from: https://unfccc.int/topics/2018- talanoa-dialogue-platform.

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