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Three-dozen academically talented fifth and sixth graders from around the world experience an intensive three-week climate change science and policy class…and finish with a mock United Nations summit.

STANFORD UNIVERSITY CAMPUS — A warm July afternoon in Palo Alto, California, and if you were merely to glance inside this Stanford campus student lounge with its pool table and ample couch space, you might guess the assembled “tweens” in T-shirts and flip-flops were busily learning their lines for an upcoming talent show. Or maybe studying for a summer-school quiz.

In fact, they are scheming on how to save the global community from catastrophic effects of climate change.

This class of 36 fifth and sixth graders from the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, a program for academically talented pre-college students from around the world, is here to play the roles of United Nations ambassadors and scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They’re engaged in a Model United Nations Summit on the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

By the close of the afternoon, resolutions will be made, revised, and voted on. Ambassadors will need to exercise restraint and use the diplomatic skills they’ve learned over the two-week program. Scientists will be forced to apply the basic earth science concepts they’ve spent many hours internalizing, while trying to understand the push-back they’re hearing from ambassadors regarding what is and is not politically “feasible.”

Some victories will be celebrated, but frustrations — sometimes even boiling over into tears — will also punctuate this exercise.

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Earth science instructor Turtle Haste, seated, talks to students during their mock United Nations summit, as fellow instructor Stephane Alviry looks on.

The kernel for this mock summit was set in 2009. Turtle Haste, the instructor of the Dynamic Earth intensive science course at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY), was observing the program’s Model United Nations and Advanced Geography class. One of her students turned to her and asked: “How come the UN doesn’t do something about climate change?”

Of course, the UN has been trying to do something about climate change since the first Conference of the Parties in 1995, leading to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. So Haste thought: “Why don’t we enact this?” She asked her colleagues who teach the CTY Model United Nations and Advanced Geography course, Dean Vesperman and Stephane Alviry, if they’d be interested in creating a learning simulation in which their students pose as UN delegates and her students act as the IPCC scientists, in support of the delegates.

Marrying the Climate Science with the Climate Policy Teachings

“Turtle teaches kids the science behind climate change, but they weren’t getting the policy [that goes into addressing it],” says Vesperman, a 20-year veteran of the CTY program. “My kids were learning the policy, but not getting the science. So we joined efforts.”

After testing out the concept during the summer 2011 CTY session, the trio of instructors in the summer of 2012 organized the first mock summit. It ended in a stalemate. “The students got to see that the process is really frustrating,” says Haste, who made an engaging presentation on the teaching experience as part of the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco last December. “The Maldives was trying to get everyone to listen. The U.S. was saying ‘we don’t want to pay.'”

Could this year’s summit, held July 17, prove more fruitful? That is up to the students.

Getting to Work

After watching a videotaped pep talk from Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the young scientists and ambassadors broke out into economic blocks and began crafting their respective resolutions, detailing the cuts they will agree to make on greenhouse gas emissions and sizing appropriate aid packages, among other promises.

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Students from the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, using the U.N. summit  as a guide, craft their resolutions to reduce carbon emissions.

The largest scrum of kids, representing Tier 3 (the developing nations of the G77) gathered on a small staircase. The Tier 2 countries (known as BRICs for Brazil, Russia, India and China) laid claim to a set of couches on the opposite wall, while the big dogs in the room, the Tier 1 or developed countries, assembled in the center of the room.

Chatter quickly arose from each group, and from the Tier 1 group comes a student responding incredulously to a proposal to provide direct aid to developing nations. “So are you saying we should turn Communist and all share our money, so we’re equal? Because that’s not going to work.”

As minutes pass, however, the ambassadors and scientists begin honing in on goals, working off hand-outs listing the proposals the nations they represent have made in the recent past. Japan announced plans to reduce emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, for example. Developing nations have asked industrialized ones to contribute 1 percent of their collective GDP to help them cut greenhouse gasses.

Before long, the delegates and scientists are discussing the merits of incremental steps, such as requiring new buildings to have white roofs to reflect heat, and large ones, such as aggressive carbon reductions. The tone at times turns draconian.

“They want to ban plastic bags, they want everyone to switch to wind and solar,” whispers Vesperman, as we listen in on discussions. “They don’t immediately understand that nations have sovereignty.”

In the days leading up to the mock summit, the Earth Dynamics class learned about sun flares, ocean currents, the carbon cycle, and the difference between weather and climate. They also spoke to NOAA researchers in both McCurdo Station and those aboard the Healy, an icebreaker near Barrow, AK. The “ambassadors” have learned not just about the mechanics of the UN but also the history of COP summits, their highlights and lowlights, and the details of the Kyoto Protocol and other key steps of the framework convention.

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Earth science instructor Turtle Haste using modeling software to show CTY students how carbon cuts could curb global warming.

After 15 minutes of negotiation, Haste calls the room to order. The three economic groups present their resolutions, with delegates addressing the room in groups of three or four, each reciting sections of the resolutions. The developed nations resolve to offer $70 billion in aid to the Tier 3 group and $30 billion to the BRICs, based on each group’s cutting emissions by 20 percent of 2000 levels by 2020. Tier 2 countries declare that its members should seek to cut their greenhouse emissions by 15 percent of 1995 levels by 2024, adding that the most developed nations within the UN must “take the lead in climate change and its adverse effects.” Tier 3 nations demand that industrialized (Annex 1) countries cut greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent of 2012 levels by 2030, enact cap-and-trade systems, and commit up to 1 percent of their collective GDP to developing nations.

Editing, Revising a la Real World UN

The delegates next break out into inter-block working groups to negotiate the proposed cuts. Here’s where tensions start to flare, as some delegates find themselves butting heads with other “nations.” At one point a shouting match erupts over whether Annex 1 countries should postpone debt interest for developing nations.

It’s not your typical squabble among 12-year-olds. But then, these are not typical 12-year-olds.

Hailing from every corner of the globe, these are likely future Nobel Prize winners and university presidents, Haste says. “They’re movers and shakers.”

Sarah Miller, a graduate student who is acting as Haste’s teacher’s assistant, says that at home, CTY students are generally the brightest ones in their schools, so being around so many other bright lights can be a struggle. What they’re learning through the mock summit, however, will make them stand out in a new way back home — they’ll be primed to grow up into climate change experts.

“This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in education,” says Miller.

Finally, the IPCC scientists from each working group present their proposed negotiated cuts to Haste. She explains to them the effect their proposed cuts would have on global greenhouse gas emissions and the projected trajectory of global warming, using modeling software on a laptop.

Representatives from each group then presented their negotiated resolutions and the full assembly voted on each. Working Group 2, comprised of Cuba, India, Italy, Japan, the Philippines. Russia and South America, emerged with the winning resolution: the least developed nations are to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent of 2012 levels by 2030; BRIC nations are charged with a 15 percent cut of 1995 levels by 2024; and developed nations pony-up 25 percent of 2000 levels by 2020. The group also calls upon developed nations to give $300 billion in aid to the least developed nations and $100 billion to developing states. It also reaffirms the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, particularly the need for technology transfer from developed states to developing ones.

After the summit, the student scientists and ambassadors say they’ve learned a fair amount about the challenges of communicating climate change and agreeing on the most effective means of curbing emissions.

“Everyone has to work together and focus on their goal, rather than going off on their own,” says Sage.

“I learned that you can’t just sit back and expect someone to voice your opinion. You have to tell people what you think,” Shawna adds.

As the day winds to an end, a student named Alex expresses a discovery that could certainly be used in more than just climate negotiations: “What I learned about communication is that you have to be patient and empathetic so that you won’t be angry when you disagree with what the other people say.”

And that’s a lesson that some climate elders might also find helpful.

Editor’s Note: To respect the privacy of the young students involved in this project, this article uses only their first names.

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