For most, Cancún, Mexico is one of the go-to spots for a fun-filled spring break. But for about 30 University students, professors and alums, the location has taken on a whole new meaning in recent weeks.

These individuals are attending the two-week United Nations Climate Change Conference, which started Nov. 29. A few University representatives were in Cancún during the first week and others are participating in the second week of the conference, which is now underway. According to a press release issued by the University, there are 10 students participating.

Miguel Sossa, MBA and MS candidate from the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, said that in the first week, representatives from 132 nations attended the conference and explained their goals for the conference.

According to the press release, the participating nations were the ones who signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1994.

The goal of the conference is to find ways to mediate climate change, with topics including water, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and social issues, Sossa said.

Sossa said that within the last five years, an Erb alum arranged for University affiliates to have access to the annual conference and since then a few University representatives have attended the conference each year.

“It’s a lot more than just the good weather,” Sossa said. “I came back and I didn’t get a tan because I rarely saw the beach. I think what drives it for us (participating students) is that we’re interested in observing how international politics work.”

Sossa said that attending the conference also gives students the opportunity to bring information on the state of efforts to address climate change back to campus.

Sossa added that he got a live look at the inner workings of international governing bodies through his time at the conference. He said he watched representatives from Bangladesh make a plea for help in front of all the participating nations to address the recent flooding in their country.

“Hearing them and their counterparts, like Jamaica and Guatemala, saying the same kind of pulls at your heart-strings,” he said. “It’s really impressive to hear that. It’s kind of humbling, too, when you look at what we have and you come back to Ann Arbor, we have so much.”

From attending the conference, Sossa said he also realized that these sorts of negotiations are more challenging than he originally thought.

“Finding a solution is important,” he said. “But having everyone agree on the problem is probably equally if not more important. When you have so many people under one roof, it really gives context to just how difficult it is to align.”

At the conference, Sossa said he also witnessed the difference in students’ and diplomats’ attitudes.

“Students are more positively charged,” he said. “We want to go out there and change the world. Diplomats are more reserved. They say, ‘it’s a process, we have to work through certain things first.’ Listening to both sides of that equation is something you don’t get to do everyday in school.”

The students and other participants are immersed in the seriousness of the matter from the moment they land to the moment they leave.

“As all of this is happening you’re driving back and forth down highways where there are armored vehicles with rifles and machine guns protecting you,” he said. “You realize this is a serious thing that you are involved in.”

Katie Pethan, MS and Master of Landscape Architecture candidate in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, said the conference also gave her a first-hand look at the logistics of international politics.

“It’s basically a meeting of the minds,” Pethan said. “Going to the conference is an opportunity to get a rush of information.”

She said participating in the conference brought what she studies to life with a “human quality.”

“If you are sitting in your room and reading, it’s easy to have a physical and clinical approach to these problems but when you meet the people it’s different,” she said. “There were indigenous groups from the Amazon and from Africa there, and it puts a very human face to these problems.”

An added benefit to attending the conference Pethan said was that she got the chance to network with leaders in her fields of interest.

Pethan, like Sossa, said she enjoyed observing the personal interactions that occur during negotiations and discussions, citing a session on biodiversity that she attended. Pethan said that one representative made a few jokes during the long discussion and after a few minutes a representative from Brazil stood up and said that he respects the man who told the jokes but found them to be inappropriate.

“He said this in front of maybe 500 people in the middle of this tedious process,” she said. “He was offended by the jokes. It changes the tone from a lighthearted room to one a little more tense. It was a very human endeavor.”

Pethan added that the topic of the conference is “the most important topic of our era,” and said she hopes there will be more funding for student participation in the future.

“It’s invaluable for me,” she said. “I’m the kind of person who learns from hands-on experience. I really absorb things and they stick with me longer if I have a hands-on experience.”

Andrew Hoffman, SNRE and Ross School prof. and associate director of the Erb Institute, left for the conference yesterday as an observer.

He said he hopes to learn about the process of global negotiations on climate change and to see the interactions between the nations and organizations present at the conference.

Hoffman said attending and observing the climate change conference and similar events is an invaluable experience for students.

“It gives them the opportunity to learn how this works in real life,” he said. “This is global governing in action. What a classroom for students to learn.”

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