Recent graduate marches in UN climate negotiations
By Molly Waite GVL Staff Writer
Most Grand Valley State University graduates spend their graduation day celebrating years of academic achievement with family and friends. But for graduate Danielle Ostafinski, the big day took place during the world’s largest march on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark, with 100,000 of her closest friends.
Ostafinski traveled to Denmark as part of Expedition Copenhagen, a team of U.S. Midwestern youth leaders who work within their communities to raise awareness of the international climate negotiations discussed by the United Nations in December 2009, an annual conference that has been meeting since 1992 to find solutions to global climate change. The Lanthorn sat down with Ostafinski to find out about her experience in the negotations.
Lanthorn: What was Expedition Copenhagen?
Ostafinski: Expedition Copenhagen was a partnership with the Will Steger Foundation and Stonyfield Farm. Our goal was to bring the Midwest to the negotiations and the negotiations to the Midwest because we believe that our Midwestern states have a lot at stake when it comes to climate change, but more importantly, we have a lot to gain. We have the solutions here to help stop climate change and to transition our country to a safe and clean energy future.
Lanthorn: What did you do as part of the Midwest youth delegation?
Ostafinski: Our goal before attending the negotiations was to engage our communities with the solutions to solve climate change as Midwestern states. We planned events for the 350.org International Day of Climate Action and gave presentations at high schools using the Will Steger Foundation Climate Citizen Curriculum that they developed. We also researched policy topics such as the reduction of climate change pollutants and connected with other youth from around the world to form working groups. At the negotiations, we spent most of our time in the Bella Center, where the negotiations were held. There we worked with the youth groups that were created before the negotiations to plan actions, write policy, build relationships between youth delegations in our countries and more. We wrote daily blogs, produced videos, interviewed climate champions, were interviewed ourselves, attended plenary sessions where the negotiations were taking place and went to the U.S. daily briefings. We also gave educational presentations to students in Copenhagen, in the World Wildlife Federation tent and to students back home – these were some of my favorite experiences.
Lanthorn: Why did you become a delegate for Expedition Copenhagen?
Ostafinski: I became a delegate because I really wanted to represent the voice of the hardworking and passionate young people that I have worked with and met these past few years. The youth of the world today and future generations will inherit the problems of climate change more than those making the decisions now. I wanted to show world leaders that youth are ready to find solutions to this problem and create a safer, healthier and more just future for everyone.
Lanthorn: How were you selected as a delegate?
Ostafinski: I worked with the Will Steger Foundation through my internship with the GVSU Sustainable Community Development Initiative last fall, so I was already connected with the organization. When I saw that they were accepting applications for this delegation, I sent one in and was given this amazing opportunity.
Lanthorn: What was it like to be part of the UN Climate Negotiations?
Ostafinski: It was sometimes overwhelming and stressful, but overall an empowering and exciting experience. I was part of the largest climate conference with over 35,000 civil society representatives, met people like Sen. John Kerry and worked with some of the smartest and most passionate young people from around the world.
Lanthorn: What was accomplished during the climate negotiations?
Ostafinski: The UN climate negotiations produced the Copenhagen Accord, an interim document that is supposed to hold countries accountable to reduce greenhouse gases, protect forests and give money to the most affected nations. It was not what most people were hoping for, but it was the most realistic result based on the political status of major players like the U.S. and China. I wanted to see a legally binding international treaty signed by the 110 plus heads of state at the negotiations that was based on sound science and provided substantial financing for the people most affected by climate change.
Lanthorn: Do you plan on continuing your political involvement in climate change?
Ostafinski: No matter what, I will be an active and engaged citizen for the rest of my life. I have a liberal studies degree with an emphasis in sustainable community development and a minor in environmental studies. I also received a nonprofit management certificate. I want to develop local food systems in communities like Grand Rapids so that people have access to fresh, local and organic foods. Ultimately, I want to help build more sustainable communities and continue to raise awareness about the positive impacts that people can make when they get involved.
Lanthorn: Why is it important to become politically involved?
Ostafinski: I believe that individuals have power when they organize together. We can accomplish great things harnessing this power to create positive change. The U.S. Senate is working on their version of the climate bill. There is concern among our senators about jobs, the cost of energy and other issues, but what is missing is an understanding about the opportunities that our states have with the passage of this bill. Expedition Copenhagen served as a reminder to those opportunities, and we are still working to bring that message to our communities. Michigan has a very high unemployment rate and too many closed factories, but we have the infrastructure to build wind turbines, trains and busses and use them in our state. So we can create thousands of jobs, have cleaner energy and use less energy through a climate bill.
Lanthorn: What did you, personally, learn from Copenhagen?
Ostafinski: In Copenhagen I learned about the intricate connection between climate change and world politics. We have the solutions to many of the problems, but what we are lacking is the political will. I knew this before I went to the negotiations, but it was made even clearer when we struggled to develop a treaty.
Lanthorn: How will the experience affect you overall?
Ostafinski: Overall, this experience has taught me that my passion for creating a more just and sustainable society needs to be more locally based. I realized that my work in Grand Rapids and throughout Michigan is important because it gets people involved in their communities, which eventually impacts the world. I do not need to go out and save the world on a large scale. Instead, I need to do what work I can here and now, and remember that sometimes that is the greater impact. I will always remain an active citizen working to create a just and sustainable society for all. I will continue to learn about issues, join groups, organize, protest and tell my friends and family about the issues and solutions available.