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​​’Action leads to optimism’: CSU students return from COP26 inspired to make change

By Caitlin Charlton | December 13, 2021

For the past several years, Colorado State University has sent delegations of students and faculty to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as the Conference of Parties or COP.  This year’s delegation led by Dr. Gillian Bowser included several students and alumni from the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. 

Given time to reflect on their experiences, two common themes are threaded through out the students’ discussion of their time at COP26: optimism and inspiration for action.

Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse (left) with CSU Professor Gillian Bowser (middle) and 2021 CSU graduate Cody Sanford (right) at COP26 in Glasgow. 

‘Motivated on the same common purpose’

The students are part of a larger partnership with 11 other institutions funded by the National Science Foundation called the Youth Environmental Alliance in Higher Education, also known as the YEAH Network. The YEAH fellows hosted both in-person and virtual events while at COP 26 with students from other universities motivated to see change. 

“As we’ve learned from being part of YEAH, there is so much power in a team,” said Sarah Viders, a senior in ESS.

Beyond their roles as YEAH fellows, the CSU delegates attended events that gave a platform to a broad spectrum of voices. What was most inspiring and eye-opening from this part of the experience was the unity behind the diversity of voices present. 

“Everyone there is motivated on the same common purpose,” Cody Sanford said, a 2021 alumnus of ESS.

These voices ranged from countries already experiencing the brunt of climate change to industries vocalizing the hurdles they face to take further action to youth voicing their concerns about the future they are inheriting. 

“It presented more of a spectrum that is the reality out there.” Matt Twyman said, a master’s student in ESS.

Sarah Whipple, a PhD student in ESS who has attended two COPs in-person and attended virtually this year, noted the importance of the re-establishment of the United States in negotiations.

“It makes me a lot more optimistic about the status of climate policy in the U.S. seeing our voice back at the table,” Whipple said.

As a whole, the group emphasized the optimism around the commonality existing within the diversity of voices at the table.

 Recent CSU graduates Cody Sanford (left) and Daniel Dominguez (right) with EPA administrator Michael Regan (middle) after a presentation at the US Center inside COP26.

‘Action leads to optimism’

“One of the most important things I learned at this conference is that it is going to take everyone if we are going to get somewhere,” Sanford said.

As a group, the students and alumni have already done ample work toward climate action. Their studies and research alone in the field of ecosystem science and sustainability are important work, but they all work on both personal and group levels in other areas of their lives to take action themselves and inspire others to do the same.

Sanford and Kaydee Barker, a senior in ESS, started a podcast geared toward climate action and education called ‘Liveable Future’. Jacob Genuise, a master’s student in ESS and lead CSU YEAH fellow, worked with a student group at his previous university opening up dialogue with senators in the state of Oklahoma on the importance of implementing wind energy, and has plans to do similar work in Colorado in the future. For the past few years, Whipple has been a mentor for students attending their first COP to help them have impactful experiences. 

Jacob Genuise (left), CSU alumnus Daniel Dominguez (middle) and Kaydee Barker (right) at COP26.

“The individual is so powerful, but if we can hold each other’s hands and all do it together, then we are even more powerful,” Viders said. 

Whipple and Genuise remain heavily involved with the YEAH Network. They are continuing work alongside other YEAH fellows on improving climate action and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals within higher education.

Viders, who is graduating this semester, plans to continue her work educating others by also remaining involved with the YEAH network and through attending law school, bringing in her ecosystem science background for a scientifically informed perspective. 

The group has teaching and outreach events planned with middle schoolers to inspire action. There is a graduate division of the Student Sustainability Center at CSU getting started that Twyman expressed interest getting involved with. Some of the delegation also have plans to get involved with the Fort Collins Sustainability Group, a local organization geared towards making Fort Collins a more sustainable city. 

Even seemingly small actions can make a huge difference. Geniuse said talking regularly in small group settings can be extremely beneficial to keep optimism around climate action. 

“It can help so much to ask, ‘What are the good things we see in the world right now about climate action? What are the bad things? Discuss.’ Hopefully the optimism will win in that discussion, and I think it usually does.” 

Sanford said that while taking personal action is important, using your position and voice to invoke top-to-bottom change is imperative, and that bringing in people from all backgrounds along the way is a necessity.

“Getting individuals together under a common thread has a snowball effect to become something bigger,” Sanford said. 

An event he attended at the Action Hub, Twyman said, summarized it best.

“Education leads to empowerment, empowerment leads to action, and action leads to optimism.”

From left to right: Kaydee Barker, Daniel Dominguez, Cody Sanford, Gillian Bowser, Jacob Genuise, and Matt Twyman at COP 26.