MU professor Mike Urban will sit in Copenhagen, watch officials from around the world discuss the climate's future and, he hopes, pass on lessons learned to whomever cares to listen.
Urban and Mark Cowell, associate professors in the geography department, will attend the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as representatives of the Association of American Geographers. They plan to host a blog throughout the convention, giving updates and their thoughts on the talks.
President Barack Obama and representatives of 192 nations will also attend the conference. The goal of the meeting is to develop an international strategy to combat global warming.
“I think there’s virtually no way it cannot have a big impact one way or another,” Urban said. “I think we’ll be talking about Copenhagen for years.”
The convention is the culmination of talks dating back to 1992. Nations met in Rio de Janeiro for the first U.N. convention on climate change and set voluntary controls for limiting greenhouse gases, although the agreements weren't binding.
In 1997, the European Union and 37 nations, including the U.S., agreed to the Kyoto Protocol, a deal to lower emissions from greenhouse gases. The United States never ratified the agreement, however, and then-President George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the protocol in 2001.
“Since the U.S. is the only nation to have rejected the Kyoto treaty, it has been isolated from the rest of the world by its inaction on climate change,” Cowell said in an e-mail.
The binding agreement went into effect in 2005. American resistance through eight years under Bush blocked most progress. A major goal of the Copenhagen climate talks is to get the U.S., one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases, to agree to reduce emissions.
Both professors said they are looking forward to seeing how their field mixes with politics to create policy.
“A lot of geography deals with human interactions and the world environmental systems,” Urban said.
His interest is in the effect of water resources on river systems and stream mechanics.
“There are areas of the world, such as the Maldives, that could completely be wiped out with rising water levels, and other areas that are very close to drought conditions,” Urban said. “I think it’s very important that we keep in mind that certain populations are going to be more susceptible.”
The professors' recent research focuses on comparing the geography of climatic changes in the U.S. over the 1900s with those predicted for this century and their implications for biological communities.
“The prospects of major climatic changes over upcoming decades has the potential to result in equally severe impacts on the composition and geography of ecosystems,” Cowell said.
The geographers hope Copenhagen produces global change but also seek to make an impact locally and on their students.
University of Missouri System President Gary Forsee drew criticism last week for a letter he wrote to the Missouri congressional delegation that opposes cap-and-trade climate change emissions legislation. Some students saw this as a contradiction to signing a petition through the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment to reduce emissions. Cowell said the controversy brings needed attention to the debate over what role the UM System plays in climate change.
“This debate is a microcosm of the decisions and actions that are being played out around the country and around the world,” Cowell said. “It is up to all of us as members of communities such as MU to become part of the attempt to face up to the realities of climate change.”
Urban believes one of the major reasons for a lack of concern for climate change is its abstract nature. The trip to Copenhagen and corresponding blogging provide Urban an opportunity to combat the apathy.
“One of the things we want to do with Copenhagen and talking about climate change is get past the abstract and talk about specifics.” Urban said.
In Copenhagen, the geographers' days will be filled with world leaders discussing global issues while their nights may be spent sharing rooms with backpacking teenagers. By the time the two were accepted as observers for the convention, the cheapest hotels in Copenhagen were $250 a night, Urban said, so they decided to stay at a hostel in Malmo, Sweden. It will be a 35-minute train ride each day.
“It will be a nice way to get away from the 14,000 people expected at the conference and a more realistic look at life in Scandinavia than staying at a posh hotel,” Cowell said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.