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A Sense of Urgency

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    Senior environmental studies and feminist studies major Jessica Olson has been selected twice to serve as a delegate to the UN Conference on Climate Change.
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    Jessica Olson stands with the current lead negotiator for the Unites States at the UN Climate Change Conference and the past lead negotiator.
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    Senior environmental studies and feminist studies major Jessica Olson has a particular interest in how climate change will affect women. She is shown here at the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was held in Doha, Qatar.
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    Jessica Olson (second from left) took three other students from Southwestern to the Powershift conference in October 2013. In November 2013 she will be attending her second international climate change conference.
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    Senior Jessica Olson received a national award from the Sierra Club in September 2013. She is shown here with Sierra Club President David Scott (left) and Executive Director Michael Brune (right).
    Lucas Adams

Southwestern student is attending an international climate change conference in Poland this month

While most of her classmates are getting ready for their final exams, senior environmental studies and feminist studies major Jessica Olson will be in Poland trying to help solve the problem of global climate change.

Olson is a youth delegate to the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The conference is being held in Warsaw, Poland, Nov. 11-22 and is expected to draw some 9,000 participants.

This will be the second year in a row that Olson has attended this international conference. Last year she was a delegate to the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18), which was held in Doha, Qatar.

Olson was selected to attend both conferences as a representative of the Sierra Student Coalition, which is the national youth-led section of the Sierra Club. Olson recently completed a one-year term on the Executive Committee of the Sierra Student Coalition and in September, she received a national award from the Sierra Club for her work with the organization.

Last year, Olson said she learned the basics of how the Convention on Climate Change works. This year, she hopes to really dig in and make a contribution.

“One of the most important things I got out of the conference last year is the broad sense of urgency that is being felt around the world when it comes to climate change,” Olson said. “We really need to come to a binding agreement by 2015.”

To date, Olson said, U.S. negotiators at the conference have tended to block any progress toward an international agreement on climate change because they don’t feel the country can afford what it would cost. She argues that the country can’t afford not to deal with the issue.

“We are going to have to spend money on adaptation in the future, but the sum will be much greater in the future as climate change continues to advance,” she said.

Olson said this is why it is so important for people her age to be active when it comes to climate change.

“My generation will have to bear the brunt of fixing the problems that are being created now,” she said.

Olson is going to Poland five days early to participate in an international conference for youth that is being held in advance of the main conference. She is leading a workshop at that conference and hopes to urge youth in other countries to become more active in issues such as trying to shut down coal-fired power plants, which are a major source of greenhouse gasses.

“If we don’t make changes at the local level, nothing is going to happen at the international level,” she said.

When the main conference starts, Olson will participate in a caucus for women – a population that she said is particularly vulnerable to climate change. In developing countries, for example,  women are often responsible for gathering water and firewood, which become scarcer when the climate changes.

While at the conference, Olson will conduct research for an independent study class she is taking with Josh Long, assistant professor of environmental studies. Her research focuses on why there are so few women serving as head negotiators for countries at the UN conference, and what can be done to change that.

“In the last five years, only 32 percent of the total negotiators on delegations have been women and only 19 percent of head negotiators are female,” Olson said. “Unless we have more female negotiators, it will be hard to make sure the policies and treaties we are trying to pass will cater to those who are being most impacted by the effects of climate change.” She hopes to publish her research in the spring.

Olson is applying to several graduate schools for the fall and said she would like to be a negotiator at the UN conference someday – although she hopes that by the time she finishes graduate school that won’t be necessary.

“I want to be one of the people who are able to make those decisions for our country and give a good name to our efforts in climate change, because that’s not the case right now,” she said.

Olson blogged regularly from the conference in Qatar last year, and plans to do the same this year through a new blog she has set up. She said she hopes to include more policy analysis in her blog this year.

Olson received a SEED grant from Southwestern that is paying for some of her trip to Poland, but she is still trying to raise additional funds. Anyone who would like to contribute may do so here.

Olson said she has friends who will be sending her notes so she can keep up with her classes while she is gone. She will get back just in time to take her finals.

“I may be a little jetlagged to do well on them,” she laughed.

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