People and Community Science and Technology

Students, faculty members participate at UN climate talks

From participating on a panel about nature-based strategies to mitigate sea level rise to developing a policy brief on ‘‘blue food,’’ University of Miami students and faculty members are front and center at the 28th annual Conference of the Parties, also known as COP28.
Cars pass by a billboard advertising COP28 at Sheikh Zayed highway in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. Representatives will gather at Expo City in Dubai, UAE, Nov. 30 to Dec. 12 for the 28th U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP28. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

A billboard on a highway in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, advertises COP28. Representatives will gather at Expo City in Dubai from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12. Photo: The Associated Press

Vanessa Forbes-Pateman does not need a meteorologist or computer model to tell her that anthropogenic climate change already is having a catastrophic impact on the planet. 

The University of Miami doctoral student has experienced it firsthand in the form of more powerful tropical cyclones that have battered her homeland. Flood waters spawned by Hurricane Matthew nearly destroyed her house in Freeport, Bahamas, in 2016. And she continues to grieve over family members who remain among the missing after Category 5 Hurricane Dorian devastated the island nation four years ago. 

Forbes-Pateman is attending the United Nations climate summit—the 28th annual Conference of the Parties, known as COP28—as both a concerned citizen of a small island vulnerable to the effects of climate change and as a researcher who wants to make a difference in saving the planet. 

She is one of more than a dozen University of Miami students, along with key faculty members and an urban resilience champion, who have traveled to Dubai for the two-week conference, where United Nations member states convene to review progress and reach agreements on international climate change policies and actions. 

“I’m planning to sit in on as many negotiations as possible,” Forbes-Pateman, a Ph.D. candidate in the University’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, said of her agenda for COP28, which starts Thursday. “I will be working with an NGO on a museum-related project and giving a presentation on my work at the Panama pavilion. I hope to foster some very strong ties with like-minded researchers and delegates and get to know others outside of my scope of research as well.” 

Her research includes participating in a multi-institutional study that explores the potential benefits and risks of using nature-based solutions (NBS), such as restored coral reefs and mangroves, to mitigate the effects of sea level rise. “My research focuses on the policy approaches to NBS implementation in South Florida,” she said. “These policy approaches are nascent, with the best legislative responses having been passed in the last three to four years.” 

Greatest challenge of her generation 

During her two-week stay in Dubai, Abess Center doctoral student Katie Geddes will work with representatives of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. They are attending COP28 to focus on sustainable fisheries and food security. “As such, I also plan to attend negotiations that are relevant to the impacts of climate change on the ocean as well as side events at the ocean and the food and agriculture pavilions,” she said. 

Geddes, who studies the impacts of climate change on Atlantic fisheries, said the effect of rising ocean temperatures on the distribution and range of marine species is staggering. Marine animals are shifting the edge of their ranges into new latitudes at a rate of about 70 kilometers per decade, she pointed out. “Intense species invasions are anticipated in the Arctic and Southern oceans, and 60 percent of marine biodiversity may be redistributed by 2050 due to climate change,” she said. 

Combating the climate crisis and phasing out fossil fuels are “the greatest challenges of our generation,” Geddes said. But with the average temperature on Earth during the past decade already about 1.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, overcoming those challenges will not come easy, she admitted. 

“With every increase in average global temperature, we face more frequent and more hazardous weather events, more species extinctions, and a heightened risk of food and water insecurity,” Geddes said. “These burdens are disproportionately experienced by developing countries that have contributed the least to climate change. It is important for parties to attend the COPs as this is the primary forum through which governments can tackle mitigating climate change and addressing loss and damage on a global scale.” 

Gabriella Berman, who is earning a law degree and a Ph.D. in environmental science and policy, also plans to support delegates from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization during her time at COP28. After the group’s negotiations, Berman plans to collaborate with Geddes to develop a policy brief about foods harvested from the water, also known as blue food. 

This will not be Berman’s first COP summit. She attended COP26 in Glasgow two years ago as part of a delegation from the University of California San Diego, when she was a master’s degree student in marine biology at that institution’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. 

“I’ve always been interested in the environment. I grew up in Hawaii around the ocean and spent a lot of time exploring underwater as a kid, so the ocean is very important to me,” Berman said. 

Many marine animals are at risk of extinction because of climate change and other human activities. So, Berman, whose Ph.D. research focuses on international treaties for resource management and conservation, hopes to become an influential voice in international marine policy to protect endangered species. She is certain that COP28 will be a tremendous learning experience for her.

“I hope to learn more about how decisions are negotiated and how organizations navigate the COP and respond to the decisions made in negotiation rooms,” she said. 

School of Law student Alyssa Huffman will join Forbes-Pateman and Jessica Owley, professor of law and director of the Environmental Law Program, on a panel at the Panama pavilion examining nature-based solutions to climate change. That discussion, which will be held Dec. 4, is being organized by Daniel Suman, a professor of environmental science and policy at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, whose work focuses on management of coastal areas. Suman is attending COP28 as a Panamanian delegate. 

“I will specifically discuss urban stormwater resiliency and how we can equitably implement green infrastructure in Miami,” Huffman said. “South Florida is ground zero for sea-level rise and for extreme weather events like hurricanes. With that comes an increase in pollutants making their way into our water sources, leading to algae overgrowth and anoxic water conditions. Green infrastructure includes planting mangroves, restoring wetlands, and planting native species along storm drains to naturally filter pollutants before they enter our waterways, ensuring the health of our waterways and the surrounding communities.” 

Huffman knew she wanted to become an advocate for the environment ever since she was a little girl. She started watching episodes of the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” every year the series would be aired, becoming fascinated by efforts to protect the apex predators. 

“Since starting law school, I have become highly interested in ocean and climate governance on an international scale and in the social, cultural, and political implications that lead to policy formation,” she explained. “International law and policymaking are complex processes. Attending COP28 will give me the opportunity to see that process firsthand and talk with a variety of stakeholders about their experience with climate change and international policy.” 

Other key attendees 

It will be Michael Berkowitz’s first COP summit as the new executive director of the University’s Climate Resilience Academy. Berkowitz, who is also the Eric T. Levin Endowed Chair in Climate Resilience at the University, founded and built the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities from an idea into an influential global city network, working across 48 countries to help cities around the world become more resilient to physical, social, and economic shocks and stresses. 

Antonio Nanni, professor in the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering in the College of Engineering and the current president of the American Concrete Institute, is also attending COP28. He will participate in discussions related to the sustainability of concrete as a building material. 

“Our work focuses specifically on sustainability and resilience,” he said, noting that his state and federally funded research has resulted in important field applications with an emphasis on coastal structures. “This work is most relevant to Florida for obvious reasons, but it also has national and international repercussions that could make a difference in the decarbonization of the construction industry.” 

A controversial COP 

With the United Arab Emirates, a major oil and gas producer, hosting COP28, and Sultan al-Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, serving as the conference’s president, this year’s conference could prove to be the most controversial in the summit’s history. The UAE already has faced intense backlash from climate activists and environmentalists—criticism that is justified, according to the School of Law’s Owley. 

“Many agree that meaningful climate action must include a plan to phase out burning fossil fuels for energy,” she said. “It seems unlikely that such efforts will progress with a COP headed by an oil executive. Last year, the fossil fuel industry had a large presence at the COP. I expect this to increase this year.” 

Despite what is sure to be a contentious summit, Owley is excited about the learning opportunities it will afford her students. “Many will be presenting research projects or clinical work that they have been involved in,” she said. “And the students also each have partners that they are working with and will be attending talks based on the interests of their partners.”