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Continued: Climate classwork in Copenhagen

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 3, 2009 - 10:05 AM

For Reed Aronow, the road to Copenhagen began in first grade, when the Twin Cities native fell in love with clouds. It continued when the car carrying his family across North Dakota was lifted off the ground by a tornado. One year, he even dressed up as a tornado for Halloween.

This month, the 24-year-old Hamline University graduate's fascination with weather will take him to Denmark, where he'll be part of a United Nations summit at which negotiators will work toward an international treaty to fight global warming.

He's one of a dozen youth delegates chosen to attend with the Minneapolis-based Will Steger Foundation, which is pushing for a legally binding treaty and raising awareness about the Midwest's role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

That puts him among a select few teens and young adults from Minnesota -- including student documentary filmmakers and a group of Apple Valley high school students -- who will be watching, learning and even participating when representatives of nearly 200 countries gather next week.

Why send young people?

"This is our future. This is the world we're going to have to live in," Aronow said.

The number of youths attending the talks is comparatively small, but their voices are getting louder. Young people were recently given provisional status as a formal constituent group at the annual summit, along with stakeholders such as indigenous peoples and trade unions.

And before the talks begin on Monday, teens as young as 14 from 42 countries will meet this weekend for their own conference, where they'll try to agree on recommendations for world leaders.

During the summit, delegates will try to hash out an agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 pact in which 37 industrialized nations and the European Union agreed to emissions targets. The United States did not ratify the treaty, which must be renewed or reworked by 2012.

Among the expected attendees at this month's talks is President Obama, who has set a provisional target of reducing U.S. emissions by 17 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels.

In addition to the Steger delegation, a handful of Minnesota students from St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict plans to shoot a documentary film at the talks. Ten high school seniors from Apple Valley's School of Environmental Studies are heading over, too, where they'll attend with a group of Swedish students who are hosting them.

Young people will be just one subgroup among hordes of politicians, activists and reporters at the two-week summit, which organizers say has drawn more registration requests than its 15,000-person venue can hold.

Students won't be calling the shots, of course -- the Apple Valley teens say they're mainly going to learn. Still, both that group and the Will Steger Foundation have been certified as official conference observers. The designation gives them access to many events at the summit and puts them on a list that includes groups from high-profile research institutions and nonprofits.

The Apple Valley students will blog about what they see and do, and each will track a specific topic, such as deforestation.

"It is sort of the perfect global problem for kids to consider," said Craig Johnson, a teacher who is going with the group. The School of Environmental Studies has used climate change as a core piece of its curriculum for several years, largely because it's a complex issue that invites students to explore science, politics, ethics and more, he said.

The Steger Foundation is sending young people because "they're optimistic, they're socially well-connected and they're highly motivated and engaged in issues," said executive director Nicole Rom.

Aronow's interest in climate change evolved out of experiences he had in college. In New Orleans, he saw the work of federal disaster responders after Hurricane Katrina. ("I think I could do better.") At Hamline, he studied "preparing for what you can't change about climate, and learning about what you can change."

He and other Steger youth have been busy this fall organizing rallies and giving classroom presentations at local schools. After one training in Washington, D.C., this summer, Aronow said one of his co-delegates missed her flight home because she was talking about global warming with a man in an airport bar.

Aronow's big pre-Copenhagen project involved biking 350 miles through rural Minnesota in October, talking with people about climate change as he went. The ride ended at the State Capitol with a rally attended by hundreds of cyclists and elected officials such as Democratic U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum.

Global warming is divisive among adults, but that's not true with young people, Rom said. "They get it. They're not arguing about it."

That feeling was echoed by Ashley Burdge, a senior at the School of Environmental Studies. Students at the school differ widely in their political views, said Burdge, who considers herself a conservative. But climate change, she argued, "isn't a political issue. It's a global issue."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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