Three students and four faculty members from UCLA School of Law participated in international climate talks in Madrid last week, advancing their research on climate policies and observing negotiations.

One of the attendees was UCLA environmental law professor Ted Parson, who also had been a part of the UCLA delegation that attended the negotiations in 2015 that resulted in the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. Since then, the tenor of the talks has changed, due mostly to the Trump administration’s undoing of federal climate policies and its intended withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. And the U.S. government’s delegation stymied negotiations at the latest meeting, which took place Dec. 2 – 13.  

“Until you’ve seen it firsthand, it’s hard to understand how challenging it is to mobilize effective action at the international level,” said Parson, faculty director of the UCLA Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “This was a conference at which the fault lines and frustrations were unusually visible, so it was an extraordinarily instructive — if frustrating — opportunity for our students to see it.”

The lack of federal leadership has increased pressure on U.S. states, cities and local entitites, including universities, to implement policies and programs that cut greenhouse gas pollution. At the talks, law professor Alex Wang, an expert in China’s environmental governance, and Siyi Shen, a fellow at the Emmett Institute, advanced work on coordinating California and China’s climate and air regulations.

Wang and Shen also participated in activities of the California–China Climate Institute — a partnership with other University of California campuses, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, and Chinese climate officials — which was launched this fall to spur climate action through research, training and dialogue.

“Close coordination between the U.S. and China was critical to achieving the Paris Agreement,” Wang said. “The disappointing results in Madrid are in significant part due to the United States’ retreat from the scene. Our work at the state level is an effort to maintain some of the momentum from Paris while we await the return of U.S. federal-level leadership.”   

A delegation of UCLA Law students worked to understand the negotiations process and focused on the effects of climate change on the world’s most vulnerable communities and nations. Cara Horowitz, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute, led the student delegation.

Thomas Callahan and Idalmis Vaquero, both second-year law students, and Divya Rao, a third-year law and business student, observed policy negotiations with an eye toward issues that would likely affect island nations that are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

“Small island developing states are among the least responsible for the problem of climate change, yet they have the most at stake in these negotiations,” Horowitz said. “Understanding these talks from their viewpoint gives our students an important opportunity to get outside the perspective of the U.S. and to deepen their understanding of key negotiation dynamics.”

To better understand the competing interests in the negotiations, the students met with climate experts and government officials, including Janos Pasztor, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general for climate change; Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of California’s Environmental Protection Agency; a U.S. State Department negotiator; and leaders from U.S. states and cities, and the private sector.

Students also followed efforts of indigenous and underrepresented communities to influence the climate talks. Vaquero said she was inspired by how indigenous peoples at the talks welcomed others to learn about their traditional knowledge and cultures.

“Addressing our climate crisis not only requires clear and ambitious targets to lower our carbon emissions, it also requires building cross-cultural understanding, compassion and empathy amongst people to get the work done,” she said.