GW Has Front Row Seat for Paris Climate Talks

Administrators, researchers and a student share their COP21 experiences.

(l-r) Office of Sustainability Director Meghan Chapple, Executive Director of Sustainability Kathleen Merrigan, IIEP Director Stephen Smith, GW senior Ellie Davis, Assistant Professor of Strategic Management Sanjay Patnaik
December 14, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

The unprecedented global climate agreement signed Saturday by negotiators from more than 190 countries was the result of days of discussions by the brightest minds in government, the scientific community and business, including a delegation from the George Washington University.

The agreement tackles the biggest environmental issues facing our planet. It includes a landmark commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions with a goal of preventing atmospheric temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

It came at the end of the United Nations Council of Parties (COP21) climate conference held over two weeks in Paris.

 GW Executive Director of Sustainability Kathleen Merrigan, Director of the Office of Sustainability Meghan Chapple, Ellie Davis, a GW senior, Stephen Smith, director of the GW Institute for International Economic Policy and Sanjay Patnaik, assistant professor of Strategic Management and Public Policy, were among the GW contingent at the conference.

Though the agreement is a “grand step forward,” much real work remains as everyone gears up to implement the deal, according to Dr. Merrigan, who attended COP21 as part of the U.N. Environment Programme project team.

“The next step in the U.S. is convincing Congress to provide the president what he needs to make good on our negotiators’ promises,” Dr. Merrigan said. “We need to continue on the course that this administration has set for reducing our dependency on nonrenewable fuel sources.

“For those people who want to deny the compelling science around climate change, the world has spoken,” she added. “It is real, it is now, and it is urgent.”

George Washington Today reporter Brittney Dunkins spoke to the members of the GW community who attended about their experiences at the largest ever climate change conference.  


Weighing in On Policy

Kathleen Merrigan
Executive Director of Sustainability

Dr. Merrigan’s trip included moderating a panel discussion at the Global Landscape Forum and meeting with a diverse group of GW alumni living in Paris, among other events.

The standing-room-only panel discussion focused on the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) food and agriculture report released last Sunday by the U.N. Environmental Programme.

“A U.N. colleague based in Indonesia said that he would begin the translation of the report into Bahasa Indonesia so that people there can read it,” Dr. Merrigan said. “Given that the population of Indonesia is about 256 million, and it’s an emerging economy—I liked hearing about his plan!”


“For those people who want to deny the compelling science around climate change, the world has spoken. It is real, it is now, and it is urgent."

- Kathleen Merrigan, GW Executive Director of Sustainability

The event was a part of a multi-year initiative to develop a framework that measures the true cost of food production and to build a network of researchers who will explore the issue, Dr. Merrigan said.  She sits on the steering committee of the project.

Dr. Merrigan said that the conference was a great opportunity for members of the GW community to see the university’s place in the global conversation on climate change.

“It was really exciting to be there because you saw in real time how all of the sorts of things we have been working on at GW around sustainability need to be amplified in order to achieve the goals outlined in the agreement,” Dr. Merrigan said.

 “Many of us doing research at GW are standing by ready to provide the federal government with the necessary support to make this agreement a reality.”

Pitching Social Innovation

Meghan Chapple
Director of the Office of Sustainability

Ms. Chapple split her time at the conference between attending panel discussions and supporting the D.C. Climathon team Raw Food Rescue, which included students from GW and the University of Maryland. The team was selected by the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment to present their work at COP21 following an initial 24-hour “hackathon” hosted by GW.  

The Raw Food Rescue team proposed a plan to reduce food waste and divert its emissions by redistributing food that would be thrown away to those who need it most. The audience selected Raw Food Rescue among the top three teams based on their project’s market viability, climate impact and the team’s ability to address the challenge, Ms. Chapple said.

“There is so much potential for young innovators to help us see problems with new eyes—as opportunities for innovation,” Ms. Chapple said. “It was especially powerful for GW to be part of a world-class team of citizen innovators offering real-world, entrepreneurial solutions that will lead to new business, new jobs and a low carbon future.”

Beyond the Classroom

Ellie Davis
GW Senior

For Ms. Davis, COP21 was an opportunity to see action on climate change play out in the real world rather than in the classroom.  She attended the Earth to Paris summit, which featured remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry, among other events, and cheered on the D.C. Climathon team.

Witnessing the fast-paced cycle of negotiations—as experts grappled with complex issues and came to an agreement—was inspiring and informative, she said.

This is such a gigantic moment in climate history, and it is an honor to be able to witness it,” Ms. Davis said. “I think this is a memory I will draw motivation from when things are difficult in my future environmental career.”

Ms. Davis was the student leader who organized the Inter-University Climate Change Negotiation held at GW in October. The event, in partnership with the Embassy of France, brought together students from more than 10 universities in a mock simulation of the COP21 negotiations.

Ms. Davis said the exercise was a first look at how difficult it is to create a global plan of action.

“The big issues at our simulation have turned out to be the same at COP21, such as the definitions of developed and developing nations, finance and technology sharing,” Ms. Davis said. “Hopefully, they will ‘un-bracket’ or agree upon all of those issues that we didn't have time to finish.”

Engaging with Researchers

Sanjay Patnaik
Assistant Professor of Strategic Management and Public Policy

Dr. Patnaik attended the conference as an official observer to build connections with fellow academics and policymakers from around the world.

Dr. Patnaik’s research agenda focuses on environmental regulations and “cap and trade” programs imposed on businesses that limit greenhouse gas emissions. He said the issue was a crucial topic of discussion during the conference. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel talked “extensively” about the role of “cap and trade” in addressing climate change, he said.

“An increasing number of regions around the world are introducing a price on carbon and at the same time, many firms are already recognizing the impact climate change has on their business,” Dr. Patnaik said. “As a result, climate change will undoubtedly become a key strategic factor for managers to deal with in the future.”

Stephen Smith
Director of the GW Institute for International Economic Policy

Dr. Smith said the conference stressed a need for climate insurance in developing countries that are most at risk due to “increasing uncertainty.” Some Caribbean and African groups have purchased these funds, which offer potential opportunities for research projects.

“These insurance groups have significant limitations,” he said.There is a risk that these measurements will be wrong because the right kind of weather stations are not situated in the right locations or the wrong kinds of data measurement will be prioritized.

“New research questions are opening up and no doubt the experiences
will find their way into my lectures in the years to come.”