State of the Planet

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ESP Alum Attends Rio +20

ESP alum Krystal Laymon standing proudly in front of the Rio +20 conference banner.

Last month, MPA in Environmental Science and Policy alum Krystal Laymon (MPA-ESP Class of 2012) traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Rio +20: The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference, intended to be a follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, was the largest United Nations environmental summit to date. Representatives from more than 190 countries gathered to discuss issues regarding economic growth, social equality, and environmental protection and provide a strong push towards sustainable development.

At the conference, Krystal had both scholarly and professional duties. She was responsible for assisting Columbia economics Professor Graciela Chichilnisky with her Carbon Markets talk as well as staffing  Jeffrey Sachs’ events. Krystal is also working as an assistant in the Communications Department of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), a role which required her to conduct interviews and cover high level meetings throughout the conference.

1. What made you want to attend the Rio +20 conference?

The Rio +20 conference was an opportunity to see how the international community deals with the issue of sustainability in 2012. I think that at one point or another, all people who are passionate about environmental policy issues want to go to a UN sustainability conference just to see what it is all about. I realized that all of the information that I would read about was only released after these meetings, like the Kyoto Protocol or the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference and I had no way of knowing how these decisions were actually made (or not made). Participating in Rio +20 was the perfect way for me to witness the processes leading to environmental policy decisions, and to do it in a place like Rio de Janiero was an added bonus!

2. What sorts of issues were discussed at the conference?

The conference discussed topics ranging from oil subsidies to women’s empowerment to corporate responsibility. Yet, a large bulk of the conversation revolved around two central themes. The first theme was how to build a green economy to achieve sustainable development while the second theme discussed how we should go about improving the collaboration among countries to reach this goal of sustainable development.

One issue in which I was particularly interested was that of the “Green Economy.” I attended a panel of economists who talked about the need for countries to stop relying on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an accurate assessment of wealth. Basically, the main point that the economists were trying to relay was that our current GDP is flawed and does not incorporate environmental damage into its values, and environmental damage hurts nations’ economies.

3. What was the most valuable thing that you learned at the conference that you think would be useful for current ESP students to know?

As future environmental professionals, the ESP students should know that the environmental conferences that they choose to attend might not always produce immediately evident solutions. Thus, I would suggest that when students go to events like Rio +20, they should keep an open mind and view them more as a platform for different actors from nongovernmental organizations (NGO), governmental agencies, and corporations to come together and discuss issues that matter to all of them. I felt that the conference was not as much about the UN negotiations that were happening, as it was about the conversations taking place between, say, the head of an oil company’s sustainability office and a local NGO.

4. How did your experience in the ESP program prepare you to be a participant in the conference?

Much like the students in my ESP class, the conference had attendees that were intensely aware of the environmental problems facing the world today – both politically and scientifically. Perhaps the most obvious way in which the ESP program prepared me to be a participant in the conference was with regard to scientific terms  – a lot of the meetings that I attended used the language that I learned in my Environmental Chemistry and Climatology classes. Having familiarized myself with these terms, I was able to properly engage with panel members.

5. What was your favorite aspect of the conference? (i.e. influential people in attendance, panels, other activities, meeting new people, etc.)

I would have to say that my favorite aspect of the conference was meeting the celebrities and high level members of state who were in attendance. For instance, I saw Sir Richard Branson speak several times over the course of the conference. I also spent a lot of time in the Press Room, so I was able to pick up interviewing pointers from journalists from around the world.

Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), in partnership with the Earth Institute. Throughout this one year program, students are immersed in courses that combine Columbia University’s hands-on approach to teaching public policy and administration with pioneering thinking about the environment. During the summer semester, students learn the fundamentals of environmental science, while the fall and spring semesters focus on teaching the policy and economics necessary to becoming successful environmental analysts and managers. Please visit our website to learn more about the program.

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