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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

COP27 Takeaways from the Northwestern University Delegation

Three members of Northwestern University’s delegation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP27) reflect on their experiences at the event, which was held November 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. 

Niloufar Sarvian is a PhD candidate in Earth and planetary sciences at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Regan Seckel is a JD candidate in the Pritzker School of Law and Reynaldo Morales, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Northwestern University with a joint faculty appointment with the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and the Buffett institute for Global Affairs.

Regan Seckel

I have a focus on corporations and stopping corporate impunity. But seeing the corporate capture at climate change and COP was extremely worrying and upsetting because you see that the people as a whole really want change, but something is blocking it, and that blockage kind of boils down to profits and corporation, it looks like, at least from my vantage point.”

– Regan Seckel, JD Candidate, Pritzker School of Law, Member of Northwestern University’s COP27 delegation

Background reading:

  • Listen to a previous episode of the podcast with Reynaldo Morales’ reflections from COP26
  • Read more about this delegation

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise, geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Today we're talking about advancing United Nations Sustainable Development, goal number 13, which is climate action. Northwestern University fielded a strong delegation to COP 27, the annual U.N. climate conference that took place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, this year. The group's expertise ranged from environmental law to climate finance to paleoclimatology. It's a testament to the unprecedented scale of collaboration needed to tackle the many issues surrounding the survival of our planet. I was lucky to lead the delegation, and what was so interesting to me was to see the very different paths our delegation members took through. COP 27 the sheer range of communities and issues they engaged. So today we're going to talk with three members of Northwestern's delegation to COP 27 to get just a taste of all that diverse activity. Reynaldo Morales is an assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism Media, Integrated Marketing and Communications and a faculty member here at Northwestern Buffet. He has a Ph.D. in environmental science. He's a documentary filmmaker, and he's an indigenous person from Peru who works with indigenous people around the world to document responses to climate change and biodiversity loss. And he's also affiliated with Northwestern's Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. Niloufar Sarvian is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She's an expert in how the carbon cycle works over millennia, and Regan Seckel is a third year law student in Northwestern's Pritzker School of Law. She's an expert in international law and institutions. First, let's welcome Niloufar Sarvian, who, as I said, is a paleoclimatologist, now completing her Ph.D. at Northwestern. Welcome, Nilou, and thank you so much for joining us. 

Niloufar Sarvian [00:02:36] Thank you guys for having me. I'm super stoked. 

Annelise Riles [00:02:39] I have to say, you're our first expert on Paleoclimatology to ever be on this podcast. 

Niloufar Sarvian [00:02:46] Honored. 

Annelise Riles [00:02:47] So as I understand, that's the study of previous climates that have existed during the Earth's different geological states. Is that correct? Yeah, for sure. It's just the study of Earth's past climate, because we all know that it's changed over time. I feel like that's like a huge stickler for, like, anti-climate change people. They're like, 'Oh, well, you know, there is ice age there. So, like, the climate changing is natural' and it's like, well, the rate at which it's changing is not natural. 

Annelise Riles [00:03:14] Can you tell us more about how the study of ancient climates, like millennia ago, can contribute to climate action today? 

Niloufar Sarvian [00:03:22] The whole field of like geology is looking at the modern to understand the past. And I think that we can also look at the past to understand the future and the present. So like we were just talking about, the Earth's climate has changed over time with over millennia, over like billions of years. The Earth's climate conditions and carbon cycle conditions have varied a ton over these millions of years. And so trying to get a better handle on the carbon cycle under different climatic conditions is important for what we're heading into right now. We are manually changing the carbon cycle and we need to have a better handle on how the carbon cycle is going to react, because what we're talking about is a cycle. We're chopping down trees in the Amazon. We're putting more CO2 into the atmosphere. The ocean chemistry is changing. All of these cascading effects we know about, in part because they've happened in the past under much less dramatic CO2 changes. And so we can get an iota of understanding about what's happening in the future from looking at the past. So a great example of the best and I say the best, it's not a good analog with the best analog that we have to what's happening to modern climate change is a time period called the PETM Paleocene Eocene thermal maximum 55.5 million years ago. The literature argues about this, but we don't really understand why there was such a dramatic spike in CO2 in the atmosphere. But there was. And what happened with ocean acidification and what happened with the climate is helpful for us to understand what's happening in the future. But all of that happened. The amount of carbon that was emitted over 10,000 years, that's super fast, right? Over 10,000 years is only half, about half the amount that we've emitted in 200. Okay. So when we're talking about rate, that's what's so scary about this. So, yeah, looking at the past can help us understand the future. 

Annelise Riles [00:05:14] This was your first time at COP, right? 

Niloufar Sarvian [00:05:16] Yeah, 100%. 

Niloufar Sarvian [00:05:17] I was honored to have been selected to go. It was super fun. 

Annelise Riles [00:05:20] So what surprised you the most? 

Niloufar Sarvian [00:05:22] How big it was honestly, it was like, overwhelming. And all the different locations for all the stuff was so far apart. So it was like the most tough conference that I've ever been to. Everybody that I talked to was like on the same page. They're like, We're not doing enough. How do we do more? We got to be more aggressive. You hear about the higher and higher ups. It just obviously I mean, this is obvious, but it gets more and more political and then everything gets diluted and then you end up with this sort of like weak piece of paper that doesn't do what we want it to do. And it felt really frustrating. I was really frustrated and it felt like everything that I had felt as an American, that all of us PhD students or undergrads or just people living in the streets feel this one thing. And then when you get up in power, it just gets diluted. So that was that was a frustrating observation of mine. 

Annelise Riles [00:06:12] Did you learn anything or taking anything away from the sessions you attended that will impact your work going forward? 

Niloufar Sarvian [00:06:19] I met some like German CDR folks that I plan on connecting with later down the road and kind of just getting more familiar with the European like climate community. Because the American climate community, we're kind of like ten years behind because of the lack of policy that has been around. In the EU they've just had this infrastructure set up for a little bit longer. And so they have people who have been doing this a little bit longer and so on and so forth. And so it's cool to sort of try to get plugged in. I eventually plan on coming back to America and using what I've learned from the EU and like trying to help build our community out here, which is already like growing by the day. It's getting bigger and bigger. And so, yeah, there was some really positive connections that I made a COP27. 

Annelise Riles [00:06:59] Thank you so much for joining us and for your incredible insights. So next, let's welcome Reynaldo Morales, who participated in the local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, a working group dedicated to cultivating climate solutions, best practices and indigenous knowledge from some of the oldest living cultures on the planet. Reynaldo welcome and thank you so much for being here. 

Reynaldo Morales [00:07:24] Thank you very much for the invitation. I'm honored to be here. 

Annelise Riles [00:07:27] So, Reinaldo, you are something of a cop expert. You've attended cops several times, as well as many other UN meetings over the past few years to assess and promote indigenous people's participation in global conversations about climate action. Can you share with us a little bit about how you have seen the inclusion of Indigenous voices and the role of Indigenous peoples evolve since your first time attending the COP meetings? 

Reynaldo Morales [00:07:55] Well, this is a very interesting question because for many people we went backwards. The most important thing in all these UN treaty conferences, conventions and forums is the process and respect of the proper process. It takes multiple filters from different constituent groups, right holders, stakeholders, which is not the same in members of civil organizations. There is a huge preparation before the COP with the subsidiary bodies of technical, technological advisory and service delivery of implementation that takes months before the COP. And in many of those, even some language has been proposed and recommended at the time we arrived to the COP. I hope that there is more room for negotiation because everything is going into implementation now and this is the most concerning part. There is no more negotiation on language, it has ended. The all the participation of indigenous peoples through the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues, the recommendations from the International Labor Organization. In the latest report from IPBES the 2019 report on ecosystem in Nature services have been completely, completely dismissed from the mentions of the final text in the Climate Change Convention. 

Annelise Riles [00:09:11] So that's distressing. But thank you for sharing that. To what extent do you think that you and your colleagues were successful in influencing the final agreement and getting Indigenous voices into the negotiated text. 

Reynaldo Morales [00:09:28] Right at the beginning of the text there is recognition of that role of indigenous peoples, but the rights of indigenous peoples vary in the way that their recognition is variable and according to multiple different Constitution legislations. So there is just the address of the obligations and of parties to the rights of indigenous peoples. But that would depend on the way in which this national legislations understand the rights of indigenous peoples. By the way, Peru right now, for example, understands the rights of indigenous people is completely different than the United States or New Zealand or Canada or even Sweden and Norway in creation to same peoples. So that's the major difference, that there has no clarification on that part. It will be a matter of further negotiation. The way in which these roles would be reflected in terms of their territorial rights, cultural, social, environmental rights on the ground. We need to democratize the way in which these multiple hundreds of delegations of just people provide their input. So the implementation would be informed not only by their rules but by their rights. 

Annelise Riles [00:10:33] Can you share with us from the point of view of Indigenous activists, what is your assessment of the climate science? What is good about it? What is missing? What is wrong with it? How do you think about that? 

Reynaldo Morales [00:10:48] We have major ecological impacts of fossil fuels, exploration and extraction in sensitive ecological areas where indigenous peoples live. We're talking about protected areas. I have been in the Amazon because I work. I'm a consultant of the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo Amazonian council that manages 10 million hectares of forest, primary forest, and they are under complete siege right now by extractive operations, timber that has never stop illegal timber, illegal fishing, oil companies and concessions that are in their own territories. This is one major issue. The second one is the opportunities for recognizing the leadership of indigenous peoples effectively as part of these intergovernmental panels. So we have to develop our own corps participation and identification appointment processes in order for us to be truly represented at these intergovernmental panels. The people, the ones who take care of the forests, the one who have managed the forests ancestrally for millennia, are indigenous peoples that are taking care of those forests without any support of governments at all. We don't see that the clear definition or clarification that Indigenous peoples will be continue supported in that role and not being terminated by NGOs or governments in a protected area. So there are many challenges for the future and we hope that we are up to those challenges and we need really expertise and multi disciplinary collaboration. 

Annelise Riles [00:12:16] Thank you so much for your insights, Reynaldo, and we look forward to working with you as we prepare for COP 28 to think of what we can do now to ensure better results on those issues by next winter. Last but not least, let's welcome Regan Seckel who is a law student at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law. Welcome and thank you so much for joining us, Regan. 

Regan Seckel [00:12:37] Thank you so much for having me. 

Annelise Riles [00:12:39] So, Regan, you're working to develop a people's tribunal that could influence conversations on and changes to international environmental law. What is a people's tribunal and how will this one be organized? 

Regan Seckel [00:12:53] So a people's tribunal is a form of transitional or social justice where a court, instead of being set up by a state or an organization of states, is set up by the people the people want to question resolved. And typically, they occur when states or international organizations are failing to adequately address a problem either due to corporate capture or even state or political capture. These are a way for the people to take the matters into their own hands and center individual experience and communities experience in the conversation around a larger problem. Our People's Tribunal specifically is focusing on corporations and climate change, specifically looking into four big sectors and how these sectors have contributed to climate change. And really it's an indictment on the states and their inability to push and regulate companies to do better and make more progress on climate change. 

Annelise Riles [00:13:47] What kinds of legal innovations might the tribunal advocate for or bring to fruition, and how could this lead to action on climate? 

Regan Seckel [00:13:59] Yeah, so first kind of how I said is it's a critique of international law. It's saying that the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, the U.N., are not doing enough to hold corporations accountable for their actions. And we're looking at this in two main ways. We have four sectors that disproportionately contribute to climate change, I'm sure fossil fuel industry, maritime and shipping, military and agriculture. And we're looking at those sectors through the lens of crimes against humanity or ecocide. There's a push. The Stop Ecocide Foundation is an international foundation that's trying to get jurisdiction accepted over the crime of ecocide, which is the wanton and knowing destruction of environment, knowing that it will have such an effect. They want that accepted by the International Criminal Court as a crime. So someone who, you know, say burns down an entire forest, knowing that it will cause massive effect to the climate, could be held accountable. Our critique is a little bit different than that in that the International Criminal Court currently does not have jurisdiction over corporations, so it can only prosecute one person at a time. And in the context of climate change, corporations have large effects, and I'm sure corporations are made up of individuals, but they're at times greater than the sum of their parts and corporations, on the whole, while they do make positive economic benefit, they can also do that in ways that really risk the future of our humanity for a little bit of extra profit. So our critique is trying to push that and to show really the world's condemnation and that we want corporations to do better, that we want states to hold corporations accountable and to regulate where it would be economically effective and helpful to the future of our humanity really. 

Annelise Riles [00:15:53] Wow. That is so important and so innovative and exciting. So, Regan, this was your first COP as well, right? 

Regan Seckel [00:16:02] Yes, it was. 

Annelise Riles [00:16:04] So how would you describe your experience and what surprised you about it? 

Regan Seckel [00:16:08] I think similar to Nilou, it was a little bit like disorienting at times. It was amazing to be around so many, particularly young people that were pushing. And again, like Nilou said, on the same page as you, all of these people, when you talk about the People's Tribunal, I talk to them about the kind of movement organizations that they're doing are very similar. Everyone's on the same page. But then as you would attend higher and higher up sort of events, you would see that crumbling. And so that was where more political actors are a little bit less on page. You would see that state pavilions, for example, Nigeria's pavilion was sponsored by fossil fuel companies, and I took a probably 15 pictures of different pavilions that were directly sponsored by fossil fuel companies. So there's this disconnect, and that was a bit disorienting. And largely, I have a focus on corporations and stopping corporate impunity. But seeing the corporate capture at climate change and COP was extremely worrying and upsetting because you see that the people as a whole really want change, but something is blocking it, and that blockage kind of boils down to profits and corporation. It looks like, at least from my vantage point. 

Annelise Riles [00:17:22] You are a fluent Arabic speaker and I'm wondering how that shaped your own experience of this event. Do you think that there was anything you noticed, for example, that the rest of us might have missed about the whole experience? 

Regan Seckel [00:17:35] This is a side of, particularly this COP, and probably next year's COP that was really concerning as someone who is primarily interested in human rights and primarily has worked in the Middle East in the past, was the role that the Egyptian presidency took on in this. And part of me thinks that that's the reason for this disconnect between the people and what's happening on a more broad scale with the political actors. You noticed that people that were supporting this COP, so workers, bus drivers, all the people selling us food, giving us water, all came in from somewhere else. Sharm el-Sheikh is a resort town. It's very small. And to support this infrastructure, they were importing people. They were importing bottled water from Italy. They were importing all of the food that we had. And that was kind of striking to me. And then all of these people, you know, all these wonderful Egyptian people who are so incredibly kind and excited for this kind of economic activity coming to them, also just had this kind of you know, I noticed that people didn't necessarily understand why Egypt was the front runner for this, why Egypt was taking on this big risk. Sure, they were excited to have it there, but they are also being forced to work long, long hours. I know Nilou was here that was at COP the first week and the site wasn't completed yet. So people were working literally day and night to keep this organization up and to get this organization one running and to continue it running. And so that was maybe something that was kind of important to notice the lives of these people that were brought in to support this conference. 

Annelise Riles [00:19:14] As you reflect back on this incredible experience, what will stay with you the most? Is there one experience or one encounter with someone that really captures that for you? 

Regan Seckel [00:19:24] Definitely. So this year at COP 27 was the first year that youth and children's organizations were recognized as their own constituency. So YOUNGO, the youth organization organized this dinner during the second week where anyone under the age of 35 was invited to come have a free dinner on the beach. And it was so much more relaxed than people were feeling inside the blue zone, inside the UN area. There were all of these people around these tables eating dinner together that were from across the world, across from all different sectors. They were scientists. I was the only lawyer or law adjacent person I had met. But there were scientists. There were politicians, there were activists from Liberia, from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, France and even Egypt. And that was such an incredible experience. And it really kind of showed that this, of course, climate change is a worldwide network, but it really requires a worldwide network of people. But the young people are the people that are inheriting this earth and they're the people that are working the hardest for this. And the people that don't overall have the money to get to COP, but have gotten themselves there and are eager to make connections and try to make a difference in the world. And walking away from that dinner was just incredible. And we were all riding on a high. 

Annelise Riles [00:20:45] Well, what an inspiring group. The three of you are so eloquent, so passionate, doing such important work. I share, you know, many of the disappointments of your experience. And yet when I hear the three of you and I see the work that you're devoting your lives to doing, I have to say that I still feel at least hopeful for the future. So thank you all for what you do. And to anyone listening to this, if you'd like to get in touch with Regan or Nilou or Reynaldo, you can shoot us an email at Northwestern Buffett and we'll be sure to pass it along and keep an eye on these three because they're going to be changing the world. Thank you all so much. For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at