UI alum makes waves at Paris climate talks

Forty-five thousand individual participants and 150 countries gathered at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21, earlier this month in Paris. Among them was UI alum Marcelo Mena-Carrasco, a climate negotiator representing Chile as its Undersecretary of the Environment. “For a moment I felt that my presence at the COP21 was a culmination of a long run which started at Iowa,” he told Little Village following the talks.

COP21 convened with a major mission: to establish a universal agreement to keep global warming below the internationally agreed upon target of 2 degrees Celsius. The assent of 55 countries was required for the agreement to take effect, and in the end 186 signed on. But though the conference treated climate change as a policy issue, much of the deal’s emphasis was economic. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in his remarks on the conference, “We are sending literally a critical message to the global marketplace. Many of us here know that it won’t be governments that actually make the decision or find the product, the new technology, the saving grace of this challenge.”

As a leader in green technologies, Iowa was well-represented at the Paris talks by members of the solar energy industry, as well as by UI graduate students and professors. Dubuque Mayor Rob Buol and Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie were also in attendance with groups of local authorities.

But it was Mena-Carrasco, who holds master’s and doctoral degrees in civil and environmental engineering from UI, who played a standout role as a negotiator during the talks. He was quoted in the New York Times, calling the new agreement, “the beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era.”

During the twelve intensive days of talks, Mena-Carrasco was happy to revisit his Iowa past. “In the middle of the negotiations, as pressure was building up, and sleeplessness was taking its toll, it was a breath of fresh air to see Jerry Schnoor,” a UI professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Occupational and Environmental Health, he said.

Mena-Carrasco also recalled a series of events from his time in Iowa that culminated in his presence at COP21, starting with a love of cycling developed with friends in Iowa City. He said the support of his professors, Schnoor and Greg Carmichael, of the Chemical and Biochemical Engineer Department, was “instrumental.” Additionally, he remembered an Earth Day speech by Barack Obama at the Old Capital in 2007 as “our first wind of change on climate.”

At COP21, he applauded the work of the High Ambition Coalition, a large group composed of both rich and developing countries. “To me, when we ministers from many countries entered the plenary the last day, with our hands united, holding up Tony de Brun, minister of foreign affairs from Marshall Islands, we were declaring that we would not leave island states behind, upping our ambition to 1.5 degrees warming by the end of the century,” Mena-Carrasco said.

“And in the end of the day,” he said, “The whole world had joined us.”

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