Dorothy Gao ’24 returned from Thanksgiving break still in a whirlwind of environmental sustainability ideas and motivating stories.
Gao, a double major in economics and environment & sustainability at William & Mary, attended the second week of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) that was held Nov. 6-18 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.
“You really felt like there’s a responsibility when you left the conference, that you really want to do something that implements real changes,” Gao said. “Everyone’s so open — that the world is open for the changes and impacts — so you really want to do something and probably go back to COP again and tell people what you’ve been doing in the past year.”
At W&M, Gao is an intern in the Office of Sustainability, a member of the International Student Advisory Board at the Reves Center and a piano student. As a native of Shanghai, China, she works with the China Youth Climate Action Network, which is China’s largest youth-led environmental group, and attended the conference as one of its representatives.
The network conducts climate education in China and holds an annual summit to create a platform to allow students who are interested in environmental issues to connect with the government, entrepreneurs and policymakers in China, according to Gao.
Her main task at COP27 was to help the Chinese group reconnect with other youth environmental organizations around the world and bring their activism stories back to young people in China. Gao interviewed youth delegates from more than 10 countries to collect details on their activities and points of view on each country’s climate governance, she said.
She also observed several open negotiations between nations’ representatives and attended parades and side events that were mostly roundtable discussions on loss and damage, which was the conference’s biggest area of focus this year.
Gao has not yet processed the notes she took for the student interviews, saying she will tackle that after final exams. Her group plans to write two to four articles that will be posted on social media in China to bring those stories to young people there.
The information will be valuable to take forward, according to Gao.
“It’s very hard to conduct a lot of activism in forms that are really common in western countries,” Gao said. “For example, for non-governmental organizations it’s very hard to get support from government.”
She heard from Japan’s youth delegation that they can have sessions sitting down with government officials to discuss issues of importance to them, which are opportunities their Chinese counterparts consider precious.
“I want to let people know that these are possible and are things that we should try to strive for,” Gao said.
Having participated in Model United Nations in high school, Gao said the few negotiations she observed at the conference were a much larger-scaled version of United Nations’ moderated caucus discussions on very specific clauses of environmental language.
The parades were demonstration-type rallies that hadn’t been allowed at past conferences, but brought attendees together, she said. A big focus on young people’s efforts on environmental issues included those events as well as a youth pavilion space devoted entirely to their discussions, opportunities for cooperation, and exchanges of ideas, cultures, values and more, Gao said.
“It’s very large — several hundred people — and they were expressing their needs and the perspective from young people, singing songs for solidarity,” Gao said. “It was really nice to be in the venue and observe this because you feel like there is a moment that everyone’s united together for one common goal. That feeling is really heartwarming.”
Gao said she brought back lots of ideas to possibly implement in her ongoing climate activism at W&M and in China. One example was how a youth group in Taiwan is encouraging students to read official government reports and interpret whether they are being communicated to the populace in truthful and effective ways.
She also gathered numerous examples of young people doing entrepreneurship that is good for people’s livelihoods as well as beneficial for the environment.
“Those are really great projects,” Gao said. “They’re really creative and innovative. And I feel like we can definitely share those projects with more students in William & Mary and also in China to inspire people.”
Gao spent Thanksgiving break catching up on schoolwork missed during the trip and is still finding time to think about her conference experience. Her overall impression was one of hope for the planet’s future.
“You just feel like there are so, so many people who are passionate about this,” Gao said. “And there’s always hope and love on this issue, and this is one of the issues that people can really sit down peacefully and discuss with only one common goal. I feel like there’s hope all around this. And also the mind-blowing discussions that happened that will wash away all of my tiredness through the whole experience.”
Jennifer L. Williams, Communications Specialist