Wild Center delegation participates in COP26
By Tim Rowland
In a raucous convention hall the size of which entirely defies description, a mammoth blue orb representing Planet Earth hangs over the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, beautiful but ominous, like the descending ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, a symbol that time is inevitably running out.
But Silas Swanson, a graduate of Saranac Lake High School and an environmental engineering student at Columbia University, doesn’t believe anything is inevitable. “We wouldn’t be doing the work if we thought it didn’t matter,” he said.
Holder of a coveted credential that allows him into Blue Zone at the Conference of Parties 26 (COP26), Swanson is part of a nine-member delegation from the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, one of only two museums allowed in to observe COP26’s inner sanctum.
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The group includes three staff members of the Wild Center and six college students who are alums of the center’s Youth Climate Summits. Since 2009, The Wild Center has been an incubator of young climate advocates, students from rural communities who as high schoolers begin work in the museum’s Youth Climate Program, and often go on to host climate programs and summits at their universities of choice.
Speaking from the Blue Zone by video link, Swanson and Jen Kretser, The Wild Center’s Director of Climate Initiatives, said the conference is both inspiring and overwhelming. “It’s pretty intense,” Kretser said. “There’s so much happening that at times it feels like you’re trying to drink from a waterfall.”
The Blue Zone is where the sanctioned action happens, the negotiating and the meetings upon meetings, all held in a trade show atmosphere where nations, innovators, corporations and activists hawk products and ideas, hoping to be heard by some of the 40,000 credentialed attendees.
It is a mashup of people and ideas, Kretser and Swanson said, where one minute you are meeting a woman who is on a mission to plant 100,000 trees in her native Rwanda, and the next you are shaking hands with Al Gore.
The parallel action is in the Green Zone, where the public at large can express their feelings through such outlets as demonstrations, workshops and art. And on Friday, teen activist Greta Thunberg was calling the whole thing a failure, saying none of the talks will do any good without a “fundamental change in our society.”
The ’60s activists who riffed on Bob Dylan’s demand that old people get out of the new world are now old themselves, and facing similar sentiments from the youth of today. Swanson said such demonstrations are part of the process, but that the urgency of the situation requires the talents of everyone who has something to give, young and old. “There is a lot of emphasis on the capacity of youth to take action now,” he said. “But we don’t have a ton of time, so we need that capacity on all fronts.”
And while protests tend to get the coverage, Swanson said there are interesting angles and solutions that don’t always make the headlines. He said he was encouraged by a new focus on methane gas, which, while not as prevalent as carbon dioxide is, molecule for molecule, far more potent as a warming agent.
And as wind and solar energy sources have taken center stage, hydrogen tends to be a forgotten fuel, but it still has strong potential, Swanson said.
The sharing of knowledge is a two-way street, and Adirondackers have been able to explain their role in forest protection, along with the Wild Center’s emphasis on engaging youth.
“Youth voices need to be part of the discussion on climate change action, because youth are going to be needed for leading climate change action,” Wild Center executive director Stephanie Ratcliffe said in a statement. “Our Youth Climate Program has already empowered thousands of students around the world to be forces for change in their communities. Participating in COP26 is an incredible opportunity for our delegates not just to be heard, but to gain critical understanding into the way power works—and how they use their own.”
Kretser said that work will continue, and the insights gained at COP26 will be brought back to the Adirondacks and incorporated into Wild Center programming. “We look at this as a way to achieve the Wild Center’s mission,” she said.
Technology has also made it easier to keep constituencies back home informed — Swanson video blogs on The Wild Center’s website, and says that engaging the public at large is a central goal. “Public awareness is a needed dimension that hasn’t always been there,” he said.
New York has other representatives attending the conference as well, including the Adirondack Council’s Aaron Mair, Department of Environmental Conservation Director Basil Seggos and Doreen Harris, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
“The Adirondack Forest Preserve is one of the greatest carbon-reduction tools in the world, absorbing carbon from the air and storing it in cool, wet forests and soils, and returning pure oxygen into the air,” Mair said in a statement. “We need to preserve and expand it, while taking bold action to limit emissions.”