Each year, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s innovative Global Research Seminar (GRS) has taken students to key areas around the globe, deepening their understanding of critical international issues in the law and engaging them in field-based legal research.
For the Fall 2022 GRS, students traveled to the epicenter of climate change negotiations, the 2022 United Nations climate change conference, known informally as COP27. This two-week conference was held November 6–20 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, with the Penn Carey Law GRS delegation attending during the second week. “I wanted to expose our students to international climate negotiations firsthand,” said William Burke-White, Professor of Law at Penn Carey Law, explaining why he had proposed the Fall 2022 GRS. “There was nowhere better to do so than at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of Parties.”
In his time at the Law School, Sammy Wong L’23 took every available energy and environmental course, and even conducted a summer research project on the topic in Germany through Penn Carey Law’s International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship. He participated as a 2L in a GRS that traveled to Israel, where he focused on innovation in the energy sector. With his strong interest in climate change policy, it was a given that Wong would apply for a second GRS experience. “Both GRS trips were unique learning experiences in their own ways,” he said, “but getting to go to COP was an opportunity I never thought I would have.” Having had a successful GRS experience already, his expectations were high, “but the trip to COP exceeded them.”
In preparation for the COP27 trip, the Global Research Seminar met weekly throughout the Fall semester, focusing on a very specific, but critical, climate-change topic: how subnational actors (cities and states) receive climate financing once funds are distributed to countries by the United Nations.
CeCe Coffey L’24, whose work before attending law school focused on high-level energy policy and federal energy market regulation, was “eager to learn more about implementing policy at the sub-national level, since much of the ground-level work of adapting to the effects of climate change will be done by municipalities.”
Professor Burke-White, a leading expert on U.S. foreign policy, multilateral institutions, and international law, co-taught the Seminar with Visiting Scholar Mauricio Rodas, former mayor of Quito, Ecuador. Rodas currently holds leadership positions in many subnational climate networks.
The classroom portion of the GRS was punctuated by international guest speakers drawn from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, national climate negotiation delegations, and city-level climate leaders.
“We heard from heads of state and passionate activists dedicated to local governments having a greater voice in the international climate negotiations,” remarked Paul-Angelo dell’Isola L’24. “We were also able to put our law school training to use by researching ways in which climate finance frameworks could better support local governments in adapting to climate change.”
At COP27 itself, the assembled nations looked particularly closely at countries’ adjustments to the effects of climate change, mitigation of emissions to prevent further warming, and financing for these efforts. A conference highlight was a breakthrough agreement to provide “loss and damage” funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters.
“Penn Carey Law students were able to directly observe the breakthrough negotiations … and toundertake research on how we can ensure that adequate resources for climate adaptation reach key subnational actors, like cities,” Professor Burke-White explained.
“I came to law school specifically to pursue a career in environmental law,” said Sage Lincoln L’23, “but I never expected that I would have an opportunity like this.”
Lincoln noted that “the class didn’t merely get to attend COP27—we were able to spend the week meeting with mayors from some of the largest cities in the world to learn about climate action at the city level, we heard directly from key climate negotiators and UN staff about what was happening outside of the public eye to push key agreements forward, and we got to meet with leading academics and activists from around the world.”
“Seeing it all unfold in real time was fascinating,” said Johan Stagstrup LLM’23. “We saw the historic ‘loss and damage’ negotiations go from zero to 60—it was more like it went from minus 50 to 60, really—over just a few days. It was interesting to watch how the nations responded to one another’s remarks, and the back-and-forth that developed.”
For Coffey, chatting briefly with U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm about the many Earthshots that the Department of Energy would be advancing under her leadership, then later attending a press conference that featured representatives from several Pacific island-nations seeking a determination on countries’ existing legal obligations to combat climate change, highlighted a “massive gap” in nations’ climate goals: “While the most developed nations posture to compete in a global cleantech race,” she observed, “the most vulnerable nations are fighting to survive climate-exacerbated disasters.”
The class also wrote a white paper to inform future climate finance discussions, and the students contributed pieces on aspects of the COP27 negotiations for publication on Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy website.
“The experience was rewarding on a number of levels,” said Stagstrup. “Of course, traveling internationally together, I got to know my classmates and professors much better than I would have otherwise. The design of the GRS meant that I emerged with a depth of knowledge in the topic that would be hard to attain in regular classes. And I was able to meet key people in this sector, both at Penn and globally.”
Coffey expects her work after graduation to focus on U.S. energy market regulation, but she is “grateful to have been exposed to high-level, international negotiations overseen by the UN, both to provide context for nation-level work and to be reminded of the enormity of the collective challenge we face in tackling climate change.”
“Attending COP, watching the state negotiations, and meeting with climate diplomats opened new professional horizons and energized me to work in climate policy,” dell’Isola said. “The experience was transformative.”
Lincoln summed up the week for all: “To be taken out of the classroom and textbooks and put into the heart of global climate negotiations struggling to confront the most existential issue the world is facing,” she stated, “was truly the experience of a lifetime.”