With its bright red fruit, winterberry stands out on a snowy landscape, similar to a Thomas Kinkade painting.

A species of holly, it thrives in the eastern part of the United States. Anna Pletch spent part of the fall semester working in tandem with a Virginia Tech Ph.D. student using geographic information systems, more commonly known as GIS, to map the current and future distribution of the shrub based on predicted climate change outcomes over the next 20 to 50 years.

Her interest in GIS and climate change ultimately led the senior from Chesterfield, Virginia, halfway across the world.

Pletch was one of seven Virginia Tech students, along with two faculty members, who attended the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai in early December. For the past 28 years, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP for short, has allowed negotiators, legislators, and observers from nearly every country in the world to come together to assess ways to address issues related to climate change.

Pletch, who graduates in May with degrees in environmental resource management from the College of Natural Resources and Environment and French from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, hopes to pursue a career in natural resource management, specifically using GIS technology to manage those resources.

“COP28 really opened my eyes to how many different jobs and careers there are, whether they be conventional or not, in the field of natural resources, climate policy, and sustainability. There's such a wide range. It opened me up to a lot of possibilities, especially globally, and it was interesting talking to people from around the world and seeing what paths they took to get to where they are," she said.

“I’m a first-generation college student and I had only really been exposed to a traditional path through the workforce. But COP helped me career-wise to take a step back and really assess all my options. The diversity of the background at COP was meaningful for me.”

Pletch and the others attended COP28 because of a study abroad opportunity offered by Carol Franco, senior research associate in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation since 2014. Franco serves as part of the Dominican Republic delegation and has been attending COP since 2012.

She and Bob Oliver, who teaches a sustainable urbanization course in the Department of Geography, oversaw the Virginia Tech contingent in Dubai. Franco, who teaches climate change and international policy framework and whose research focuses on policy, and the College of Natural Resources and Environment led the way for Virginia Tech’s application into the conference as an observer organization. Observer status allows the university to send representatives to sessions and meetings.  

Franco set up an application process for Virginia Tech students, one that starts in March or April of each spring semester. Since 2017, students have attended the conference annually and either stay the entirety of the two weeks its held or just one week, depending on their interests and/or financial ability to pay.

This past December, seven students attended – the highest total ever. Franco expects interest to be even higher this spring when she begins accepting applications for COP29, which will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, in late November.

“This is the only opportunity where you're going to have 198 countries together in the same place for two weeks, and you're exposed to talking to all those government officials,” Franco said. “They're all there. You can approach them, including the ones from the United States. You can talk to them, and they can tell you what they're thinking, so you have all these countries at your disposal. You have all these resources, all these NGOs [nongovernment organizations], all the other organizations that are ready to have you in their workforce, but you also get to understand why all the issues are so complicated.

“I always give the example that you might have five people in your house deciding on dinner or what movie you’re going to watch. Imagine more than 190 countries trying to decide which policy we're going to use and how we're going to implement that policy. It’s also a way of showing to the students, ‘This is what really happens. This is policy development, climate change policy, the dramatic highest level when you have the ministers and the heads of states there. There are many things that are happening there that will shape the future, and you can be part of it.’”

That's why Shruti Punjabi went to COP28. Punjabi, an urban planner and a native of India, is working toward a Ph.D. in urban planning from the School of Public and International Affairs within the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Most of the students who attend COP pursue degrees related to conservation, but Punjabi’s dissertation focuses on studying team science and transdisciplinary collaboration to address complex problems like climate change, and she wants eventually to get involved in the policy aspect of climate change.

Punjabi’s search of the conference's website revealed Virginia Tech registered as an observer organization. She reached out to Franco for more information and eventually applied to go on the trip.

“There were a couple of different motivations for me,” Punjabi said. “My Ph.D. is international. It’s not a U.S. specific or a country specific project. It's more conceptualized, vision-based, and it's more international. I thought going to an international platform and just understanding perspectives of different countries and different civil society organizations, international organizations would be a good start for me to get my hands dirty and just be like, ‘OK, this is what's happening in the field.’

“The other motivation, of course, was the exposure. I found so many people who are going to be extremely useful for me when I have to interview people. I have a bunch of business cards that I have gathered, which I'm going to reach out to people who are monitoring data, so exposure and direct relationship with what I'm studying at the international level are reasons why I wanted to attend.”

Most of the students were active participants at the event. Punjabi curated and moderated a panel on youth leadership in climate justice and sustainability and was a guest panelist for a panel on transdisciplinary learning. She also attended several side events involving climate justice and Indigenous communities. Pletch attended side events as well and sat in on negotiations.

Both hope to work in careers that protect both people and the environment, though in different ways. Pletch sees herself working in the field, whereas Punjabi wants to work for an international organization like the U.N. or World Bank to craft policy related to climate action before getting into teaching.

COP28 offered the opportunity for students to meet people and participate in discussions, and maybe more importantly, to learn the difficulties in mitigating and adapting to climate change. With so many competing interests among the nations worldwide, change is slow.

But students shouldn’t feel discouraged, according to Franco.

“Change is slow,” Franco admitted. “But we have seen an increase in investment in countries, developing countries, to support emissions reductions and climate change adaption. In the past, that support that was not there before.

“Do we need much more? Yes. Did developed countries pledge for much more? Yes. Are they coming short? Oh, yes. But you can see that increase in investment – and you can see how many more people are interested in working on climate change. That has to do with those the COP negotiations and most certainly with our young people getting involved.”

Experiences like this one are a key element of the university as part of Virginia Tech Advantage, offering the full educational experience to students with financial need.

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