University of Maine graduate student Anna McGinn is gearing up for her fifth trip to the United Nations’ climate change negotiations, the annual gathering of world leaders that in 2015 led to the Paris Accord, a global agreement on taking measures to combat climate change. This time around, the meetings are in Poland. But before McGinn heads overseas, she’s bringing simulations of the meeting to students throughout Maine and hoping to bring some of them along virtually. We talked to McGinn about her experiences at these worldwide conference and how she is helping Maine students channel the needs of both far-flung countries and their own.

FOLLOW YOU ANYWHERE: The University of Maine’s 4-H program runs a “Follow a Researcher” program to connect communities to the work being done by student researchers at the university. McGinn is part of that, and she and her fellow graduate student, Will Kochtitzky, will be followed via video when they go to Poland. They also do school and community visits to run climate change negotiations simulations, including one earlier this year at a meeting of the Maine Science Teachers Association. We caught up with McGinn as she was preparing for the youngest group she’s worked with yet, a seventh-grade class in Old Orchard Beach. She’s got 11 more scheduled between now and May.

ROLE-PLAYING: The simulation involves splitting the students (or grown-ups) into groups representing the United States, China and India (the world’s three largest contributors to climate change) as well as the European Union and one representing all the other developed countries in the world. Another group is assigned to represent developing countries, which are often in the biggest jeopardy from the impacts of climate change. Do students ever tell her they don’t think climate change is real? It hasn’t happened yet, but “our goal isn’t to devolve into a conversation about that.” But the students do ask questions, such as “fossil fuels power a lot of things we like to do, what are we supposed to do about that?” They bring up the fact that they like to have lights on in their classroom, or maybe that they arrived on a school bus guzzling fossil fuels. Those are great conversation topics, she said, especially for a simulation that’s about compromising on the way to progress. Then at the end, they debrief. “We talk about what it felt like to try to be a world leader, and we try to bring it back around to you being a leader in your own community.”

HEAD OF THE CLASS: McGinn is in the third (“and final!”) year of a dual master’s program. Her degrees will be in Climate and Quaternary Studies, administered through the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine Orono, and in Global Policy through the School of Policy and International Affairs. (Quaternary refers to the most recent geologic epoch, FYI.) McGinn did her undergraduate work at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. The Massachusetts native was drawn to the University of Maine because of the Climate Change Institute.

WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS: The first international climate change negotiation McGinn attended was in 2011, in Durban, South Africa. She attended with other Dickinson students and had to go through a yearlong accreditation process just to be an observer. In 2015, she signed on for the Paris conference, where the big treaty was hammered out. “I really wanted to go because that was the anticipated outcome.” How do you get a room in Paris when there are 30,000 extra people in town for a mega-treaty negotiation? “That year I stayed at a hostel.” Which was fun. “There were lots of different young people from around the world.” In 2016, she traveled to Morocco, for the conference in Marrakech, attending with other Dickinson alumni and last year attended the conference in Bonn, Germany.

SIGNED, SEALED AND DELIVERED: How have the conferences changed since Donald Trump was elected and announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Accord? (Treaties are binding though, so legally, that can’t happen until 2020.) Is the atmosphere different, especially attending as an American? Yes, McGinn said, starting even in Morocco in 2016 when Trump was elected. “People were very uncertain as to what was going to happen.” Leaving for Bonn in 2017, McGinn said she had no idea what to expect. “Politically, our federal government is obviously not very committed to this idea of international climate change cooperation.” The official American delegation had shrunk considerably, from about 200 to about 50, she said. “The U.S. wasn’t radically pushing things forward, but they never have. They have never been the very progressive voice in the world, at least in the negotiations I have followed.”


THE FAR PAVILION: Another change was that there was no American presence in the pavilion area where countries usually run educational presentations nonstop over the course of the two weeks. “That was probably the biggest signal that we aren’t interested.” But there is a flip side in the form of increased engagement from nonfederal government participants, McGinn said. American leaders from governors and mayors to CEOs, university leaders and faith group leaders all got together and had a big pavilion outside the official area. “They called themselves the We are Still In Coalition. With a big American flag.”

PICK UP THE TAB: Her focus is on research questions she wants answered. Those include finding out how different countries are talking about paying for adaptations that will prepare them for climate change. “Because of the historical responsibility of developed countries for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, developing countries have long held that they shouldn’t be held to paying for the financial costs.” The Adaptation Fund was created under the Kyoto Protocol to pay for those adaptation measures, specifically in countries jeopardized most by climate change, with $512 million committed to 77 projects since 2010, according to the fund’s website. But it’s been slow to pay out and is in a transition period. (A second fund, the Green Climate Fund, was established in 2009, and under the Obama administration the United States contributed $1 billion of a pledged $3 billion after facing Republican opposition in Congress. As president, Trump has said the United States will no longer pay into that fund.)

MICRO/MACRO: McGinn follows two specific Adaptation Fund projects “to see how the rhetoric at the international level impacts them.” One is in northwest Nicaragua and revolves around building resilience to flooding in drought-prone areas of the country. In Samoa, adaptations include a small project to plant and maintain mangroves, which serve as carbon “sinks” and protect coastlines. “And there are some larger-scale government projects, trying to get away from building seawalls, and move infrastructure inland.”

A PLACE AT THE TABLE: Does being an observer make you want to jump in and be a participant, negotiating? “In the ideal world that would be great, but with thousands of organizations represented that seems very challenging.” (Picturing the Imperial Senate of “Star Wars” fame right now.) Anyway, her access is decent. “There’s a massive table with about 80 country representatives and a row of chairs behind them. So we can sit there and watch everything.” Besides, she thinks others are more worthy of being at the table, “especially indigenous peoples should have a seat before I do.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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