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Abigail Borah: COP-ping an Attitude on Climate Change

SPOTLIGHT: One in a series of profiles on people who are on the front line of climate change.

 For a young person who cares about the environment, Middlebury College is the place to go for all sorts of reasons. The college created the nation’s first degree in environmental studies way back in 1965; it boasts uber-activist Bill McKibben, hero of the anti-Keystone-XL pipeline movement as Scholar in Residence; and it probably has more tree-huggers per acre than any campus on the planet. The only downside: it’s hard to stand out in such a uniform sea of green.

But Abigail Borah found a way. Last December, Borah, a 21-year-old Middlebury junior, made headlines around the world when she rose to interrupt a session of the U.N.-sponsored international climate meeting known as COP-17 in Durban, South Africa to confront U.S. special envoy Todd Stern for America’s failure to lead. “I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot,” she declared. “The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait. We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty.” She read a few more sentences from a prepared text, and then U.N. security hustled her out of the room.

It was an impressively daring performance, especially since Borah is a relative latecomer to the green movement. “I really didn’t become involved with activism until Middlebury,” she said. “But I did have a fairly early exposure to the environment.”

Abigail Borah made headlines around the world when she rose to interrupt a session of the U.N.-sponsored international climate meeting known as COP-17 in Durban, South Africa.

She grew up near Princeton, N.J., and went to the Catholic-affiliated Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. “The Sacred Heart nuns ran a farm in upstate New York,” Borah said, “and I went there during the summers as a kid. I learned to milk goats and cows, how to garden, take care of the land. There was a real sense of community and a relationship with open space.”

Then she took an environmental studies course in high school, which tied together what had seemed to be a lot of loose threads. “I loved biology, chemistry, physics,” Borah said. “I loved to write. I loved history, culture. Environmental studies was suddenly a fusion of all of them, in a way I found really satisfying.”

Once she got to Middlebury, though, environmental activism was happening pretty much everywhere she looked, and while Borah loved learning about the science and the issues, the idea of helping shape the public-policy agenda was irresistible. “I wanted to communicate to more than just the choir about these things,” she said.

She also wanted to do something more effective than just tote signs at protest rallies, so Borah joined a group called SustainUS, a non-profit open only to people under 26. “We attend conferences all over the world” she said, “advocating for sustainable development and other issues important to young people.”

SustainUS sent Borah to the U.N.’s big climate conference in Cancun in 2010 to lobby for action to preserve the world’s forests. “Before I’d went,” she said, “I expected that if 192 countries were coming together in a spirit of consensus it would be an avenue to create change. People would want to put aside national interest and work together.”

She was, she came to realize, a bit naïve. But she was also thrilled to discover hundreds of young people had come to Cancun as well, to build relationships and craft policy proposals. “It sounds a bit bureaucratic,” she said, “but there was just so much energy. It was so empowering to be around these people who were bursting with enthusiasm, all talking about we’re doing back at home to try and get things done.”

In the end, the nations at COP-16 in Cancun didn’t accomplish much of anything. A year later, feeling empowered, Borah was back for more, this time for COP-17 in Durban, and once more, she was frustrated. This time, the focus of her disappointment was more focused. The American delegation had signed on to a plan that would mandate binding limits on greenhouse-gas emissions for all nations, to go into effect by 2020. “I’m no Ph.D.,” Borah said, “but the International Energy Agency says we need binding limits by 2018 at the latest. The math didn’t add up.”

Along with her fellow delegates from SustainUS, Borah concluded that if the U.S. representatives wouldn’t step up and do the right thing, someone had to — and it might as well be her. So when Todd Stern took the podium toward the end of the meeting, Borah stood up and began talking. “As I was speaking,” she recalled, “the moderator said ‘nobody is listening to you.’ Which was interesting, because I could see that people were listening.” And in fact, some of the delegates stood and applauded her as she was escorted out of the room. (Watch video on YouTube.)

Stern was clearly listening too: in a press conference after the session he denied that the U.S. was holding back progress on dealing with climate change, and, as the New York Times put it, “somewhat ambiguously, endorsed a proposal from the European Union to quickly start negotiating a new international climate change treaty.”

Borah is under no illusion that she’s actually managed to influence U.S. policy by this one act. She’s thrilled, though, at the response from other young people around the world, and, more important, at the virtual community that’s springing up, not just to protest but to collaborate on serious policy ideas. “We’re creating relationships,” she said, “for when we take power.”

Borah is aware that she might come across as a bit innocent about how the world really works. “Yes,” she said, “my idealism is bubbling, but that’s part of being young, thinking everything is possible.”

For example, she said, it may sound crazy to think that Vermont could pass a law putting the state on a path to using 100% renewable energy. “But we’re registering voters, working on solutions. Certainly, a huge part of me is idealistic, but I’m also hugely pragmatic. I think both of those are needed for progressive change.”

And there’s another element, which environmental activists don’t always think about. At the Durban meeting, young activists handed out t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I Love the KP” — KP meaning Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 climate treaty that’s soon to expire. They also held up a huge banter bearing the same slogan, riddled with holes like Swiss cheese — representing loopholes in the treaty — and gave out balloons with “CO2” printed on them. The young people enticed the grownups to take the balloons and push them through the loopholes. “All these people in suits,” she recalled, laughing, “playing with balloons. It was ridiculous, but gave us entrée.

“At some point it just has to be fun. Climate change rhetoric is really devoid of that. Having more circus elements in environmentalism,” said the young woman who is so very serious about creating real change in the world, “is not a bad thing.”