Grinnellian Explores Climate Change on World Stage

Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 2:23 am | By Andrew Walsh ’09

Most Americans watched events at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, unfold from afar. One Grinnell senior’s own initiative took him to Copenhagen last December to attend the conference in person. Nathan Pavlovic ’10 calls the experience “eye-opening” in many ways.

The conference was an ideal extension of his academic interests, Pavlovic says, which include sustainability relating to the relationship between developed countries and the developing world. At the conference, he rubbed elbows with influential people, including former Vice-President Al Gore. President Barack Obama was also at the conference. “I learned that world leaders are human, too,” Pavlovic explains. “I think that we all too often think of decision makers as larger-than-life people, so to see them talking in person helped me put them in perspective.”

He believes his Grinnell experience gave him an advantage as he analyzed events at the conference. “My time at Grinnell has helped me develop the critical viewpoint that empowered me to question the motives and ideas of speakers at the conference, speakers who were far more ‘important’ than me,” Pavlovic says. “It was reassuring to realize that I’ve learned enough about the issues and politics to question what our leaders are saying and why they’re saying it.”

Pavlovic says, however, that attending the conference was somewhat disillusioning. He calls the process of negotiation “often undemocratic,” and he observed that NGOs were sometimes excluded from events. Pavlovic also cites frustration over what he calls the unwillingness of developed nations to help developing countries, where climate change is likely to have devastating effects. Overall, though, he still found it valuable to gain a fresh perspective. “I've developed a more nuanced and complete understanding of climate change as a political issue rather than a scientific one,” he says.

Back in Grinnell, Pavlovic plans to reach beyond campus and work with the city to both inform individuals and motivate action. He will make a campus presentation and lead a discussion forum, and he also plans to initiate meetings with city leaders and local high school and college student groups. He believes it is critical for the next generation to be engaged in the politics of climate change, so he hopes his program at the high school will help build a significant interest in climate change policy.

Pavlovic was also featured on an episode of The Exchange on Iowa Public Radio in December. The host spoke to Pavlovic in Copenhagen via Skype. “I had expected to maybe have a few short sound bites, but instead they let me talk for 10 or 15 minutes,” he says. “I was pleased at how interested they were in my experiences.”

Pavlovic recognizes he faces a challenge. “Without the resolve of a definitive agreement from the Copenhagen Conference, it’s harder to move forward,” he says. Nevertheless, the conference taught him much about the value of local action, and he is excited to help build upon the commitment to confront climate change.