Two sides of the ocean; one climate plea
D.C area students hold own conference with peers in Copenhagen

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009

A delegation of Washington area students and one squirmy diamondback terrapin named Happy were beamed into Thursday's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to help advance a solution for curbing carbon emissions.

Dressed in crisp white shirts and ties, seven students from Paul Public Charter School in the Northwest Washington and four girls from Clermont Elementary School in Fairfax County's Alexandria section faced a camera at the U.S. Forest Service Building in the District and made a live presentation about the harmful effects of greenhouse-gas emissions and rising temperatures.

"Climate change . . . affects every living thing in every part of the world," said Sophie Meyer, a fifth-grader at Clermont. That includes birds, which are migrating earlier in the year; polar bears, which must swim farther to get to the next ice floe; and terrapins like Happy, whose habitats are being lost, she and the other students explained.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a group of young delegates in Copenhagen watched the presentation on a big screen. They said they would do their best to take the Washington students' message to world leaders working to hammer out a global treaty designed to lower greenhouse-gas emissions.

Among the participants at the United Nations-sponsored conference are more than 1,000 young people from at least 100 countries who want to influence the world they are inheriting. Youth organizations hosted their own conference last weekend, and a children's conference was held the week before with teenagers from developing and industrialized nations.

"You really have a lot of power," said Danielle Ostafinski, a senior at Grand Valley State University who is representing Michigan as part of a delegation funded by the Minneapolis-based Will Steger Foundation and led by the polar explorer.

Ostafinski and the other delegates wore orange T-shirts that read, "How old will you be in 2050?" Scores of young people stood outside the conference center in the frigid Copenhagen weather Thursday wearing the shirts, she said. "The message we wanted to send was, 'Do not leave youth out in the cold,' " she said. "It's our future on the line."

The Web conference between Steger delegates and Washington area students was one of many events scheduled for the two-week conference. It was arranged by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which have created related Web materials for schools.

Clermont Principal Janet Molan said working with government agencies and having a chance to participate in the conference "makes learning real" for her students.

During their presentation, the girls from Clermont wore matching turtle necklaces and explained how a several events triggered by rising temperatures have led the terrapins -- the University of Maryland mascot -- to become "a species of concern" in some states and "endangered" in others. Melting glaciers and rising water levels have swelled the waterways and shores the terrapins call home, causing them to cross busy roads or retreat into cities, they said.

Students from Paul Public Charter School listed ways that young people can help reverse effects of climate change, including planting more trees, turning off lights, creating gardens or wildlife habitats, and learning more about how countries affect one another environmentally.

Courtney McCrimmon, 13, said that she was a little nervous to be on camera but that "it was good to let us get our word out." Students at her charter school are planning a schoolyard garden and are involved in a project to measure their school's carbon footprint. That includes researching the amount of trash the school produces, how much it recycles, and how much water and electricity students use.

Delegates urged younger students to remain supporters of the environment by meeting with their legislators and organizing such events as bike rides to raise awareness about the hazards of climate change.

In the meantime, said Reed Aronow, a delegate from Minnesota, "We're going to do everything we can for Happy the turtle here."

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