Students share tales of global climate change on Capitol Hill

Becky Cardinali, clockwise from bottom, Tiana Le, Kerry Mullins and Jeff Fralick in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.

After traveling through Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in January, examining climate change through the lens of another country, four Cornell students toured the halls of Congress in late March to tell legislators all about it.

“Society is facing huge problems with a changing climate, and it’s important to remind representatives that their actions not only affect Americans and the world today, but these actions can have long-lasting implications for future generations,” said Kerry Mullins ’18, one of the students on the trip.

Ten Cornell students – led by Thúy Tranviet, senior lecturer in Asian studies, and Michael Hoffmann, executive director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions – toured Vietnam Jan. 3-18, as part of an interdisciplinary course, Climate Change Awareness and Service Learning in the Mekong Delta. On March 27-28, four students met in Washington, D.C., with a congressman, as well as legislative aides for representatives and senators, to offer their climate change observations. The Washington trip was developed by Hoffmann and funded by Engaged Cornell.

In addition to climate change, the group advocated for federal Title VI International Education programs. The Cornell Southeast Asia Program, a partner in course, is a Title VI National Resource Center – a federal program targeted for elimination next year.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., met with the Cornell delegation. He co-chairs the Safe Climate Caucus and is a member of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam, as his district includes many Vietnamese-Americans.

“The congressman seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say about climate change and Vietnam. He took time out of his busy day to speak with us. He was very engaged,” said Becky Cardinali ’19. “He even turned on the television to see when the House would start voting, so that he could meet with us until the last possible minute – when he finally had to go to vote.”

In meeting with legislative aides to the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam, the students learned the United States helped provide money to clean up the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Mill spill, considered one of Vietnam’s largest environmental disasters. The students discussed climate change-related food security issues and how those issues affect trade.

“The hardest part for me was remembering to mention every single climate change impact being felt by those in Vietnam – the list is quite extensive. I considered the trip a success, regardless whether I changed the person’s mind,” said Jeff Fralick ’18.

“Making the climate change issue more personal, rather than hammering a person with ‘facts,’ is our first step in getting acceptance of it as a global problem,” he said.

Mark Kearney, a staff associate on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, talked to the students about human rights issues – such as jailing bloggers, diffusing religious persecution and extricating political prisoners. Climate refugees would have to be more clearly distinguished from economic migrants to achieve political protection.

For Mullins, it was her first time in Washington. “I was excited to speak with representatives from both sides of the aisle,” she said. “The politicization of climate change is frustrating for me and that was amplified in Washington. There, climate change is just another policy issue that can be leveraged to advance a political agenda. In the meetings, I tried to convey that climate change is a real issue disrupting millions of lives across the world.”

On the Washington whirlwind tour, the students met with officials from the offices of Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., as well as Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., and the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. By trip’s end, the students had successfully learned to navigate Capitol Hill’s tunnel system beneath congressional office buildings and enjoyed the colorful cherry blossoms outdoors.

One of the tour highlights was meeting Colleen Nguyen ’05, legislative director for Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., who shared family stories about Vietnamese-American heritage experiences.

“It was refreshing to share some of my own experiences as a Vietnamese-American and connect with Colleen Nguyen, who showed an appreciation for culture and international education,” said Tiana Le ’17. “I learned that representatives fundamentally want to listen to the concerns of young adults, and I was comforted to discover that they listen to the urgency of climate change and take real action to promote protecting our environment.”

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Melissa Osgood