A quadruple major in economics, public policy, political science and speech communications, Oregon State University Honors College student Jax Richards did not anticipate his UK study abroad experience to include a whirlwind, climate-focused trip to Scotland. Then he received the invitation of a lifetime.
Jax had already amassed an impressive collection of accomplishments — a stint as an aide in the Oregon State legislature, the founding of his own non-profit organization and an appointment to the Oregon State University Board of Trustees, to name a few — when he was presented with the opportunity to add yet another memorable experience to his growing collection: an exclusive invitation to the world’s most significant summit on climate change.
Held over the course of twelve days in Glasgow, Scotland, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference brought together climate experts, internationally recognized advocates and world leaders from over 100 countries to accelerate action toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In total, over 20,000 activists, observers, scientists and political figures from across the globe joined Jax in attending the historic event, commonly known as COP26.
Invited by the non-profit Mediators Beyond Borders International, Jax traveled five hours by train from his study abroad program at the University of Sheffield to spend six action-packed days engaging with national delegations and connecting with governmental organizations.
“I gained a lot of insight, both educational and personally.”
Described by Jax as “unfathomably large, with hundreds of events,” the conference kept him engaged for 12 to 14 hours every day for the entirety of his stay in Glasgow, attending presentations by the likes of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and panels featuring figures like Bill Gates. One of the more prominent discussions he had the privilege to attend was “Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment.” Designed to evoke discussions on ways to accelerate the innovation and deployment of clean technologies, the event was opened by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and attended by US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, all of whom spoke about their nations’ technological investments.
This year’s summit also marked the first year since 2015 where the US had any formal presence. In smaller venues of 20 to 30 attendees, Jax spotted faces typically seen only through a screen, including that of Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development Samantha Power and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. For Jax, however, simply meeting and befriending attendees from countless diverse communities was one of the high points of his trip. “I engaged with doctors, scientists, teachers, economists, activists, journalists, local policymakers, climate refugees, indigenous leaders and representatives from the Global South and around the world.”
Standing in the presence of global powerhouses and mingling with attendees from across the globe was thrilling indeed for the self-described political junkie. But his favorite part of the conference, he says, was a series of panels hosted by the World Health Organization and the UK National Health Service. “They brought on such a diverse array of speakers, from hospital and health directors to survivors of climate-related public health crises to global health experts and doctors. They did an excellent job at reframing the conversation of climate change around its critical and immediate impact on public health.”
An unexpected path to Glasgow
Heading into his third year at OSU, Jax’s academic career thus far had not placed him on a path toward climate activism. Rather, having elected to spend a semester studying abroad at England’s Sheffield University, home to the Centre for Wellbeing in Public Policy, he saw himself taking on new policy challenges in an environment perfectly suited for difficult conversations about child welfare.
“To be candid, climate change was never an issue I expected to work on — nor wished to work on. I love advocating behavioral health and child welfare policy, and that’s what my background is in,“ he says. Still, the opportunity to attend COP26 was one Jax found himself passionate about taking despite his continued involvement and interest in sectors seemingly distant from the issue of climate change.
Fueled by his own childhood experiences with abuse and maltreatment, survivor advocacy and public policy have been the areas in which Jax has long been invested — and from which he gained inspiration to found his own non-profit, Safeguard Youth, in 2019. In fact, his growing reputation for outstanding service and leadership in the realm of child welfare and beyond will soon be celebrated with a nomination by OSU for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship. But the global climate crisis, he says, jeopardizes all of that work and more, and his experience in Glasgow was one that further enlightened him to the pervasive risks posed by a warming planet. “I believe this work is vital and will likely play a key role no matter where I end up.”
While his path to Glasgow may have been circuitous, the opportunity illuminated the through line of not only his areas of study but his purpose and passions. And though the invitation led to passing encounters with political and cultural icons, it was a conversation with an environmental data specialist that most sticks with him.
“She told me that the people that know the most about climate change are either the most optimistic or the most pessimistic about our future. She really helped me understand how such a massive part of this conversation, and its subsequent education, is about framing it appropriately.”
Overall, Jax’s time at COP26 represented a hallmark of the OSU Honors College: a transformative learning opportunity that combines cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural experiences with meaningful connections and an openness to new ideas. The current climate crisis, he notes, is one that will continue to impact every sector, from agriculture and infrastructure to business and education. And his time in Glasgow made it overwhelmingly clear that it is an issue that will not only continue to define this century but shape the future for generations to come.
Update: On Friday, February 28, 2022, Jax was announced as a finalist for the Truman Scholarship. The 2022 competition elicited 705 applications from 275 institutions, and Jax is among 126 finalists. The 2022 Truman Scholars will be announced by April 15, 2022. The full press release is available to read here: https://beav.es/wAj.