Becky Chung ’20 serves as U.S. youth delegate at U.N. climate change conference

Given how far she’s come, it’s hard to believe that Becky Chung ’20 didn’t make the Model UN team as a high school freshman.

But it’s there, in black and white, in the journal Chung has faithfully kept for years: I was rejected today for the Model UN.

“I thought to myself, ‘You can reject me now, but I’m going to go much farther and effect actual change,’” Chung said. “It’s funny to think about that now that I’ve done work with the UN.

“In my journal that day, I wrote, ‘One day, I’m going to work for the real UN.’”

That ‘one day’ came last month.

Chung recently returned from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Marrakesh, Morocco, where she was the youngest member of the 13-person United States youth delegation. Chung’s participation ranged from serving as a spokesperson to the media on briefings and running press conferences to chatting with the president of the Marshall Islands and the former president of Ireland about their roles as female leaders of their countries, to picking up assignments on her own.

Chung’s road to Morocco began when she was invited to legendary producer Norman Lear’s westside Los Angeles home, where she met senior advisers to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; the U.N. director of communications; an assortment of Hollywood and environmental people, including producer and environmental activist Barbara Pyle, better known as a creator of the animated series “Captain Planet and the Planeteers.” Chung was the only invitee younger than 21; she hadn’t even graduated from high school.

This led to a meeting with English explorer Robert Swan — the first person to walk to both the North and South poles — who took notice of her passion for environmental causes and invited her to spend two weeks in Antarctica with him and “an interesting gathering of folks from around the world” to do testing on renewable energy sources in inhospitable climates.

“He had a grant and it was hard to turn that down,” said Chung, an Environment, Economics, and Politics major. “I never really understood how he found me and I never asked him. But once you get deeply involved with environmental causes, you have connections.”

Indeed you do. Chung’s environmental connections began taking shape when she returned from backpacking in Costa Rica three years ago. Seeing the effect of deforestation resonated with Chung, who always had a passion for the outdoors and how it related to the world around her. In fact, her first published piece — a story for Alpinist Magazine on how her passion for mountaineering motivates her work on the climate— is forthcoming.

When she returned from Costa Rica, Chung not only learned a lot about herself and the direction of her life’s passion, but she put that knowledge to use, emailing every environmental organization she could find to offer her services.

This led to positions with environmental groups iMatter Youth and SustainUS, where Chung filled a niche dealing with the media, writing press releases and advisories, and running the organizations’ social media campaigns. Seeking ways to personalize global warming, Chung started a blog to tell stories about people such as the Papua New Guinea woman who is watching her village threatened by rising sea levels.

Her work on SustainUS was Chung’s springboard to Marrakesh for the 22nd annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which brought people from 194 countries to the northern African country to continue the ongoing negotiations on curbing greenhouse gas emissions and its effects on development.

The goal is to set the framework for implementing the Paris Agreement, which commits participating countries to working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to keep global temperature rise from pre-industrial levels below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. The agreement required 55 countries representing 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions to join before it takes effect.

Meanwhile, because Chung was at the convention on Nov. 8, she had a front-row seat from 7,000 miles away on how the U.S. election can impact the world.

“The U.S. election was something I didn’t expect in terms of my professional work as an environmentalist. A lot of the focus I was doing was in terms of the federal government and it will most likely not result in action for the Paris Agreement,” she said. “The U.S. election happened so early in the conference and the U.S. plays such an important role here, that it affected the entire conference.

“No matter what the U.S. does in terms of climate change, we’re going to need global leadership, and countries like China and India will have to take action. We understood that the two weeks we were there were vital, but they weren’t everything. What’s important is what comes out of this and what people will do afterward in terms of creating plans that we all can support.”

Speaking of support, Chung’s passion for this issue isn’t limited to participating in prestigious international conferences or hobnobbing with legendary producers. She sees not only the forest and the trees, but the grassroots beneath the trees.

“My focus now is on more community-based work on the state and local level: helping young people take the political action necessary to bring climate change to the forefront,” she said. “I’m very much of the belief that the federal government will act if there is enough momentum on the state and local level, and my work now is building that sort of momentum.”