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Both Sides Now
Elizabeth Desombre Teaches Real-World Lessons

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Faculty expert opinions


Both Sides Now: Elizabeth Desombre Teaches Real-World Lessons

By Gerry Boyle '78

For weeks last fall, representatives of the parties to the long-unratified Kyoto Protocol, the landmark global-warming treaty, went head to head in The Hague, grinding with glacial speed toward what many hoped would be an agreement. Some observers might have wondered what the heck was going on. Elizabeth DeSombre's International Environmental Law students had a pretty good idea.

DeSombre, after all, is in the business of preparing idealistic college students for the real world. Her classes are heavy on debate and discussion, long on participatory exercises. Late work is heavily penalized or rejected. "Government doesn't stop because your grandmother passed away or your computer crashed," said DeSombre, who sees her role, in part, as a reality check.

The Hague on Mayflower Hill

On the day that international global-warming treaty negotiations began in The Hague last November, Elizabeth DeSombre had students in her senior seminar negotiate their own agreement. Each student represented a country or group of countries, and they used actual negotiating documents.

The results? Two weeks before real life would mirror DeSombre’s simulation, student negotiations broke down over the same issues that brought negotiators in The Hague to loggerheads: the extent to which sinks for greenhouse gases (e.g. forests) should be credited against emissions; limits on emissions-trading schemes (flexibility mechanisms); and issues of compensation and compliance. In the class, as in The Hague, the European Union and the United States squared off about how stringent the obligations should be, while the small island states and least-developed countries complained that it was all too little, too late.

Initial steps in international negotiations often are slow and contentious, DeSombre reminded students. But the process needs to start somewhere, and, despite the lack of agreement, the parties reached some understandings that are likely to be taken up in continuing negotiations. Eventually further talks will produce something that will evolve into a process for mitigating and adapting to human impact on the global climate, she predicted.

So what is it like to negotiate environmental treaties? DeSombre's real-life case studies include agreements to protect whales and to minimize ozone depletion. Her hypothetical examples include one recent class exercise that had students negotiating industrial pollution agreements. In one round, the parties had equal incentive for reaching a consensus. In another, some had no incentive at all and had to be paid off, cajoled or even threatened. For student environmentalists, the lesson was clear. "They tend to think we can hold hands and sing and change the world," DeSombre said. "It's my job to show them it's not like that."

But it's not impossible, either. DeSombre walks a fine line as she shows her students the very real roadblocks that stand in the way of environmental progress–but she emphasizes that progress can and is made. She started making her own environmental contribution as a grassroots environmental activist at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, where she began the high school's recycling program. The daughter of academics (her father is a research chemist; her mother taught English and went on to be president of a community college), she went to Oberlin College, drawn by that school's tradition of activism. After Oberlin DeSombre continued her studies at Harvard University, earning her doctorate in political science in 1996. And as she continued her work in international environmental politics, DeSombre learned something else as well–that she loves to teach.

"At Harvard, you're either a research fellow or a teaching fellow. If you're a teaching fellow, you teach sections or you teach your own courses. Just before I was to start teaching, I thought, 'What if I don't like this?' I'm in this job where no matter what you do, research or teaching, you're going to be teaching. I had this moment of panic. 'What if I don't like this?'

"I loved it."

And she still does.

DeSombre won numerous teaching awards at Harvard but chose to teach at a smaller liberal arts school where she knows her students–often better than they think. DeSombre knows which of her students will finish quizzes first. When students break into groups in class, she has a good idea of who will dominate discussion, who will acquiesce. During a recent interview in her office, DeSombre pointed to papers passed in that day that were waiting to be read and graded. "There will be times this weekend when I'll be able to think of things I'd rather be doing," she said. "But if I were teaching in a research university, I'd never read those. I'd hand them off. I can't imagine not being able to read those papers, not knowing what the students are thinking, how much they understand."

It appears they understand a lot. Several of DeSombre's recent students have gone on to careers in environmental policy, both in government and in private industry. Abigail Campbell '00 said the vigorous debates in DeSombre's classes helped her to learn just how complex environmental issues are. "I think that this is one of the most important things that Beth taught me–there are no simple solutions to environmental problems," said Campbell, now a research analyst for a Cambridge, Mass.-based environmental consultant.

Amy Lyons Higgs '98 took the lessons learned from DeSombre and applied them to a Watson Fellowship year, which Higgs and her husband, Steve Higgs '98, spent doing environmental education in Latin America. Amy Higgs is now working with Conservation International, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the Earth's most biologically rich areas and the people who live in them. She credits DeSombre with teaching the importance of seeing both sides of environmental issues. "She made me realize that to be effective, I have to be able to put myself in the other person's shoes," Higgs said.

The lessons are passed along both ways. DeSombre is about to complete her second book for the MIT Press and is researching her third: a study of the use of "flags of convenience" to sidestep international environmental and safety regulations for commercial shipping. That project was prompted by a student's study of an oil spill in Portland harbor. "He came back and he said, 'Why are all these ships registered in Liberia?'"

DeSombre was off to London in November to do research for that book. Back at Colby she was planning to teach an introductory course second semester: one lecture, three sections, no graduate assistants. She spends so much time in her office that her bull terrier, Sophie, has a crate, bed and bowl there. Asked how she does both her own research and vigilant teaching, DeSombre said, "I have no life." And apparently she wouldn't have it any other way.

Kate Litle '99, a former research assistant for DeSombre, said recently she often told her mentor not to take on any more work. Told of DeSombre's plan to lecture and teach three sections in the same course next semester, Litle groaned: "She does things like that all the time and you're sort of like, 'Beth. You can't be here 24 hours a day.'"

The admonitions didn't slow DeSombre one bit. Litle, who is working on a study of Pacific Northwest coastal ecosystems–and salmon decline–for the University of Washington, said she remembers DeSombre working harder than her students, sweeping her charges along with her enthusiasm and drive. Why? DeSombre, asked if she ever longed to actually develop policy or negotiate environmental treaties, said she feels she does the most good right where she is. And she pointed to a poster on the wall above her office desk. The poster, from Oberlin, reads: Think one person can change the world? So do I.

One carefully prepared student at a time.

The Colby Difference: The Inauguration of William D. Adams
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The Hot Zone and the Cold War: Frank Malinoski '76 Investigates Biological Warfare

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