Great Decisions Conference for HPSH students was a field trip to the real world

Nine students from Kari Rise’s IB Geography class were able to attend the 7th annual Great Decisions Conference last Friday. Each year, this conference tackles issues that have global relevance. The topic for 2014 was energy independence. Speakers ranging from experts from the University of Minnesota and the Star Tribune to foreign affairs specialists of Germany, Mexico, and Canada brought their voices to the panel.

Discussion about energy independence began with an overview from foreign relations expert Tom Hanson about foreign policy and America’s history with oil. His speech was particularly startling because it introduced the politics surrounding energy, an issue that many of us, especially as high school students, do not even think about.

Part of learning about energy independence was understanding the complexity to any subject. While all the speakers were highly educated, they had different, and sometimes opposite, opinions. As many spoke of the economic and political benefits from obtaining oil in the US, others spoke to their concerns about the environment or the lack of sustainability in continuing current patterns. For some, the United States has made incredible progress in a positive direction because of their increased energy independence. Oil ties countries together politically. 80% of China’s oil comes from the Middle East, causing lifestyle in China to hinge on the political stability of the Middle East. The US does not have this issue, as only one third of our oil is imported. On the other side, localization brings into play the environmental impact. It is important to remember that the reserves of oil will not be able to sustain increasing energy needs forever. Respected intellectuals and members of the public presented on each side of the debacle.

To Highland Park students, one of the most intriguing facets of the conference was Hector Castro’s presentation on Mexico. Hector Castro described a progressive situation in Mexico. Since the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto, the Mexican government has instituted sweeping structural reforms, including 21 new laws. Regarding energy, laws were adopted to try to decrease the monopoly of the government petroleum and electricity companies of PEMEX and CFE. The presentation was thought-provoking because of the efficiency of the Mexican government. HPSH students commented on the contrast with the difficulty in passing legislation that the United States government often faces.

This wasn’t the only opportunity to compare and contrast. Energy dependence is a problem that many countries have had to face. As Mario Ingo Soos, Deputy Consul General of Germany in Chicago, explained, for Germany, the solution to becoming independent was turning to renewable energy sources. About 27% of their energy is from renewable sources. When faced with the same dilemma, the United States has resorted to a dramatic increase in local hydraulic fracking. Both ways have been successful in reducing international dependence, but each have a very different set of outcomes and consequences. It was interesting to see the different methods of solving a problem.

Every day in school, we learn the skills that we need in our future, but our education in the classroom doesn’t always enter into current events or share in the concerns of the “adult world.” It felt refreshing to be aware of something that matters and to take part in contributing ideas. Our choices with energy are going to shape future generations and being informed is critical.


(Above) Several geography students who attended the conference pictured with Kari Rise, HPSH IB Geography instructor, Mario Ingo Soos, Deputy Consul General of Germany in Chicago and Carol Engebretson Bryne, President of Minnesota International Center

(Below) Students with Star Tribune energy reporter David Shaffer, and Dan King, US Department of Energy.