The first panel I attended at COP26 was focused on Climate Refugees. Honestly, it’s ironic when you consider that COP26 has a severe lack of focus on climate refugees included in the actual platform and agenda, even though more and more people are being displaced and will continue to be displaced moving forward. However, it was also one of the best panels that I attended during my time at COP26 because of a speaker named Emtithat Mamhoud. She is a Sudanese-American poet whose family fled from Sudan as refugees during the Darfur genocide, moving to the United States in 1998.
She spoke about the need to listen to climate refugees and ensure that they are present and included in the spaces where decisions are made. She expressed frustration that resonated deeply with me regarding the lack of meaningful equitable climate action that generally comes out of these COP meetings. She shared a new poem, named, Di Baladna – Our Land in English – which starts off with the following quote:
“If you are reading this, I forgive you/You have grown far from the heart of me my child/have lost the familiar love we held for one another in your first years of life.”
Hearing her speak this poem gave me chills.
This experience was very powerful, and also very different from many of the events I attended. It was different because Mahmoud spoke from a personal perspective, being a refugee who has been affected by environmental issues herself. While many events – although certainly not all – felt impersonal, this one struck a deep chord with me and others in the room. It is indicative, I believe, of what effective environmental communication can do. Specifically, it helps one to understand a different perspective and more effectively convey an environmental issue in a way that feels personal and real. Through listening to people like Emtithat, I hope that bolder and more equitable climate action is possible. I believe it is, and if we are able to achieve this then I think COP could become a much more just and equitable place.
As a young girl growing up in a coastal state called Kerala in India, I was exposed to the devastating effects of climate change from an early age. Summers were sweltering, monsoons were ferocious and floods were frequent. In 2018, as I was packing up to move to the United States, my plans were delayed because of severe floods in Kerala caused by climate change, leading to the death of nearly 500 people in my state. I watched fearfully from my window as water filled my grandmother’s farm, and as roads became rivers in the deluge. This year, these trends have continued as nearly 22 people have died from flash floods and landslides caused by anomalous rainfall.
Having grown up surrounded by the effects of climate change, I was motivated to understand and contribute to climate action, particularly climate finance, global data partnerships and R&D spending in climate research. As a student of economics, mathematics and statistics at the University of Connecticut, the opportunity to attend COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland this year was the perfect chance for me to combine these interests and learn more about the work done by a global coalition of environmental economists and policy makers.
COP26 started with a few space and timing issues, along with questions of inclusivity and representation. Many students, activists, researchers and policymakers from the Global South were not allowed to participate in the conference because of inequalities in vaccine access and cost considerations. I noticed that this led to clear differences in the number of observer passes handed out to delegates from developed countries like the United States compared to developing nations from across the globe.
Reasonably, this led to an air of despair and hopelessness among the young activists at COP26. After years of climate conferences after the seminal Paris conference, many of my fellow attendees seem to have given up on the prospect of multilateral discussions ever leading to fruitful outcomes. While this is an understandable reaction, I believe complete hopelessness about concerted climate action is impractical as there are many moving parts to global action, and compromise can only come through engaged discussion from multiple stakeholders. Beyond the global climate policy advancements made at Glasgow, the conference was a treasure trove of great ideas, conversations and discussions, and attending events hosted by scientists and grassroots organizations gave me hope for the future.
A summary of this week –
1. Events in the pavilion section of the conference included many researchers from around 70 different countries and organizations – and I tried to visit all of them! One of the best pavilion events I attended was in a section titled “All in for 1.5°” in which several small business owners with grassroots connections in six countries detailed their partnerships on climate finance. The global banks pavilion also held several interesting events throughout the week. It featured talks by representatives from the World Bank, Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, Climate Investment Funds, European Development Bank and many other financial and regulatory bodies. International development banks play a huge role in financing climate research in developing countries, where the impacts of climate change are the strongest.
2. I met Nancy Pelosi and other members of the American congressional delegation for an event titled “Gender Equity in Climate Action”. Various political leaders across the world discussed their country commitments, and I was disappointed by the symbolic and virtue signalling nature of their statements. Many representatives made empty promises to include gender based conditional requirements for the foreign aid they hand out for climate change. I thought this was inadequate and cumbersome as it handed the onus of responsibility to developing countries that are already battling the devastating consequences of climate change. On the plus side, Ecuador and Canada both discussed non-party stakeholder accountability from corporations which I saw as a positive sign.
3. An incredible event I attended was “Enhancing climate resilience for LDCs and SIDS through space data, finance mechanisms and partnerships” with speakers from Gambia, Scotland, Malawi, India and other countries. I was very impressed by the idea of a “data co-operative” to empower researchers to share their data with each other in ways that encourage innovative creation in least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS). I was also inspired by Brazilian researchers who used space data to reduce indigenous vulnerabilities in the Amazon.
4. The U.S. Center also featured amazing presentations by organizations like the NOAA that detailed the U.S Climate Resilience toolkit in North Carolina, and the data analysis behind American climate action. Climate resilience in the United States is a fascinating topic that is more pertinent today than ever before, and I am glad that the U.S. Center emphasized the work that environmental economists are doing in building data tools to strengthen vulnerable communities.
As a cautious optimist, despite the many flaws associated with COP26, I left the conference more determined, hopeful and educated about the steps I can take to battle drastic climate change. COP26 was one of the most incredible weeks of my life, and I am more motivated than ever to pursue a career as an economist and to work on domestic economic policy that identifies financing gaps in underserved communities, and helps to strengthen vulnerable groups in the United States.
Attending the United Nations climate summit called COP26 was an incredible experience in so many different ways. It was a privilege to be able to listen to, converse with, and learn from so many different climate justice activists and leaders from around the world. While attending the official COP was an amazing experience, what I found just as rewarding was spending time with the more grassroots centered groups and activists who converged at venues around the city.
These discussions and panels, organized by The People’s Summit for Climate Justice focused on how climate injustice intersects with other forms of oppression from racism to capitalism to imperialism. By highlighting the voices of indigenous people and others who have been marginalized, events at the People’s Summit helped me understand the ways in which the effects of climate change are disproportionately felt by those who actually contribute the least to it. Further, listening to speakers at the People’s Summit made me realize that what works as a solution to climate change for one group might not work for another group. While climate change is felt all over the world, its effects differ from region to region, from country to country, and each community has a different understanding of the best way to mitigate these effects.
For example, at a panel on eco-socialism, a Mexican activist pointed out that his solution of nationalizing the fossil fuel industry as an initial step to phasing it out would not, and does not work in countries such as Mexico where the federal government actually uses their control of the oil industry to enrich corrupt political actors, and to continue releasing emissions. I also found the more social, informal, and discussion-based events held by the People’s Summit to be fantastic.
While attending panels and lectures at the official conference was an absolute honor, conversing and grabbing a drink with some fellow climate activists we met through events at the People’s Summit was especially cool. For me, a hugely important part of the climate movement is learning from your fellow activists and building solidarity across the world, and this is something that can best be done through simply sitting down and talking with someone who might live across the world, but shares the same fight against climate change.
Overall, being part of both COP and the People’s Summit was an absolute honor, and the experience will allow me to become a better climate activist at UConn and in the global fight against climate change. By observing these two sides of the climate movement and their contrasting perspectives and strategies, I was able to understand that the fight against climate change is one that must be fought on many fronts, with a variety of tactics.
“The people making the decisions are not the ones who need the changes most on the ground.” The first small lecture I attended while at COP26 truly defined and transformed my experience moving forward. Emitithal Mahmoud, a Sudanese American slam poet and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, emphasized that voices from communities affected need to be heard especially when discussing sustainable goals and policy.
Following a probing question, she further stated that students are leaders and have the power to change the current political narrative. Everyone left that conversation asking themselves, “What am I doing now to make a difference?”
As a third-year law student, I was hoping that attending COP26 would expose me further to environmental law and strengthen my impact within this field. Particularly, I wanted exposure to individuals and the varying cultural perspectives they bring climate change. Ultimately, I gained great insight while at COP26 and was impactfully enlightened to the necessity of environmental justice, the role I play in amplifying and including individuals in conversations, and the impact of the legal field and necessity for policy reform.
Following the initial lecture, I focused on how the conference was working to include various individuals and advocate for environmental justice in COP26. The conference seemed to focus heavily on the involvement of and collaboration with women, youth, and indigenous people. On gender day, Fatou Jeng, an activist and founder of Clean Earth Gambia, brought to light the impact of climate change on agriculture in Gambia, a sector that women dominate, and how women in Gambia are disproportionately affected by climate change-based displacement. She found that women and girls should be at the center of the conversation. Another speaker stressed advocating for children because their future is dismal and argued that policy focused on the need for resiliency include children in the narrative and that the narrative reflect the severity of the situation. This same exposure was witnessed in a photograph taken by Sebastião Salgado capturing a young girl that lives in Kampo do Ruio Amônea Indigenous Territory, State of Acre. The photo seeks to show individual children who are impacted by illegal logging, gold mining, etc. Overall, the narrative of the conference seemed to encourage and demand amplifying a range of voices.
The attempt to integrate a range of voices was reflected in lectures and in a negotiation that worked to adjust law and policy. First, a panel of judges supported the necessity of collaborating with jurisdictions around the globe, continuing education on the effects of climate change, and protecting the human right to an environment that is not harmful. This discussion brought together several voices and the judges stressed the need for change. Second, in the negotiations to revise the Climate Tech Center and Network, there was a goal to add three seats to the board and provide a voice for three NGOs that focused on youth, women, and indigenous people. From a collaborative perspective, each of the countries seemed to be more than willing to work together despite the various backgrounds in the room. While appearing to support the amplification of these voices on the surface, there seemed to be push back from a few of the countries. This pushback did not accurately reflect the energy of the rest of the conference that was striving for inclusion, nor did it reflect the other countries that stressed the importance of these added seats at the table. In the end, the positions were included, but only the future can tell whether these three NGOs will actually have any power to influence and have a say in the decisions of the board.
To reflect back on the question from the first conference that I attended, I bring in a quote from the speaker at a talk led by the EPA who stated, “Now is the time to be an advocate and find any way to use your voice.” I am leaving the conference motivated to make a difference and advocate for those voices and stories that are often overlooked and undermined. As it has been stated, climate change is a human rights issue, and unless we begin to provide a platform for individuals to share their stories and a seat at the table for those left out of decision-making, we will never see true progress.
Before COP26, I had this idea that the only way to really reverse or halt the effects of climate change was through big government regulations. I’m a polisci major, whose background on the subject of climate justice is somewhat lacking compared to the rest of my peers on this trip. Big corporations and modern capitalism created this mess, and I assumed that government entities should be the ones to come in and clean it up. And to a certain degree this is very true; if congresspeople are ever released from the tight grip of monied interests, we could make significant strides towards engineering a greener, cleaner world.
My previously held notions of what a solution would look like were instead challenged by my misconceptions about what solutions beyond corporate regulation should be. While the government has power to stop companies from polluting and maintaining high methane emissions (among other things), I have come to believe that we need to focus on community-based solutions, created by the people that will be affected by them. As a panelist for the women and climate justice event I attended said, “we need empowerment, not solutions.” Solving the climate crisis isn’t about sweeping, one-size fits all measures taken by politicians who often lack grounded understanding of their constituencies. It is about giving people in those communities – women, indigenous people, young people, etc. – the resources and funds to create green communities. Of course, we still need to regulate big corporations and major polluters. Panelists spoke about community generated energy sources to replace fossil fuels, and I learned about new technology to grow fresh produce in multi-layered greenhouses in communities that wouldn’t otherwise have access to it. I heard from activists from all over who shared different perspectives on how best to tackle this challenge, all based on the specific needs of their communities.
I think before COP, I overestimated the ability that the U.S. Government has to solve the climate crisis. I now believe that we need lawmakers’ power and resources to be placed in the hands of the people if we want a climate solution that truly reflects the diversity of need in this country.
I wanted to join the UConn COP program to represent students who aspire to bring sustainable innovations to the business world. This year, our group is more diverse than ever because climate change is being understood across various dimensions; it is the fight of all humans and we want to contribute in each of our unique ways. Since business will always be a part of society’s drive to meet human’s needs, current and future leaders need to be equipped with the right knowledge and measures to contribute to the climate movement.
The events I attended at the COP26 climate change summit had the common goal of collaboration. They highlighted that, through overcoming differences and divisions, we can eliminate the disconnect between various groups and especially the decision makers and those who are directly affected by climate change. In the Advancing Gender Equality Conference, panelist Angelica Ponce Chambi stated that refugees, indigenous communities and people from the Global South dream to participate in the decision-making process of conferences such as COP. In another forum, panelists suggested that this disconnect can be solved through having conversations as equals and talking “with” people rather than talking to them. For a meeting featuring C40 leaders (Cities Climate Leadership Group- consisting of 97 cities around the world whose mayors are taking urgent action to confront the climate crisis), a youth activist mentioned a program where young activists meet and discuss their demands with the leaders, and they collaboratively come up with solutions. This serves as one of the examples of meaningful participation and sharing inspiring initiatives of innovation.
When collaborating, it is also important to share the stories of those who actively fight to restore the loss and damages of climate change. As the activist and poet Emtithal Mahmoud suggested, we should find inspiration in the efforts of those who provide aid to communities affected by climate change. These people often have limited resources, but they organize and help the affected populations firsthand. There should be more media coverage and storytelling of groups like such to convey the critical importance of immediate action and inspire people to support them financially. The stories should also center around affected communities and what their demands are with regards to preventing and repairing the damages so there is a complete analysis of needs.
The same collaboration work frame can apply to sustainable business models. Companies should not only collaborate with citizens but also their competitors and, in return, will achieve greater results. This year, it was the first time in 10 years that a fashion company (House of Baukjen) won the UN Global Climate Action Award. When I spoke with Geoff van Sonsbeeck (CEO), he mentioned the importance of setting a mission and following it across all functions of the supply chain. Contrary to most CEO’s visions, he actively encourages competitors or anyone else in the industry to reach out to his team so they can help them adopt to similar circular production models. Climate action should be a common goal that requires not prioritizing our own interests and when they adapted this belief, they not only contributed to a larger impact but also became more successful. By implementing a strong vision and a clear plan, they were able to reduce their carbon emissions by 50% and achieve net zero in 2 years. Within the same period, consumers recognized their efforts and their profits increased by five times. When a brand sets a standard of ethical and conscious business practices, it communicates a powerful signal for others to follow.
I’ve always been fascinated by the legal side of global affairs. That’s why, upon arrival at the United Nations summit on climate change (COP26), my primary goal was to observe a negotiation. On Wednesday, I happened to stumble upon one of the rare negotiations that allowed non-party observers. I entered a small room with a large rectangular table and realized I was among a sea of delegates, each one prepared with their respective country’s name tag displayed in front of them. With the Chilean delegate to my left, and the UNFCCC Secretariat to my right, I stuck out like a sore thumb.
The two hours that followed were simultaneously the most monotonous yet captivating I’ve experienced at COP. Clearly a continuation of lengthy negotiations prior, this discussion hit the ground running–so much so that it took me the first hour to understand what exactly was being negotiated.
As it turns out, this session intended to revise the composition and purpose of the Advisory Board to the Climate Technology Center and Network (CTCN), the leaders in technology transfer appointed by the UNFCCC. The negotiation centered around one overarching goal: to improve the efficiency of the CTCN Advisory Board without jeopardizing the equitable participation of some members. It became evident that the achievement of this goal was to be determined by two focal issues: 1) the addition of two new government representatives to the Advisory Board, and 2) the inclusion of three NGO constituencies representing womxn (WGC), youth (YOUNGO), and indigenous peoples (IPO).
Both issues addressed a fundamental question: how many members is too many? Widespread support for the inclusion of the NGO voices appeared to be halted by multiple delegates. One such example is a comment from the Saudi Arabian representative who referenced a commonly adopted rule of management science to argue that the size of the Advisory Board shall not exceed the “ideal” number of twenty-two members. More obstacles were erected when the delegate from the Republic of Korea proposed that one representative could be appointed to speak for all three NGO applicants, claiming that the opinions of womxn, youth, and indigenous peoples appeared similar enough in character. China echoed this sentiment, but fortunately both were met with strong opposition from Mexico’s delegation. As discussions continued, the European Union, the United States, and Chile joined Mexico to identify themselves as strong proponents of prioritizing inclusivity over efficiency, if necessary in decisions to expand the size of the Advisory Board.
Due to the length of discussion, the negotiations never reached a consensus on the proposed amendments to the Constitution within the allotted time. The delegates were urged to meet later that night and swiftly reach a decision in the spirit of compromise. I returned the next morning expecting more of the same. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a consensus had been reached during the night. Three NGO representatives were welcomed onto the Advisory Board and two additional members were added without explicit plans to remove existing seats. I left with a strong sense of accomplishment despite my negligible role in the outcome.
One key takeaway from my observation of this session was the level of technical, language-oriented attention to detail. The addition or deletion of a single word was subject to a full discussion, requiring a complete consensus before proceeding. Such a commitment to precision in language is both fascinating and slightly humbling, as I often find myself frustrated by a lack of urgency in global efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Another takeaway was the presence of obvious contention between certain representatives and the NGO applicants. The decision to include a representative from each organization was made under the condition that they would participate as non-voting members of the Advisory Board, with essentially zero influence on the decision-making process. Thus, a lack of support for their mere presence was concerning to say the least.
Ultimately, this experience shattered any prior expectations I had of UN climate negotiations. While I may or may not apply the intricacies of the CTCN Advisory Board constitution to my own career, its lessons will continue to influence me for the rest of my life. In reality, this negotiation was a part of the massive web of the climate crisis, and the effort expended to achieve such a small win served as a simple reminder of this. I have a newfound respect for the delegates working hard to make change in these conversations and truly hope that these sentiments are echoed in the larger issues being tackled at COP.
Thus far, the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) in Glasgow this year has been more than I could have fathomed. Never have I mingled with such a diverse array of global citizens, ranging from the Minister of the Environment for Rwanda to an industrial representative of Danish industries and even including a Sudanese American poet. This wide collection of individuals has shown that the world is ready to collaborate and combat the climate crisis, yet the United States hesitates. How can cities like Utrecht emphasize growth centered on clean public transportation and flood mitigation while American cities sit idle with the belief that growth comes with tax reduction and the status quo? How can students from Burundi be searching for clean biomass energy sources to reduce local air pollution and investing in long-term human health while the United States subsidizes fossil fuels? Countries globally recognize the climate crisis, yet our country sets an example of performative action (e.g., nationally talking about being a leader in clean energy) and hesitancy from a stubborn mindset.
Looking at the world, I was not given hope by the pledges and promises discussed by global leaders. Rather, I was given hope by those who are on the ground engaging in their local communities. Mayors, scientists, activists, and business are the engine for change, and those who dictate the policy at the top receive too much credit. Our society idolizes certain figures as beyond human and deserving of both the positives and negatives of the universe around us. Do John Kerry, AOC, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden deserve the recognition of doing the bare minimum and stepping us back into the climate accords, when people on the ground are making that change happen? I believe not, and this sentiment was reinforced at COP. This takeaway occurred on
the first day, listening to an event put on by the United Nations Refugee Council.
Whether the United States joins or not, the world is moving beyond performative action. Activists like Emtithal Mahmoud, a Sudanese American poet from Yale, are educating the world around them about meaningful dialogue. I was stirred when she said, “My father was born in a village that doesn’t exist anymore.” For context, this village was destroyed by the worsening effect of desertification, which is decimating populations across Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in areas like where her father was born in the Darfur region of South Sudan. This statement made me question my existing beliefs, since the imperative nature of the climate crisis had not set in. Conflicts and mass migration will occur due to climate change, but with proper resource allocation and resiliency projects.
A climate advisor from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) named Andrew Harper emphasized the need to invest in peace. This idea awaken something inside of me, forcing me to question, how is our country investing in peace? Many Americans are still ignoring the catastrophe on our doorstep, instead debating about if it is truly there. Is that investing in peace? Every budget allocation debate between our esteemed public officials offers earmarks for strengthening our military-industrial complex, rather than strengthening resiliency projects here at home or investing abroad. Other entities within our nation are debating short-minded issues, without ever addressing the root causes. The climate crisis has no time for these sorts of shenanigans, with Mahmoud also stating that “We must engage with power” and further stating that friendships may not be permanent, but relationships are. This stuck with me, since as difficult and unfair the power structures are within our society, crises like the one we are entering, don’t always have the time to have endless debates. If we as a nation fail to address the climate crisis, power structures globally will be only reinforced.
A country that opened my mind to the destructive capacity of these endless debates was Rwanda. I had the privilege of meeting and interacting with the Rwanda Green Fund CEO Teddy Mugabo. The conversation I had with her was informative and spontaneous, lasting over half an hour. She opened my eyes to how the echo chamber of the U.S political quarrels has led to sluggish change, while Rwanda has an active legislature empowering national change. I must acknowledge the negatives like the political dictatorship within their nation, and the positives like their extremely high female political engagement, with over 2/3rds of the legislature being female. Rwanda, as a nation, banned plastic bags before 2012, and in 2018 banned single-use plastic items. Their Green Fund is utilizing grants from European nations, building affordable, clean housing in the capital Kigali, while improving the infrastructure of their rural communities in areas of landslide risk. Rwanda is an example of powerful national change paired with local leadership, and I believe that this is an example to us at UConn and nationally. I found that Rwanda, learning from their historical tragedies, has learned to invest in peace.
Endless debate is an investment in the status quo, which will lead to countless millions of climate casualties, refugees, and externalities. We must invest together in peace for a better world.