The success of the summit depends on the powerful wielders of the negotiating pen heeding the warnings of the young, of activists and of indigenous peoples
The wind blew fast over Glasgow on Saturday afternoon, drawing a cycle of sunshine, cloud and heavy rain on the estimated 120,000 people who came out to march for climate justice. “People are the power,” the protestors sang, led by indigenous groups. “Power to the people.” It was more an aspiration than a statement of truth.
Glasgow is playing host to people of all kinds in these two historic weeks. (The time left to tackle the climate crisis is so short that, whether it succeeds or fails, this Cop will go down in history.) But Cop is not a community. It is a solar system of groups that orbit one another – their paths rarely crossing in a meaningful way; their power unequal.
Royals, presidents, prime ministers and celebrities have mingled in the official Cop zones (Blue for the negotiators, Green for civil society), and in parties run by tech companies and energy companies. They take cars through the city, dodging roadblocks put in place so that the people whose futures they are tasked with saving can raise their own voices to the wind.
This is where the centre of power lies in the Cop system: not on Planet Protest but on Planet Blue Zone. It lies behind doors that a handful of officials and politicians open, in technical negotiations over minute details of agreements so dense that they are difficult even for a seasoned lawyer or delegate to understand. The people who have the most at stake in the fight against climate change can only wait, and listen, from Planet Green Zone or Planet Protest, for information about their future.
Yesterday, Andrew Harper, a special advisor on climate to the UN Refugee Agency, spoke of his frustration that those on the frontline of the climate crisis – those who are already experiencing its devastating effects – were not those making the decisions about how to fight it. “We almost seem to be working in parallel universes,” he said.
To be fair, those who are most impacted by the effects of the climate crisis are not absent from the floor of Cop 26. Young people and representatives from indigenous communities – those who have the most at stake in the fight against climate change – have been given opportunities to speak to world leaders, and where they haven’t been given the opportunity to speak, they have seized it anyway.
At the opening plenary, Samoan climate activist Brianna Fruean followed Boris Johnson’s speech to delegates. “We are not just victims to this crisis,” she said. “We have been resilient beacons of hope.” She was followed by Txai Suruí, an indigenous climate activist from Brazil. “Our plants don’t flower like they did before. The earth is speaking. She tells us that we have no more time,” she said. The young women of the world have stolen the show in Glasgow.
Even so: indigenous people are underrepresented among the 14,124 activists, academics and experts registered as experts with the UN Climate Change conference before it began – human rights organisation Global Witness yesterday reported that at least 503 fossil fuel lobbyists are also at Cop, outnumbering delegates from indigenous groups by two to one, and forming a group that is, overall bigger than any single national delegation. This creates a competition between interests and arguments at Cop that is not entirely fair.
Voices from smaller countries already experiencing the heaviest impact of climate change have felt excluded from the negotiating rooms too. A delegate representing Antigua and Barbuda and speaking on behalf of the Association of Small Island States (Aosis) told a plenary session on Monday morning that because they have few negotiators but discussions on different issues take place in parallel, their voices were missing in many rooms. When one negotiator representing the same group did make it to a session, they couldn’t get in. The room, with distancing measures in place, was simply full.
There should always be room for such voices inside Cop – making the case for what needs to be done now, not tomorrow, and pushing those in the seats of real global power to do ever more. And yet, in the UNFCCC solar system, such groups only occasionally collide when they should be travelling alongside one another. As Australian activist Clover Hogan told the conference, “We need in these [negotiating] rooms young people who are not willing to abide by the status quo and we need in these rooms people for whom the climate crisis is already their lived experience and their present day reality.”
In the final days of Cop 26, negotiators must work at pace to transform the political promises world leaders made in the first two days into action that genuinely changes people’s lives on the ground. This will be no small task – as a representative of the least developed nations told the conference, there remains an “apparent disconnect between the ambition of public statements and what is happening inside the negotiations.” The public and private worlds of Cop 26 are very different, it seems.
Photograph by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
With thanks to our coalition members: a network of organisations similarly committed to achieving Net Zero