I grew up going to COP summits. This one convinced me they can’t save us.
I didn’t expect to spend my youth attending UN climate summits. I was 16 when I went to my first COP, when I first sued the US federal government for its failures to take action on climate change after Hurricane Sandy hit my New York community. I’m 22 now, having spent my entire adolescence and young adulthood organizing and making speeches about the need for climate action at these settings–- applauded, and then utterly failed along with my peers and communities. This COP was tragically typical for me as a young person -- world leaders making soaring statements and doing the least possible. COP, when it started 26 years ago, was promised to be an answer, if not the answer to the climate crisis. But we’re here, more than my lifetime later, and the final declaration out of Glasgow did not come close to the unequivocal call to eliminate fossil fuels that it needed to be. COP26 was a slap in the face to youth climate activists accompanied by a pat on the head for our efforts. We can’t expect COP to save us, though. It’s the relationships and movements that we build that are already mitigating the climate crisis where the true power lies––and post COP26, it’s where all of us need to invest our time and energy.
This COP, as soon as I landed in Glasgow, I was excited to see my friends from the movement, some of whom I hadn’t even met because of the pandemic. It was my third time at COP, and I already knew it was going to be different––and not in the radical, world changing way I would have liked. The most consequential COP ended up being the whitest and most inequitable -- the fossil fuel delegation had the highest number of delegates, while those from island nations, Indigenous and Black folks, and others most at risk of the catastrophic implications of climate change already at their door were denied seats, or the chance to come at all because of vaccine apartheid.
There were few opportunities for us to speak inside. I sat at a press conference early on in the conference where a few youth did. A youth from the Philippines and a youth from Nigeria spoke, both crying––they spoke of the climate crisis in their respective homes. I teared up with them when I heard their stories. Stories of losing homes, seeing others lose their entire livelihoods. Stories of fears from typhoons and fears of drought. They expressed trying to rally their community and then being on the global stage and trying to rally the world leaders. They were so determined to get their message across and seemingly burdened by the idea that it wouldn’t be heard. Many of my fellow student organizers from around the world were not able to attend because of vaccine apartheid. In Indonesia, International Student Environmental Coalition (ISEC) organizer Winny Puteri told me, “we are the least responsible for global emissions, the most vulnerable, and yet we are still underrepresented––this COP is a joke.”
The cries for and demands for action, and disappointing reflections afterwards feel like a choreographed dance we do at this point, the steps bringing us closer and closer to our collective demise. For these leaders, listening to our speeches is like a penance they need to pay, a guilt they feel better for having felt before they continue to make the same decisions that are abusing so many of our communities. The G20 leaders threw coins in the Trevi fountain before the conference started, hoping for its success, but denying that they could drain the fountain, collect all the coins, and actually do what’s required––halt fossil fuel development, give land and resources back to Indigenous folks who actually protect the Earth, and invest a proportionate amount of money into renewables. It’s like willfully watching your neighbor drown in that fountain, sitting back and weighing the benefits of rescuing them, while holding the hose behind their backs that’s filling it up. Perhaps this is what the truth of diplomacy actually is, wielding power over others with the veneer of official process, but it is surely not the example of generosity, kindness, and empathy that we were all encouraged to learn as children.
While people who actually run the world deny the immense power they have in these photo ops and the negotiating tables, those of us who have had no choice but to become activists are claiming ours fully. Rodrigo Affonso, a Brazilian activist who also couldn’t attend said “I am obviously ashamed of the Brazilian government’s position, I can also say that I feel very represented by great activists that are doing a great job by democratizing COP26 and saying what has to be said.” This is the only hope out of COP for me. On the climate strike, 30,000 people were in the streets, and 100,000 the day after for the Peoples’ March. We walked all the way across Glasgow, shouting at the top of our lungs, young people sitting in window sills and shouting along with us.
With COP wrapped up, the reality is bleak, and many of us are sitting with the pain of the willful failure of our so-called leaders. But it has given me and my fellow organizers no question about where we need to focus our efforts––mass organizing and power building among frontline communities. I don’t want to hear another speech, hear that we need to focus on electing Democrats who will make us climate leaders. I want you to be speaking out for protecting what you love, in your classrooms, in your neighborhoods, at your jobs, and in the streets. I want to see you doing whatever you can to support the front line communities that will have to do the hard work to block the pipelines and the fossil fuel expansion projects Joe Biden, elected to be a “climate champion”, is slated to build. We need everyone with resources to stand behind, fund, and join these movements. COP will not save us. It was never designed to. We are our only shot.