COP26: Choosing Hope

Unity, inspiration, invigoration, and hope. These are what I envisioned myself feeling as I left COP26. But rather than feel this way or feel that there had been substantial change, I felt as though COP26 was a leading example of society’s faults.

Bear in mind that my experience was just a sliver of what COP26 had to offer; I was 1 of about 40,000 attendees and I observed during the second week only. Being so, I was only able to attend a handful of the events at COP26.

To begin, there were an array of logistical inadequacies. To name a few, it was difficult to decipher whether I had access to events, which of the countless schedules to use, and when and where the negotiations were taking place. Despite this, there is also tremendous hypocrisy in holding a climate change conference in a different country every year. People from all over the world travel to observe (and not participate in) the negotiations and supplemental events. Other than the networking advantages and the unique experience in and of itself, I see no reason for thousands of people to contribute significant GHG emissions toward an event that has the capacity to be observed virtually. A bit hypocritical, is it not? And by no means am I excluding myself from the hypocrisy of it, but at least I’m admitting it.

Inclusion was another false hope for this COP. Tracy Bach, the Co-Chair of the Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations (RINGO), spoke about the lack of inclusion at the People’s Plenary. She called out the COP26 Presidency for stating that this COP would be “the most inclusive ever” and yet, most of the observers did not have access to the rooms in which the negotiations took place. Although there was a significant increase in the number of attendees at COP26 compared to the last COP, Bach pointed out that COP cannot invite more people than they can include in the process. Thus, it was not the most inclusive COP ever.

I understand that minimizing the number of decision-makers lessens the burden of achieving a unanimous decision in a time constricted setting, and I recognize that all countries need to agree regarding how to move forward. It is, after all, a global issue that requires action from all countries. However, COP26 accentuated how inadequate our social system is (to put it lightly).

There’s no doubt that numerous benefits derive from globalization, whether it be global travel, trade, experiences, etc., but it has also brought significant cons with it (i.e., extensive contributions to climate change through GHG emissions, increased resource and labor exploitation, etc.). We as a species have allowed our social system to get so complex that its effects are out of our control. A key theme brought up at COP26 involved the interconnectivity of the issues we face and the need to address the problem as a whole rather than parts of it. We need to use a systems-based thinking approach and being so, I see one solution to the entirety of the problem that our society is far too complex. We need to simplify: our society and our lives.

Multiple speakers at COP26 related ‘fighting’ the climate crisis to JFK and the race to the moon. One such speaker introduced Mission Innovation: a global pact to scale up technologies and make clean technology the most affordable and reliable for everyone. While I do think scaling up and making clean energy technologies accessible is critical to mitigate and adapt to climate change, I think this there is danger in this messaging. It implies that developing new technologies is the solution to climate change and I do not agree with this. This type of thinking is exactly why we are in the position that we are in: because of industrialization and technological advancements. We can’t keep trying to ‘fix’ our problems (yes, even the climate crisis) by generating new technologies. In doing so we are neglecting the fact that developing new technologies requires resources; resources that our planet is running out of because of technological advancements. It appears developed nations ignorantly (or probably knowingly) believe that we can sustain our consumeristic and materialistic lifestyles while people in developing nations increasingly face the brunt of climate change impacts. Rather than invest in new technologies, developed nations should invest in helping the people that our historical emissions have put in the vulnerable position that they are in. Technology is not the end all be all to what’s going to save humanity and the planet. We need to focus on other strategies, perhaps ones that are intent on people and making society less complex rather than more.

Another qualm I had with COP26 was with the amount of people that were seemingly ‘patting themselves on the back’ for the work they’d done. Not to say that successes shouldn’t be celebrated, but oftentimes the events I attended seemed like a means for speakers to advocate for their own work, organizations, or businesses. I don’t think this is what COP should be about! COP should be about spreading knowledge of what has worked, what has not, who needs help, who can help, how people can contribute and in what ways, etc. It shouldn’t be someone’s political agenda and that’s sadly what I took away from it. Some of the government officials who spoke, spoke in a way that was technical and emotionally detached from the problems they discussed. It was as if they themselves didn’t believe the promises they made like their commitments to cut their countries’ carbon emissions by 2030. Perhaps that’s because they won’t be the ones to bear the brunt of climate change impacts regardless of if they meet those goals.

The individuals who truly made an impression on me at COP26 were those from vulnerable populations; those who have contributed the least to climate change yet are impacted the most (the words we constantly hear yet do very little about). These were the people who spoke with passion, who spoke about their personal experiences in a way that made you feel as opposed to those who spoke about something so seemingly distant, you feel nothing about it (i.e., government officials). These individuals communicated effectively because they told a story; a story that connected you to them and their experience; a story that provoked emotion and inspired change. However, it’s hard not to wonder the extent to which effective communication matters if it’s one-sided, given that the decision-making power of COP26 was held by those who (seemingly) hardly listened. That’s the reason I left COP26 feeling a bit hopeless regarding the change needing to happen at a global scale. Because if the telling of hardships from individuals from developing nations (which are occurring because of developed nations’ behaviors) cannot sway the decisions being made, what hope do we have?

It’s a negative thought process I must admit, but it’s a real one. However, I know that regardless of the thoughts that come and go, we all have the power to feed the good ones. So, I do choose hope. Because although I didn’t leave COP26 with very much of it, the conference did reinforce one thing: that there are countless ongoing efforts to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, happening across all scales. People will continue these efforts because we must. And with that, I am hopeful.

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