Whose Voices Are (and Aren’t) Being Heard at COP26?

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By Rachel Sarah

“COP26 is looking like one of the most inequitable, White, and segregated COPs to ever occur,” says Ayisha Siddiqa, a climate activist who traveled from New York City to Glasgow for the long-awaited 26th Conference of the Parties, which began on Oct. 31. Over the course of 13 days, parties to the 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change Treaty are meeting to examine the questions: Are we on track to slow down the worst effects of the climate crisis? And if not, what changes need to be made?

The goal is for leaders to commit to changing their countries’ fossil fuel-burning behaviors so all people can survive on this planet. More than 120 world leaders are attending COP26, with more than 25,000 delegates from 197 countries. Yet a key question remains: Who will get the spotlight to speak at the summit and whose voices will be missing?

“There are so many folks who were not allowed to or could not afford to make it to COP26,” says Siddiqa, citing rising flight costs and hotel rates among copious other examples of red tape. “This means that Global South voices will once again be kept out of the conversation.”

For her, that’s personal. When Siddiqa was 6 years old, her family moved to the U.S. from Pakistan, a country that contributes less than 1% of the global greenhouse gas emissions but is among the top 10 most climate-vulnerable countries. Siddiqa now works as both a graduate research fellow at the Coro New York Leadership Center and a law fellow at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP. She says that she spent half of her paycheck to cover her flight to Glasgow to make sure her voice was heard.

Shantell Bingham, the Black membership organizer from the Climate Justice Alliance, agrees: “With the pandemic, inequitable vaccination access, and barriers to acquire visas, we already know and anticipate that Black, Indigenous, and people of color from the Global South and environmental justice communities in the U.S. will struggle to get to Glasgow.” Bingham herself traveled to Glasgow from Charlottesville, Virginia, as part of the It Takes Roots delegation, which is bringing front-line communities and workers to COP26. Between the meeting’s one-year COVID delay and the fact that some delegates will be attending via Zoom, Bingham says, “Nothing about this year’s convening is normal.”

Activists point out the inherent inequities in these climate conversations—that the richest countries have greater representation and voice while they have historically and currently continue to drive the climate crisis by burning fossil fuels that enable them to get richer. At the same time, the poorest countries across the world suffer the climate crisis first and worst, even though they’ve emitted the smallest share of greenhouse gases, yet they still can’t get a meaningful seat at the COP26 table.

Solutions Come from Communities

“We need to make sure that the voices of front-line communities are part of these conversations, because these communities are dealing with the immediate effects of climate change right now,” says Ozawa Bineshi Albert, co-executive director of Climate Justice Alliance, who recently traveled to COP26 from relocated Yuchi and Muscogee territory in Oklahoma, also known as Tulsa. These individuals and communities are the ones living through the emergency of climate change on a daily basis and coming up with actual solutions—such as clean energy and sustainable agriculture.

“The solutions need to come from front-line communities,” says Bineshi Albert, whose work over the last 30 years has focused on environmental justice and Native rights, and who will be speaking on behalf of Indigenous women at this year’s meeting, as she did at COP25.

Unfortunately, this solutions-orientation is not reflected in the rooms at COP26. Only one third of all attendees are women. Of the world leaders who are making the most critical decisions, most are men. Only one third of the Pacific small island states are represented; just four leaders from these islands—Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, and Palau—are present at the summit. It should also be noted that some world leaders never showed up to COP26, including the presidents of China and Russia. And one Israeli minister in Glasgow couldn’t enter the meeting venue because it’s not accessible for wheelchairs.

“Generation Z is not waiting anymore,” says Daphne Frias, a Latinx disability advocate from West Harlem who traveled to COP26 as part of The New York Times Generation Climate. “You guys talk all the time, but you don’t have any concrete action behind many of these words. So instead, take a seat back and let us tell you what we need from you.”

Frias is a first-generation college student who’s currently in medical school, has cerebral palsy, and uses a wheelchair to ambulate. “Let us tell you the solutions that are possible,” she says. For starters, she says that people who are most vulnerable to climate emergencies need to be part of the conversation. “Then, how do we how do we hold institutions accountable? This is huge.”

Activists are also asking who’s paying for the damage already done by the climate crisis. Twelve years ago, during COP15 in Copenhagen, public and private sectors promised to support developing countries with at least $100 billion a year to help cut greenhouse gas emissions and cope with the impacts of climate emergencies by the year 2020. But estimates to date put the actual funding somewhere between $19 billion and $80 billion a year, falling far short of what’s needed. Today, people in the most vulnerable countries are understandably frustrated that much of the promised funding to support their adaptation and mitigation efforts still has not arrived.

Polluters Out, People In

In addition to the glaring absences at the meeting, another key issue is the presence of oil and gas industries. In 2019, Ayisha Siddiqa co-founded Polluters Out, a youth-led climate coalition, in response to COP25 climate talks in Spain, where she and other activists realized that the oil and gas industry had the most influence in international climate negotiations.

This year, Big Oil does not have a formal role at COP26, which Polluters Out contributes to its work over the past two years. For example, British Petroleum was supposed to be a sponsor at COP26, but the sponsorship was cancelled because BP’s criteria did not align with the UN’s. Still, fossil fuel companies are allowed to attend some of the events, and they have a strong presence at COP26. “We got polluters out. Let’s get people in,” say the organizers of Polluters Out. “While a step in the right direction, a complete overhaul of who has a say in crafting climate policy is the only acceptable solution.”

So, while the road to cutting emissions will be a long one, activists want the conversation to at least be an honest one. They point out that many leaders at COP26 are using phrases like “net zero” as a loophole to evade responsibility because what they’re proposing is carbon “trading” or “offsetting,” instead of actually cutting emissions. Activists have long been sounding the alarm on the corporations and countries that are trying to get off the hook from extracting, producing, and combusting more fossil fuels.

“We must say no to ‘net zero’ and the idea that we can buy our way out of the climate crises through a carbon market… where corporations and fossil fuel companies are allowed to continue business as usual,” says Bingham, who’s in Glasgow with a delegation of 60 leaders from communities like Richmond, California, where Chevron Oil refinery has dumped toxins into the air and water, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the U.S. military has been responsible for jet fuel spills.

Bingham is referring to “article 6,” one of the key areas of the Paris agreement, which provides for the use of carbon markets. Activists like Greta Thunberg say that these carbon credits are “blah blah blah” because they don’t actually reduce emissions.

“We’re demanding that our global leaders get serious about shifting away from fossil fuel production and take more aggressive action to stop carbon emissions while investing in Black and Indigenous front-line communities to shore up their homes, farms, schools, businesses, and cities against the climate crises that’s already here,” adds Bingham, who’s currently serving as a Castanea Fellow to push for racial, economic, and environmental justice throughout the food system.

Scarlett Westbrook, a 17-year-old UK-based climate activist, took her exam to get into medical school the day before COP26 started, and then made the 6-hour drive to Glasgow. “We need to see concrete climate action in the form of an internationalist Green New Deal that is shaped by those on the front line of the climate and ecological crisis,” she says. “I will use my platform at COP26 unreservedly to call for this and take world leaders to account.”

Climate Action Post-COP26

Much of the world is tuning in to COP26 with the hope that the ground will shift, and leaders will act now to phase out carbon emissions and keep global average temperature rise below 1.5°C—without greenwashing, making false promises, or continuing to punish low-emitting countries. At this point, that seems unlikely. On Twitter, Alexandria Villaseñor, a 16-year-old climate justice activist from New York City who’s also at COP26, asked, “Did it hurt? When world leaders convened at #COP26 in Glasgow, and in their opening speeches not one of them spoke of phasing out fossil fuels?”

Over the next week, organizers on the ground in Glasgow are keeping their allies back home informed as they strategize, plan, and make new contacts to influence policy when COP ends. For example, the UK-based COP26 Coalition is hosting rallies digitally as well as in person, to broadcast the speeches of activists and leaders, including U.S. Representative Ilhan OmarGreta Thunberg, and Vanessa Nakate.

Going forward, how will activists regroup and continue to drive accountability back home? How will they keep politicians and corporations accountable?

“We’re already gearing up for COP27 in Egypt in 2022,” says Alejandría M. Lyons, the environmental justice organizer with the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) in Albuquerque. Yet even if world summits magically prove a success, they alone won’t solve the climate crisis. Sweeping global government action needs to be accompanied by ongoing grassroots organizing and meaningful investment in solutions for frontline communities.

“We need drastic emission cuts and reparations for adaptation and loss and damages now,” says Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a climate justice activist from the Philippines. On Nov. 2, Tan joined other activists outside the conference center as the World Leaders Summit ended, holding up illuminated letters that spelled “CLIMATE BETRAYAL.”

“To the world leaders, fossil fuel companies, multinational companies, and richest, especially of the Global North, you have caused this climate crisis,” Tan says. “Your greed for profit has caused the death of people in my community and millions across the globe already, and it will continue to get worse and impact your communities too if you do not start treating this crisis like a crisis.”

This story originally appeared in Yes! Magazine and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


Lead image courtesy of Unsplash.


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