What I learnt at COP26

I recently travelled to Glasgow to participate in COP26, and this note is an attempt to digest some of what came alive for me during the experience.

My reasons for attending were mixed; to learn, to support the growing movement for environmental regeneration and social justice (corralling under the banner of ‘Climate Justice’), and to witness an event of global significance taking place on my doorstep. I attended panels, workshops, documentaries, exhibitions, performances and marches. I had conversations with youth activists, civil society representatives, business leaders, Blue Zone delegates, elders, artists, friends and fellow Green Zone and ‘fringe’ participants. The highlight — each day was bookended by cups of tea and debriefs with my incredibly generous hosts in Paisley; two local community elders who deeply embody the values of the Climate Justice movement in their daily lives.

As a matter of housekeeping and for those unfamiliar with the structure of this year’s conference, the Blue Zone was the part of COP26 where the official governmental negotiations took place under the UNFCCC (with delegate passes also issued to business and civil society representatives). The Green Zone sat alongside, and was a space for the general public to attend presentations, exhibitions, workshops and performances by youth groups, civil society, academia, artists and business — with the purpose to create opportunities to ‘listen, learn and celebrate climate action’. Outside of these official United Nations platforms, a range of ‘fringe’ events (both corporate and civil society led), protests and performances were arranged by individuals, movements and organisations with an interest in influencing the climate change narrative and putting pressure on politicians in the Blue Zone. My involvement in the fringe was largely centred around the programme coordinated by the COP26 Coalition, a civil society alliance of various groups and individuals convening around issues of Climate Justice in Glasgow.

My COP26 experience was transformative and will, I suspect, significantly alter the trajectory of my life in ways as yet unknown. However, as I sit in the more immediate wake of what transpired, these are some of the lessons, observations and questions from COP26 that I am carrying with me. To give some flavour (and to aid skipping ahead), these reflections can be summarised as follows:

· Climate Justice is a movement of many movements, and the call of our times.

· There was an elephant in the Blue Zone.

· We seem to have forgotten whose table we are sitting at.

· The essence of leadership is evolving in step with a crowd sourced future.

· Being on the COP guest list does not guarantee access or visibility.

· Language, words and experience matter.

· Where the Arts meet activism, sparks fly.

· There is life and adventure in the learning journey.

· Climate activism takes many forms, and there is a part for everyone.

· Our elders are our wisdom keepers, and their presence is paramount.

· Holding on to what matters after the return to ‘business as usual’ is key.

1. Climate Justice is a movement of many movements, and the call of our times.

The conversations I heard and participated in and around the wider COP26 programme helped to deepen my understanding of the intersectionality between separate but related struggles across the growing ‘movement’ for environmental restoration, social justice and calls for localisation and renewed custodianship of the Earth’s lands by Indigenous cultures, as Paul Hawken wrote about in his 2006 book Blessed Unrest. At the time of writing his book, Hawken observed that such overarching ‘movement’ did not have a name, leader or location, at such stage not yet recognizing itself as a unified force for change.

Many community led and grassroots action groups were vocally present on the streets of Glasgow, including those supporting workers’ rights, gender and racial equality, migrant justice, demilitarisation, Indigenous rights, participatory democracy, localisation, access to education, healthcare and housing, biodiversity protection, environmental restoration, ‘post-growth’ and feminist economics and compensatory justice for those least responsible but suffering the most immediate and existential consequences of climate change. By listening to their stories and perspectives, I began to see more clearly ‘Climate Justice’ as a common thread weaving together the many different undercurrents of Hawken’s unnamed movement of movements, which like fractals permeate the multitude of cracks in our society. Although it was evident that the divergent aims of the various groups inevitably conflict in part, maintaining a healthy sense of interrogation and scrutiny within the movement will hopefully give rise to more informed, robust and unified positions across the entanglement of issues and lead to more effective systemic change over time.

As I understand it, the challenges posed by climate change cannot be navigated in any real sense in separation to these ongoing struggles for the recognition of rights, restorative justice and environmental sustainability in an interdependent web of life. Salvaging an inhabitable planet for future generations will require the reconfiguration of social, economic, political and cultural structures and a shift in self-awareness of humanity’s potential role as stewards of the Earth on a rapid and unprecedented scale. Although the foundations for facilitating such transformation have been laid by many, there is much work to be done in building bridges, networks and platforms to generate a more fluid and accessible exchange of knowledge, lessons, resources and skills over the coming decade — to action the collective blueprint for change.

My two week immersion in the Climate Justice movement at COP26 helped me realise we will not ‘solve’ the climate and ecological crises solely through an updated diplomatic agreement. Rather, in embracing the complexity and enormity of the challenge at a grassroots level, we have the opportunity to get lost in the cracks and explore the deep fractures in our global society with new eyes. In doing so, we may follow in the footsteps of those who have already begun to uncover diverse pathways forward with the potential to strengthen the resilience of communities, regenerate ecosystems, honour multi-species existence and humanity’s shared fortune of the Commons on one planet, and begin to move resources to where they are needed most in step with the flow of life. In any event, that seems to be a vision worth mobilising towards.

2. There was an elephant in the Blue Zone.

Many of the conversations I had on the streets of Glasgow and in the civil society spaces co-held by the COP26 Coalition centred around the consequences of an economic paradigm built upon extraction, scarcity, separation, historic and modern slavery and structural racism, and the need to shift gears in order to avoid reinforcing existing injustices in the transition.

Having disproportionately benefitted from the current ‘system’, grappling with the reality of the foundations of my personal circumstances is an ongoing and uncomfortable challenge. I have come to the conclusion that while I may not individually be responsible for creating or inheriting the status quo, I am responsible for the true cost of a lifestyle which carries a carbon footprint far outstripping those in less industrialised countries, contributing to the growing vulnerability of the most affected people and areas. To have taken the benefits of my carbon footprint without accounting for the costs has resulted in a debt on my balance sheet; a debt that I am not yet sure how to balance. This is the rationale underpinning the calls for contributions for compensatory loss and damage, together with climate finance to support adaptation measures, for those vulnerable states and frontline communities bearing the brunt of the social, economic and physical impacts of human-induced climate change, but lacking responsibility for having caused the crisis in the first place. The significant shortfall on the part of the Global North in meeting the US$100 billion per annum climate finance pledge by 2020 (originally agreed in 2009) and the failure of COP26 to secure any concrete commitment to rectify this points further to the shortcomings of a multilateral process that is not yet matching needs and resources in real time.

Separate to the economics and politics of reparations and climate finance, are some of the more intangible hurdles to addressing the climate and ecological crises embedded within the current economic system. Short term business plans and pressure to deliver ever higher shareholder returns in a growth obsessed economy have arguably resulted in corporations and financial institutions being structurally incentivised to maintain ‘business as usual’, or even to devise financial instruments and trading mechanisms to benefit in economic terms from the crisis, whilst doing little to contribute to a meaningful solution. This is shown in the ineffectiveness of carbon trading markets in reducing emissions, the flawed concept of Net Zero and some of the detrimental impacts of business backed ‘nature based solutions’ on communities, land and biodiversity. Indigenous leaders called out these deficiencies in mainstream climate policy in Glasgow, essentially questioning whether a mindset that places more value on a whale or a tree that is dead than alive is capable of delivering substantive action before more irreversible tipping points are reached. It is telling in this context that, as recently reported, the drive for growth above all else is projected (despite all the pledges of the 30-year UNFCCC process) to see coal usage hit a peak in 2022. This at a time when global GHG emissions are still continuing to rise.

Although I appreciate policy and regulation have an important role to play, where there are laws there are loopholes, and without efforts to transcend the growth paradigm, any promise to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius seems empty to me. The barriers to a transition to a ‘growth agnostic’ or ‘post-growth’ world feel both internal and external, and I have discovered many individuals, organisations, initiatives and alliances working to turn the tide by designing for wellbeing, distributive, regenerative, circular and localised economies, and ‘not for profit’ purpose led business models. I am hopeful that communicating the successes of grassroots initiatives leveraging alternative value systems and an economics of care may yet unlock a renaissance of imagination in the art of living.

I did not have access to the Blue Zone in Glasgow, however from where I stood on the fringe, there seemed to be a failure to acknowledge some of the fundamental limits and risks of growth and a legal and market framework built to prioritise profit over people and planet. I wasn’t surprised by the elephant in the Blue Zone, but in the interests of keeping 1.5 alive to support the continuation of diverse and thriving life on my home planet, I can only hope that more of these post-growth visionaries and social businesses will be given centre stage at COP27.

3. We seem to have forgotten whose table we are sitting at.

Perhaps naively, I didn’t expect corporate sponsorship deals to underpin a United Nations conference on a topic of global and existential significance in the same way as would be the case for a private sector event, and it was reported that the fossil fuel industry had more delegates in the Blue Zone than any nation state. I struggled to reconcile the role and place of sectoral lobbying in the context of a world that already sits at 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels due to the effects of rapid (and continuing) globalisation, urbanisation and consumerism. Even if such reports were exaggerated, being able to ‘buy’ space and access across different aspects of the conference would seem to destroy any semblance of a level playing field, particularly where not-for-profit businesses, initiatives and NGOs need to compete with the marketing budgets of the likes of Unilever, Sky, Microsoft, Sainbury’s and NatWest (to name a few of the COP26 ‘principal partners’ as listed on the COP26 website). In my view, these dynamics fanned the flames of cynicism and accusations of greenwashing that permeated the streets, and contributed to a growing sense of distrust in the official negotiation process.

Following this thread, I was given a Corona (the beer, not the virus) branded refillable drink bottle at a Green Zone event on ‘Strengthening Parliamentary Consensus for Global Change’. I attended the Green Zone on varying days and on two separate occasions I had a few rolled up A3 ‘Stop Ecocide International’ signs (a civil society organisation working towards making ecocide an international crime) and a small piece of Redwood no longer than my forearm confiscated from my bag at security check on the way in. That a beer brand was able to ‘sponsor’ an all-party UK parliamentary group discussion on climate change, yet a rolled up piece of paper displaying the name of an environmental NGO and a small piece of wood carried as a physical representation of the Earth’s life sustaining forests were deemed too risky even to remain in my backpack, seemed a neat summary of the bizarre reality we find ourselves in — of a system so tied up in conflicts of interest and perverse incentives that we can no longer see the wood from the trees.

I feel privileged to sit at the Earth’s table for my short lifespan, and I am stubbornly carrying with me a vision for future COPs where the majority of those on the sponsor and guest list represent not only diverse stakeholders, cultures and generations, but the voices of the rivers, the rocks, the mighty Oaks, the mother Yews, the Redwoods, the whales, robins, flies, serpents, bears and the Arctic wolves. A vision of COPs so awash with ‘green’ as to be truly (not ironically) ‘greenwashed’ spaces.

4. The essence of leadership is evolving in step with a crowd sourced future.

For me, the most resonant voices at COP26 were the Indigenous representatives, women and youth activists who spoke up for their communities, other life forms, future generations, and the Earth. They were authentic, honest, created space for others and spoke truth to power at a personal cost.

As CEOs and senior managers are forced to reckon with the disconnect between their own marketing spin and their children’s futures, in Glasgow I witnessed the seeds of a new leadership style for the 2020s. One where being a leader means stepping into a support role (or stepping aside), being of service, openly admitting mistakes, acting with integrity, honesty and transparency, and holding space for those voices that have been missing from the table.

The leaders I wish to support through this decade and beyond are those that recognise the importance of diverse and place-based perspectives, facilitated decision making processes, and collaborative and direct forms of participation in order to crowd source inclusive paths forward in an increasingly complex world.

5. Being on the COP guest list does not guarantee access or visibility.

The work of the COP26 Coalition in Glasgow focussed on issues of accessibility and visibility, including the implications of vaccine inequality, visa discrimination, the cost of travel and accommodation and the dominance of the English language in precluding participation by and representation of the most affected people and areas, predominantly from the Global South. Although many Indigenous and frontline speakers facing these hurdles were able to nevertheless participate in panels and talks remotely via zoom, they were denied the networking opportunities and other benefits that result from being physically present at a gathering of this type. In addition to these macro barriers, the nature of the event itself was not conducive to participation by children and elders, two of the living generations with the most at stake, and the most wisdom to offer, in navigating the path forwards. Those who are neurodivergent, or have physical or invisible impairments, faced additional challenges in seeking to attend. I left with the stark realisation that even in a United Nations led multilateral framework such as the UNFCCC, all states and peoples are far from equal.

I also questioned whether my own presence in Glasgow was warranted, or whether by attending I was taking space (and scarce accommodation) from someone more qualified and / or affected. Who was I to participate, even if mostly limited to the fringe events and street actions? And how can I use my privilege to create platforms and open doors for those most vulnerable to the changing climate in a way that is not tokenistic or perpetuating systems of oppression and othering?

I do not have a background in climate science, environmental law or social justice but, possessing the willingness to listen, learn and contribute, I went ahead and invited myself to be part of the growing movement for Climate Justice in Glasgow. I have no regrets, and I hope more of my peers will step into the arena over the coming years. Anyone reading this who has access to traditional seats of power and funding networks has the potential to generate immeasurable impact through identifying and building bridges between those with unmet and urgent needs, and those with excess and available resources.

6. Language, words and experience matter.

I’m not a linguist or an anthropologist, but I understand that language is at the centre of culture, and culture is at the centre of the multiple social and environmental crises we face. Through their programme of events, the COP26 Coalition sought to highlight wider issues of language justice; including the connection between language diversity and ecological diversity as a driver for protecting traditional knowledge, the corollary between linguistic and ecological extinction, and barriers to access and expression resulting from a predominantly English speaking conference.

Words are powerful, and in global forums and movements for social change words are signals that potentially carry long reaching consequences. Despite the dawning of the age of an information superhighway, humanity has recently experienced the impacts of multiple crises of communication, including in relation to the failure to bring about popular consensus on the need (or ways) to address the root causes of anthropogenic climate change over successive decades. The impact of words loomed large over the final days of negotiation between the conference parties in Glasgow, with finer details of the Coal Statement in the Glasgow Climate Pact watered down at the last minute (e.g. “phasing down” rather than “out” coal). With demand for coal predicted to reach a new peak in 2022 (as noted above) and carbon budgets depleting daily, a one word loophole that changes the goalpost from eradication to reduction in coal production and export means everything — embedding economic, technological and development incentives that will potentially fix many communities on a navigational path akin to the Titanic’s maiden journey.

The importance of words also became evident in terms of shaping the narratives for change within the Climate Justice movement and broader calls for a ‘just transition’. I heard some Indigenous representatives calling for the political process to focus on emphasising the recognition or simply the acknowledgment of rights (for both frontline communities and nature), rather than claims for justice, since ‘rights’ are inherent and fundamental, whereas ‘justice’ implies an element of bestowal. This argument resonated with me and perhaps the general discourse will evolve over time to be more reflective of a rights based approach. Drawing a parallel, there may be learnings to be taken from the current introspection in the development sector more generally, where I understand there is a move from the language of paternalism to a recognition of the equal standing and contribution of local communities, wherever they may be.

Language and words matter. As does felt experience. And phrases such as ‘biodiversity loss’ and ‘sixth mass extinction’ are hollow and meaningless without a deeper, somatic awareness of their impact. To me, Indigenous representatives, estimated to be guardians for over 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity, speak for and articulate the felt experience of the Earth and her other life forms at this critical turning point, and their voices in this respect reverberated loudly in my ears at COP26. The challenge for those of us who have grown up in cities and cultures that have become artificially separated from the soil, the land, the elements, and ultimately the source of life, is to remember how to feel and listen in this way again.

I am conscious also of the importance of words and language in passing on information and sharing thoughts and experiences with people beyond those already involved in the movement, often having vastly diverse backgrounds and priorities. To me, this is one of the greatest challenges to overcome in order to generate meaningful progress. On a more personal note, I struggle to adequately express the depth of the grief I have started feeling as the extent of the devastation inflicted on our environment and Indigenous communities has started to slowly dawn on me, but also the awe, wonder and possibilities for reconnection with our shared Motherland, that I believe are open and available to all.

In the aftermath of COP26, I am continuing to be cognisant of what blind spots may be inherent in my native English language, the impact of the words I choose and use, and the experiences I seek out. I am contemplating the ways in which my language, words and lived experience to date might be preventing me from being a better caretaker of this beautiful planet.

7. Where the Arts meet activism, sparks fly.

Some of the most memorable moments during my time in Glasgow were inspired by the Arts. I felt my Scottish ancestry as the bagpipes rumbled at the COP26 Coalition’s opening ceremony, marched to the beat of the XR samba band during the Youth and Global Day of Action protests, witnessed the storytelling of pilgrims who listened to the land as they journeyed hundreds of miles by foot to be in Glasgow, felt tingles as Martha Tilston and Nick Mulvey sang to the Earth by an open fire at Kelburn Castle, watched in bemusement as a construction themed clowning troop wheelbarrowed tea and biscuits through a greenwashing protest, was prompted by a photography exhibition at the Centre of Contemporary Arts to contemplate the different ‘uniforms’ I and others wear in the various silos of our lives, sat silently as cellist Emily Burridge played her composition ‘Into the Amazon’ inspired by the Xavante people of Brazil, and went to ‘church’ at Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir’s performance of ‘Earth Riot’.

The contributions of performers, artists, singers, poets and musicians moved me the most at COP26, and I was reminded that the Arts are a foundation stone of society, holding the key to shift the overarching narratives of our time. As Reverend Billy would say, Earth-alleluia to that!

8. There is life and adventure in the learning journey.

I’m almost ashamed to admit I had a lot of fun during the fortnight, although the many highs, laughs, inspired and bizarre moments were interspersed with frustration, despair, disbelief and tears. And I do not wish to make light of the sobering fact that, for many participants, attendance represented a matter of urgent, existential significance, for the land, language, culture, food, water, and life of their peoples.

The COP26 experience was enriched for me through relational learning with others — old friends, new friends, and an ‘unofficial’ delegation of students from Schumacher College, each of whom brought a different perspective and helped me to navigate the streets and schedule, more deeply digest what I was hearing and observing, and remain grounded in a systemic and ecological lens. The inter-weaving of conversations and insights was constant — over meals, during volunteer shifts, standing in the seemingly endless queues to march and bumping into each other between events. Feeling part of a group that increased in interconnectedness over the two weeks showed me the power of shared experience, and of the need to intentionally co-create the journey towards, as well as the vision for, alternative futures. Despite all that will be irretrievably lost and the scale of the challenges that lay ahead, those I encountered in Glasgow demonstrated to me the joy and satisfaction to be found in imagining and co-creating new ways of living and being.

9. Climate activism takes many forms, and there is a part for everyone.

I am not a member of a climate or other ‘activist’ group, and the thought of getting arrested in an act of civil disobedience is well beyond my current edge. Attending some of the street protests and actions around Glasgow were not natural or comfortable spaces for me to inhabit. However, I learnt as much from marching on the streets and getting lost in protests as I did from sitting in at workshops and panel discussions.

Through a chance encounter running a volunteer errand, I met a staff member of an NGO called Not1More which supports at-risk frontline environmental defenders. Our subsequent conversation focussed my attention on the level of violence inflicted upon environmental and social activists around the world (including in the UK), and the personal risk and cost many are taking in standing up for the rights of their communities, the environment, and of future generations.

I have heard many criticisms levelled at Greta Thunberg, but what is not often acknowledged is the depth of her courage, in the face of death threats, in continuing to use her platform to speak on behalf of her generation, those most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate, and the Earth. I learnt, for example, that Greta was only able to participate in the Global Day of Action march with an extensive guard of protection, organised with the help of the COP26 Coalition. And yet possessing citizenship of a western democracy and visibility, she has the benefit of circumstances not afforded to many other activists and Earth defenders, particularly those from Indigenous and frontline communities. As Adivasi Indigenous youth activist Alice Barwa pointed out at the final Movement Assembly facilitated by the COP26 Coalition, those in the Global South have been ‘invisibilised’ and do not have the privilege to romanticise or even openly protest due to the risks and consequences of doing so. A recent article in The Guardian brought this home, highlighting that ‘at least 1,005 environmental and land rights defenders have been murdered since the Paris accords were signed six years ago’.

I also learnt there are many different ways to support those on the frontlines of protests and actions for the Climate Justice movement. Some of these (notably specific to my experience in Glasgow) include training to be a legal observer, making financial donations to supporting organisations such as the COP26 Coalition or Not1More, providing food and logistics support, volunteering as a steward, and providing medical aid or accommodation through homestay networks. I acknowledge the mixed reporting of and public reactions to recent civil disobedience actions by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain in the UK. For my part, I am in deep gratitude for the work of and risks taken by these fellow humans, which they do and take on behalf of all of us.

Finally, I recognise that there are also many advocates on the inside of business and governmental and multilateral institutions, pushing boundaries and doing what they can in trojan horse style to support the movement within the constraints of legal frameworks, market forces, professional obligations and other bureaucratic hurdles.

In Glasgow, I learnt that by supporting each other in seemingly small ways, we are contributing to and building momentum for a unified, global movement for Climate Justice. Everyone is needed; and everyone has a part to play.

10. Our elders are our wisdom keepers, and their presence is paramount.

As has been a consistent theme in my life over the last few years, those from whom I learnt the most during my time in Glasgow were elders of the movement. As mentioned above, the structure and nature of the event (as with many other spaces in modern society) created many barriers to access, and COP26 was poorer for the lack of participation by more such persons. However, despite this, I was fortunate enough to spend time in the presence of some of the original Greenham Common Women, Mac Macartney, author and founder of Embercombe, and my hosts in Paisley, Roisin and Duncan, local community elders and peace activists. The insights gained by these interactions, and examples of lives lived simply, fully and meaningfully in service to something greater, expanded the container of possibility for how I wish to continue to narrow the gap between my values and the way I live my life going forwards.

I have learnt from elders that there is no substitute for lived experience, the embodiment of one’s values, the perspective that comes with age, and the wisdom that can only be accumulated over decades of commitment to what Thomas Berry calls the ‘Great Work’. Post COP26, I continue to carry a vision for a future where elders of the movement are invited and actively present in all spaces where we gather locally and globally to make collective decisions impacting young and future generations. To me, their presence and insight are invaluable and make our communities whole.

11. Holding on to what matters after the return to ‘business as usual’ is key.

My experience at COP26 felt like a kind of baptism by fire and what I learnt and observed there has the potential to be lifechanging, but only if I choose to actually change my life.

It’s complex; but it’s simple. The continuation of the disconnected and consumer driven way of life we have become accustomed to in the Global North equals the continued increase in frequency of floods, drought, famine, water insecurity, soil erosion, deforestation, ocean acidification, species extinction, pollution and war, and ultimately a loss of land, language, culture and life, for those communities on the frontline. Vulnerable state communities are already suffering from the worst impacts of a changing climate; and sooner or later, we will all fall within the ‘MAPA’ designation of ‘most affected people and areas’.

In the fringe and on the streets of Glasgow, I experienced the people’s COP26. Thousands journeyed from all over the world to be together to co-create a multitude of pathways forward that honour the grassroots movement for Climate Justice. It is impossible to place a value on or quantify the potential butterfly effect of all the connections made and seeds of systemic change planted. However, I left with hope, and the knowledge that a growing group of extraordinary humans are mobilising towards interconnected visions for diverse, inclusive and localised futures.

To quote Paul Hawken, ‘If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart.’

Postscript! These thoughts reflect my experiences, observations and conversations in Glasgow, participating for the most part in Green Zone and fringe events and spaces at COP26 and from the position of someone that has grown up with the privileges afforded to many in the Global North. As such, they will no doubt be incongruent with the experience of other attendees and full of assumptions, blind spots, and awkward turns of phrase as a result of the filtering that comes from my position still near the starting line of a new and challenging re-education process. In any event, I share my reflections in the spirit of being a beginner, taking responsibility, embracing a willingness to make mistakes, to wrangle with complexity, and continue to explore ways that I can make a small contribution to support the collective movement for change.

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Earthling.

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Thea Connolly

Thea Connolly

Earthling.

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