What COP26 Means for LA-C Climate Activists

Image: COP26

How are climate activists collaborating to redefine the rules of established climate governance systems? Maria Azul Schvartzman, a climate activist from Argentina who was selected to attend COY15 and COP25, speaks to four individuals from the Latin American and Caribbean region on their motivations and goals for the upcoming year.

Following the disappointment of COP25 and life being put on hold by the pandemic, the momentum surrounding the climate movement in 2019 has degraded. This year, however, offers a greater promise of action for climate ambitions. COP26, held this year in Glasgow, has seen activists from around the world organise international negotiations, calling for greater climate ambition and a new focus on climate justice. The Conferences of the Parties, better known as COPs, are the governing body of certain international conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention to Combat Desertification, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Such conventions help to set expectations within the climate sphere and can be defined as on the biggest events of the year regarding climate change.

Available to an exclusive set of people, the events are only accessible to the parties (government officials of each signing country), UNFCCC Secretariat staff, accredited press and civil society observers. Understood amongst both the environmental and youth movement, such events are a key advocacy space with the possibility to engage with authoritative figures to give visibility to crucial topics and agendas. Postponed as a result of the pandemic, COP26 is set to take place in nine months-time. Ahead of the event, I spoke to Valentina Prada and Emiliana Rickenmann, both from Colombia, O’neil Leadon, from The Bahamas, and Charles Baldaia, from Brazil on their hopes for the upcoming convention.

Actions from the ground up

Heralding from the same region, these four activists are invested in climate action and are all working in some way to promote climate justice. Actions, rather than simply words, are at the forefront of their discussions; each working to make the promise of inclusivity at this year’s COP a reality.

Valentina and Emiliana are both co-founders of Latinas for Climate, an international network of young Latin American female activists. This year, they have joined forces with an organization called EmpoderacClima to try to organise their journey to COP26. “The idea would be for the Latinas4Climate team to be able to travel to Glasgow, and also to start looking for these territorial leaderships and bring these voices to COP as well. The project with Empoderaclima aims to amplify the participation in the COP of Latinxs voices. Understanding that the concept of Latinidad is wide and complex, it is key that we start to look for these people who have been fighting this fight for a long time and are also the ones already facing the consequences of the climate crisis.”

Image: MAPA

O’neil has been working on a digital campaign that seeks to amplify voices of the most affected people by the climate crisis. “In the lead up to COP26, I have been a part of some eye-opening initiatives, one being the Pass the Mic campaign. Its objective is for influential figures, celebrities, influencers, brands and corporations to pass the mic to MAPA activists, people of color, indigenous people, people on the front lines and so on. In short, it is for people or brands to lend their platforms and their following to people and causes that should be put in the spotlight. It is about removing the third-party discourse and instead speaking for ourselves.”

Charles is working with a group of people who go under the name of Unite for Climate Action to bring unheard voices to COP26. “We are still in the planning phase but the idea is clear: to bring those of us who have been systematically left out of these spaces to COP26. If we manage to go to Glasgow, it is our hope that the parties and the UNFCCC secretariat will hear our voices.”

COP26, November 2021

We began the discussion with our expectations for COP26, with each expressing the urgency of this year’s event. “I think this year’s COP is going to be a completely different experience than the previous ones, since the expectations are extremely high. I think in November things could turn out really well or really bad,” says Valentina.

Her fears are in reaction to the idea that this year’s conference could be somewhat incomplete. “Now is the moment to not only to think about the climate crisis but also to start addressing the issue of climate justice. It is also THE moment, after the damage of the ongoing pandemic, for parties to start looking for solutions and concrete actions instead of simply proposals and empty words.” She also hopes that 2021 serves as the year in which we as a society leave negationism aside and face the realities of our global situation.

According to Charles, the COP26 organising team has adopted the mandate to make this the most inclusive event as of yet. Acknowledging the requirement of actions over words, he says, “it is an overly ambitious task, as the international field in general is very homogeneous. The environmental field specifically, even though more progressive than other discussion spaces, is still reserved for Global South countries that are predominantly whiter and more privileged. The UN has long been aware of the situation and while it has been talking about the necessity of better inclusivity in recent years, these words are rarely translated into action. For instance, COP25’s change of location from Chile to Spain meant those from marginalised communities who had planned on attending, like myself, couldn’t afford the plane fare and very few of us received scholarships to attend.”

Emiliana reflected about the comparability of the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic: “I think COP26 will be very different, because it will be the first one in the context of the pandemic. Even though it’s clear that the crises are different, I think there are several touching points – one being the lack of belief at the magnitude of the crisis and the denialism that surrounded the pandemic. Many governments have been criticised for not acting quickly enough.” She goes on to compare such behaviour as with the climate crisis. “The pandemic should teach us that we have to act now, because if we act late, it will be disastrous, especially for people that are already vulnerable.”

This is a thought echoed by O’neil: “This year I want to see if everyone is going to put their money where our mouths are. During 2020 we had a lot of talk about intersectionality and the amplification of voices.”

Images: Latinas for Climate

UNFCCC Processes: Inclusivity and Uncertainty

How, then, can UNFCCC processes be more inclusive and representative? For O’neil, inclusivity begins in making the event accessible to the public. “I’ve learned more in the last year from the Sail for Climate Action and Building Bridges for Climate Action projects (and the people involved in them) than from any kind of formal document.

Such experiences are extremely beneficial to our understanding of the movement.  I think it’s beyond time that our voices are really heard, not via a third-party or through the mouth of someone else. I want to be there, I want to see people like me there and I want to hear what they have to say. I want our messages to be understood and to be delivered with no intermediaries.”

Valentina agrees on the assessment that UNFCCC processes are not inclusive, highlighting that even though there have been efforts in recent years, they are not enough. “Latin American youth representation is evident in these spaces, though only those with privilege. And even then, there are not enough of them. Our continent is very diverse, and unfortunately this translates into the diverse array of environmental problems we face.” She goes on to discuss the roles in which such attendees play, often occupying a space within the social media industry as opposed to any leadership roles. “We, as a collective, need to make a bigger effort to look for and bring grassroots leaders and people working in territory to these conversations. They may not have the same social presence but ultimately, are the ones facing the consequences and also taking the most action in the face of the climate crisis.”

The conversation on privilege extends to that of education, with O’neil, Valentina and Charles questioning the selection process for delegates. Experience, voice the activists, over academic experience should be of greater significance and would allow for a more meritocratic representation. Language is another element of exclusivity within the event. The English language skills often required for the awarding of a scholarship means those missing such an education remain unviable candidates. “As a consequence, only privileged people are selected. In our regions, being fluent in a language other than your mother tongue is highly unusual. If interpreters were the norm and not the exception, the event could be open to a much wider audience.”

How then is the representation of cities and territories being affected? “The climate crisis was not born out of the youth movement in 2018/19, it has been around for a long time and there are people in the territories that have been fighting for the cause for years. But representation of such communities is far and few between, rather it is the representatives from the cities with the voice.” Navigating such disparity again comes down to the inclusivity of such events. “Not everything can be done from a centralist perspective, it is disjointed from the territories. To give a concrete example, I live in Bogotá and even though I understand a bit what is happening in the Colombian countryside, I know I don’t comprehend it with enough depth. Now if you were to talk to someone who lives there, I am sure they could give you a much clearer perspective of how things are and can probably contribute ideas and solutions that benefit their community.”

Image: O'neil for Sail for Climate Action

“The climate crisis is much broader than just one problem. If we want to reach real and inclusive solutions, then fostering inclusivity should be at the core of these events; otherwise the agreements and rulebooks negotiated will not be taking into account the views and needs of the people affected the most by this crisis” adds Emiliana. “There is still this narrative that we are fighting for a future, but I think it is time we start realizing that we are fighting for the present. When politicians and decision makers don’t grasp this and keep saying we have time till 2030 or 2050, they showcase that they can’t incarnate the urgency of the problem. If the people who are really already living the climate crisis first-hand were an active part of these conversations, bolder actions would be taken.”

Charles expanded on this concept of temporary solutions that aren’t urgent enough. “A lot of missions have been sent to favelas, quilombos and indigenous communities to try and help with the environmental situation there. At the end of the day, however, these NGOs, government officials and individuals, return home and we are left in the same position as always.” As a black man, living in a favela, studying international relationships and aspiring diplomat, he has reflected on this many times in his life. “To have a proper field vision of vulnerable communities and to spot what is actually useful and needs to be done, we need people from inside the communities. If you are coming from outside eager to help, please really listen to us first. The end game for true change is to put people from these communities in decision making spaces so we can take concrete action and bring proper solutions to our communities. But a good first step is really listening to what people are saying and demanding.”

Our conversation leads me to the conclusion that if we want governments to take ambitious measures in the context of the climate crisis, it is necessary to include more voices in all decision-making processes. For their part, these young climate activists, despite 2021’s continued uncertainties, have clear objectives, a roadmap, and great desire to change the status quo once and for all. I hope we can all meet in Glasgow by the end of the year and continue these important conversations face to face.