By Chaïm De Mulder – PUSH Sweden delegation at COP26
(This blog post was previously published in Swedish on the blog of Klimatriksdagen, you can find the original post here)
COP26 is over, and I was there. I was there when the leaders of the world were taking decisions that will influence the future possibilities of me and millions of other young people to live a good life. What an opportunity to learn, to have an impact, to meet important and interesting people. Now that the conference is over, I’m gladly sharing some of my reflections, based on my own experience and on conversations I had at the conference with other like-minded youth.
First of all, I would like to echo what some of my PUSH-colleagues that participated during the first week of the conference already wrote earlier: a first COP is an incredibly overwhelming experience. Tens, almost hundreds of meetings or workshops taking place at the same time and tens of thousands of people hurrying through the halls of the massive venue create a continuous feeling of having missed something interesting or important. Prioritizing is key if you want to get something out of the whole thing.
When I in the introduction wrote that ‘I was there’, that doesn’t actually mean that I was in the room when the decisions were taken. The UNFCCCs process does not allow that, at least not in the way it should. True, part of the negotiations is open to so-called observers (which we with PUSH Sweden are), but a part is not, and the different parties sitting at the negotiation table can always request a meeting to be closed to observers. The meetings taking place during the last days of the conference, when ministers take over from diplomats, are always closed. The only thing that is left in that phase is a scared waiting for the publication of a next version of a proposed decision text and a quick check of the text itself and of social media to see other NGO’s opinions. If you’re lucky, you have contacts on the inside that you can send demands and suggestions for an improved text to. We were indeed lucky, and our inputs were appreciated, according to the reactions we received. We can only hope they helped to arrive at the decision texts we have now, instead of something even worse. In any case, not a very good impression for a process that is supposed to be as democratic as possible.
When I wrote that COP26 was a chance to meet important and interesting people on the other hand, I was serious. First and foremost, it was the first time I got to physically meet other PUSH-members that I had been working together with for over a year. What a great feeling to finally be able to meet and have those conversations that there usually is no room for in Zoom-calls. There was talk on smaller and larger things, with the ever-returning conclusion that we need ‘system change, not climate change’.
During the different meet-ups with other Swedish youth, arranged by the two Swedish youth representatives, we had the chance to ask critical, detailed, technical and even slightly philosophical questions to the Swedish politicians and negotiators on site. Each time, I was positively surprised by their openness to listen to us and discuss. Sometimes, the answers we got to our questions were a bit evasive, as it often goes when talking to politicians, but I still learned a whole lot on how the negotiation process works, what role Sweden and the EU play and what lobbying work looks like.
When I’m writing that I had to opportunity to learn, that includes both the technical UNFCCC process as well as an increased awareness of the climate crisis across the world. From a purely organizational perspective, I found it very interesting to discover which working groups (or other bodies) there are within the UNFCCC, how a decision text is actually negotiated and how different topics relate to each other. If I ever go to a COP again, this week has given me a lot more insight and more self-confidence that will help me to do a better job then.
One of the most difficult but also enriching things I did during my week at COP was to talk to youth from the Global South. Their personal testimonies made clear that the climate crisis has not only come to Europe, where the impact is already large, but also is a daily reality for countries in which paying for economic and social losses is not as easily done as here. Unfortunately, exactly this kind payment was a difficult point at COP26, and financing for so called loss and damage was not agreed upon in a decision text. Many NGOs (amongst others CAN International) see this as a big disappointment and the main reason to label COP26 as a failure.
It is often said that these big climate conferences like COP don’t make a difference, that the processes are too slow and too complex. After one week at my first COP, I partially agree, and I believe a lot of others do too. Many people at COP know that the process is not working as it should be, many criticize it, many are frustrated about it, some even despise it. But participating in this international process is the only choice we have. The climate conferences of the UNFCCC are the only international platform that allows the world’s civil society to gather and fight for climate justice. It is the only platform that allows to bring together those who caused this crisis and those who pay the highest price, the perpetrator and the perpetrated, the colonizer and the colonized, those who extract and those who lose their land, their homes and their families to foresee in the luxury of the rich (that is, our luxury).
The choice between being an activist within or outside of the system is, I think, a choice that almost every activist has struggled or is struggling with. The answer of course depends on what you feel most comfortable with and very often on how you think you can have the most impact to accelerate the so desperately needed transition. The thing I realized at COP is that the reason to participate in a big UN climate conference, to put pressure on politicians, to talk to family, friends and colleagues about the transition, to convince your employer to do better, to participate in a protest out on the streets or to be arrested during an action of civil disobedience is always the same: not doing it is not an option. I am writing this as a white male living in Sweden. Read the sentence again and imagine you are living on an island in the Pacific that is already slowly flooding. Or that you are a farmer in Africa whose land looks more like a desert every year. Or that you are a part of South-America’s indigenous people, whose land and lifestyle are under daily threat by the system that has caused the climate crisis. Our fight is for them rather than for ourselves.