I am so grateful that I got to experience COP for the first time with the Climate Action Cohort, knowing that we all shared our Students On Ice experience together, and our orientation experience in May of 2019. We missed everyone who wasn’t able to attend but I think we’re all so looking forward to working together in the upcoming year to mentor the next cohort!
Before heading to Madrid for 2 weeks, I wrote down some questions for myself on things I wanted to learn from COP. In previous years, I’ve always read about COP from an outsider’s perspective, following coverage by news outlets, and social media coverage from those on the ground, including friends. International climate policy and the decision-making process seemed so distant and opaque, and I was excited to finally find out how it all actually worked.
On the way home from COP, I was trying to think of whether I was able to answer my questions, and I was, for the most part. But the more I thought about it, especially in context that many of the priorities governments had identified going into this year’s conference were not achieved, I realized that the most important things I learned had little to do with my original questions. Below are two excerpts, from my journal entry on December 1st and December 17th. I hope they show how an opportunity to experience something like COP with a flexible and open-minded approach, as the Climate Action Cohort program encouraged us to, can lead to even better learning than you can predict.
(Dec 1) The main things I want to learn at COP:
- How are priorities decided? Two weeks is a long time, but knowing how many countries need to reach consensus or compromise, it also feels like an incredibly short time to work on the greatest challenge of our time.
- How do negotiations work? How do countries communicate with each other during the conference? Who makes the final call?
- Knowing that over 20,000 people attend each COP and not everyone is involved in the negotiations, how does everyone else influence what happens in the official negotiations?
(Dec 17) What I (actually) learned at COP:
- Progress towards climate action occurs in starts and stops, and leadership isn’t limited to negotiation rooms. Despite thinking that COP was an opportunity about to be around and observe the “real” decision-makers on climate change, I came away from COP realizing that leadership and change had been happening all around me, even if there was relatively little progress at the highest levels. Indigenous climate activists and organizations, young people, and many representatives from developing states and marginalized communities are not only setting the compass for where we need to go, and holding governments and industry accountable to their responsibilities, but they are actively implementing solutions in their communities. And they often keep going despite changes in political cycles, building institutional and community memory for long-term sustained progress. Mobilizing resources, time and energy to support community work and grassroots action is as important for climate action as advocating for global policy change.
- Apart from the negotiations, COP is an important space for young people, civil society leaders, researchers, and storytellers to convene and build meaningful solidarity, overcoming geographic barriers that might never allow them to meet otherwise. They can identify common challenges, share best practices, mobilize resources where it’s most needed, and plan collaborative projects.
- The opportunity to form real, face-to-face relationships is important. Especially for issues that are not receiving enough attention inside negotiations, like food systems and land use (which is the issue I was following), it can feel isolating for those who are trying to amplify that issue. One of the most valuable parts of the past two weeks for me was finding allies, potential mentors, and friends that I can reach out to and learn with.
- Where’s the music and the joy? The session led by the SustainUS Indigenous youth delegation involved singing, movement, and poetry, and I realized it left me extra shaken up and joyful after because I had so disconnected from that side of my brain and heart in response to the rest of COP, which can be so formal. We really can’t discount the role of experiencing joy and healing together during climate action, even (or especially?) in spaces like COP where it can feel out of place.
I’m still processing and I’m excited to figure out how to turn what I learned at COP into action here at home in Vancouver. Thank you to Students on Ice, Youth Climate Lab, and the Lawson Foundation for making this experience possible!