When the news came, I was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, heading for Santiago de Chile for the 25th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP). At that point, our crew of European students, young professionals and climate activists had traveled some 6000 km from the Netherlands aboard the Regina Maris sailing ship. We were on a journey that we had carefully planned to push for bolder action on the environmental and social costs of Europe’s travel industry. But on 30 October 2019, after a month at sea, our plans crumbled when Chile withdrew as host of the summit. By the time we learned that the event would be moved to Madrid, we knew we could not sail back there in time.
That abrupt crisis compelled us to rethink how to achieve our goals: to alert, inform and spark change on the impact of aviation on our planet. Insights from my personal experiences on that ocean journey nearly two years ago have parallels with my work now with another crew: this time, with our SEI research team that is examining how to rethink the climate negotiation processes in ways that can deliver, particularly for people who are, in effect, stranded outside the process.
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust climate diplomacy into a crisis. Well-laid plans are no longer viable.
“The success of future COP sessions will depend on gaining the trust of people like you and me.”
This crisis goes beyond the pandemic itself. For years, the annual climate summits have been criticized as no longer being the kinds of events that can achieve the aims of the Paris Agreement. Participants who manage to obtain the exclusive badge that opens the doors to negotiation rooms often come away shocked by the presence of polluting companies and disillusioned by the sluggishness and hypocrisy of some countries. To follow, interpret and influence what is taking place requires decoding expertise. Net-zero targets offer a case in point. They seem promising at first glance, but when experts examine the fine print, they question the feasibility of these targets and note the lack of short-term commitments to achieve them.
To steer change, the climate negotiations processes must themselves change. In the crisis of this moment, there is an opportunity to do things differently, as demonstrated by the preparatory UN climate negotiations that began in late May 2021 – conducted digitally for the first time.
SEI’s Online Climate Negotiations project is exploring ways to rethink the processes and use digital technology to deliver on objectives. Though many have already addressed particulars of Zoom diplomacy and the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow in November, we take a longer view. Our project looks well beyond the pandemic and into the longer-term future of climate diplomacy itself.
“The one group that should not be forgotten is civil society – and I mean here ordinary people, those who will never go to COP sessions, but whose future is being decided through these events.”
Any changes in the process of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will face hurdles, and the political and diplomatic barriers may be tougher to surmount than the technological ones. However, negotiations themselves are not static. Challenges evolve, the nature of interactions change.
The success of the Paris Agreement depends on gaining the trust of people like you and me. Through my work training young people to engage with climate negotiations, I observe new and growing levels of frustration and anger from civil society whose messages are ignored. I see no genuine political interest in the two existing engagement measures: the Action for Climate Empowerment (on education, training and empowerment of civil society) or the Marrakech Partnership (to promote cooperation and commitment of non-state actors). Even as the May–June 2021 Climate Change Conference began as a test for future online activities, some parties continued to cultivate mistrust. It says something when observers are asked to leave negotiations on the subject of transparency.
At the same time, disruption is a powerful lever for change.
Aboard the Regina Maris, when the word from Chile came, we adapted. We carried on in a new way, more determined than ever to get our message across and to hold our decision makers accountable for their inaction.
We sailed on, landing on the Caribbean coast. All the while, we broadcast news of our predicament through our social media channels. We asked others to help us wherever they were. People responded. We recruited many more young people in Europe who were willing to join our fight and carry our message. We supported many people who experienced the climate talks for the first time. Though we were thousands of kilometres away, our outreach prompted others to hand out our specific proposals to members of the European Parliament in person. Recent efforts in Europe to boost train travel over flying show that our mission is still very much alive and beginning to gain traction.
If anything, by using technology, my voice was that much louder. I recognize that my story was only possible because I have so many privileges of education, financial stability and digital access. I know that switching to online media may still exclude many. However, the experience has made me realize that virtual tools are powerful and that their use should be spread – deliberately and massively – to popularize the content of the conversation held at COP sessions and to make them as accessible as possible. Anyone should be able to be part of these important discussions and engage in what will inevitably be a long and tumultuous journey towards climate accountability.