Reflections on the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021

My first time traveling since Covid-19 pandemic was to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow, November 2021. It was also my first time at the COP, so I was absorbing a lot of new understanding even while being part of the small delegation of researchers and scientists sent by World Resources Institute to help support data-informed negotiations as best possible.  

Sitting at the Jamaica delegation zone in the main Plenary Hall, COP26, Glasgow 2021

The first thing I noticed about the COP is that there are concentric circles of activity around the conference itself. While there are tens of thousands of activists, students, and protesters chanting all day outside of the conference, as you make your way further and further inside to the quiet negotiation rooms, the energy tapers off significantly. The process of negotiation is highly political, and highly procedural. I have come away with a much clearer understanding of how the process works and why exactly it is so slow at delivering action. It makes one question whether political processes can ever truly be the mechanism for delivering justice at a global scale.  

On the upside I saw many examples of groups and coalitions making local, incremental change outside of the political process. The circle of donors, investors, institutions, non-profit organizations, and civil society platforms which convene in a circle around the negotiations – called the blue zone – are far more energetic and quite powerful indeed, and many major pledges and announcements were made from this space over the few short days. These included more than 23 commitments to phase out coal, the Clean Energy Demand Initiative, the Glasgow Finance Alliance for Net Zero, the Global Methane Pledge, the Global Energy Alliance for People and the Planet, the Green Hydrogen Catapult, the Green Grids Initiative, the public announcement of the Energy Transition Council, and many more.

While inspiring, I did feel that even these spaces were still laced with exclusivity, patronizing of the global south experience, and the very same profit-seeking growthism ideology that has landed us in this spate of compounding ecological crises in the first place. It reminded me of how far removed those actually on the front lines of ecological collapse are from these spaces, and from the notions of “solution” that determine our global response.

Speaking at the live taping of Outrage and Optimism Podcast at COP26, accompanied by Raj Shah (CEO Rockefeller Foundation), Andrew Steer (CEO Bezos Earth Fund), and Per Heggenes (CEO Ikea Foundation)

Finally, outside of these spaces is the biggest concentric circle – the circle of “the people”. This is where a fever-pitch energy can be felt. There were ingenious activist demonstrations and many heart-felt moments of humanity coming together here – young people, indigenous peoples, and activists who came from miles away were marching and chanting, demanding faster progress from those on the inside. This was a very hopeful space to be in, but I noticed that even ironically, activists from the global south – who represent those that will be most grossly impacted by climate change – clearly get the least air time and stage time to be heard. It made me wonder whether youth activism in itself is unintentionally becoming yet another space of privilege and exclusion, despite the message of solidarity.

As you can see, though there were many high-points, I came away from the COP very concerned about the mechanisms that govern global climate response. Because while I was attending the conference, comfortably in Glasgow I kept thinking of the heart wrenching, devastating images I had last watched on the news at home in Kenya before traveling. We were in the midst of a severe drought, with water rationing even in Nairobi, the capital. Images of frail mothers and unnaturally tiny babies, of weathered herdsmen and their thin camels in Marsabit county of the North, walking days in search of water and finding none kept coming to me. For these African mothers and children, climate change is not a future scenario that maps neatly on a graph. It is yesterday’s scenario and today’s search for survival. I felt that – ironically and disappointingly – these are the voices completely absent from the dialogue.

COP27 comes to Africa next year. I am going to give my best at WRI Africa to ensure that our communities are represented and heard and engaged. We must confront these real challenges together, working not on behalf of, but with, those African mothers and herders and farmers. Because at the end of the day, it is they who have the final say on whether we are successful in these efforts.  

Speaking at the COP 26 Resilience Hub, Glasgow 2021