Dr Sandra Engstrom, Lecturer in Social Work, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling
As a first-time attendee to a COP event, I knew it would be large and somewhat overwhelming (especially as we are still in the pandemic) but nothing really prepared me for the scale of the event or how it would run. I did not have to deal with too many line ups as I would go early enough to get through the various security gates and then pause with a cup of coffee to plan my day. The main schedule of meetings would not be released until each morning so combined with the other schedules of presentations and meetings from the side events, action hubs and pavilions, it would take a while to balance seeing as much as I could, with the various start times and making sure I paused every now and then to eat and process. Needless to say, I was exhausted after the end of every day but wanted to take full advantage of this opportunity.
Overall, I’d say my personal experience has been positive, I didn’t know what to expect so went in with no preconceived notions as to how it could be. I was going with an open mind and to absorb as much information as I could about things I’m interested in (resilience to climate change, indigenous peoples, mental health, health, social science related issues, arts based research), and a few things that were outside my discipline or primary research interests (i.e. environmental peacebuilding, aviation industry – granted I am someone that has to fly to see their family so it does concern me in that way). I spent quite a few sessions at the World Health Organisation (WHO) Health Pavilion and the Indigenous People’s Pavilion, they often had presentations that were not only relevant to me, but also centred voices of those from developing countries and indigenous peoples, voices that are still not included at the level they should be.
A few presentations really stood out for me. The first being a presentation titled “Indigenous self-determination in research for better climate outcomes” this was co-presented at the UK pavilion with Polar Knowledge Canada and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. The emphasis was on ensuring trust and relationships are at the heart of any research done with indigenous peoples throughout the entire research process. This includes ensuring communities are involved from the bid writing stage, to developing protocol and guidelines in partnership with indigenous knowledge holders for institutional review boards and ethics committees, and ensuring data and knowledge is shared back with the communities freely as they are the original knowledge holders. It is also imperative that indigenous knowledge, although not traditionally written down and certainly not often found in peer reviewed journals, is held at the same level and respect as non-indigenous knowledge. As a Canadian, although I live in Scotland, I have been paying attention to these aspects of conducting research for some time, but it was great to hear them reiterated and shared at this level of event.
The presentation on partnering Arts and Science was also a great session. The main theme of discussion was how do we translate the climate change science to the ‘right’ language that various populations will understand and the importance of film and other arts to be able to do this. Questions were raised about how we tell stories and how do we explain the abstract (which climate change often is for many) and the enemy (climate change) when we are in fact the enemy as well (due to climate change being human induced). The power of storytelling to help shift mindsets is a powerful tool, can encourage us to stay connected to what is real, and link the individual and collective stories together. Not everyone has the privilege to be able to make large sustainable changes in their lives, but people can be recognised and celebrated for whatever level of contribution they can make, and storytelling can help with this.
I could go on and on about the presentations by each youth activist I saw, they were all incredibly articulate and passionate about pushing leaders for change. As one activist said, their generation has been defined by crisis (climate change, Black Lives Matter, Covid-19), and they have a seemingly endless supply of passion and conviction about the future they want to live in. I also really connected with a question by a young Sami climate activist who said “Don’t ask me when I started being involved in this, ask others when did they stop being interested in the climate?” I think that is a powerful question to ask ourselves and others in order to reflect on our relationship to our current climate crisis.
Finally (I could go on about more sessions but word counts and all that…), I had the privilege of attending the High Level Champions Event that involved speeches from COP26 President Alok Sharma, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the UN High Level Champions Nigel Topping and Gonzalo Munoz, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and climate activist Vanessa Natake. There were some particularly powerful speeches from the UN Secretary General, Nicola Sturgeon and Vanessa Natake (watch her speech here) about how much work there is still to do, and how the governments and current goals are not doing enough. This COP26 has involved more industry commitments, nature and diversity had more prominence, however there were still many voices missing and excluded and targets are still falling short of what is needed to stay below the 1.5 change.
I completely agree with the criticisms that COP26 is facing. It felt exclusionary at times, the day focused on gender was woefully inadequate (and shouldn’t have been shared with the theme science and innovation) considering we know the massive disparities in how climate change impacts women and girls, indigenous voices were still not included as much as they should be considering their their vulnerability and yet protection of 80% of the worlds biodiversity, this is the 26th COP and we have yet to see extensive and sustainable change from the world leaders so it is hard to trust what gets said and what will be the final agreed outcomes. But, it was also inspiring to see just how many people are passionate about these issues, inspiring to see those that came out every day to call out the leaders, protest, push and make their voices heard. It was impressive to see some of the innovative ideas that are out there within industry to do what they can as we “race to zero”.
It was an exhausting an emotional week, within an hour I would be angry, inspired, heartbroken and hopeful. I choose to focus on the hope.