9 min read

Where else can we go: climate activists have so much to say, but can they do it at COP27?

Where else can we go: climate activists have so much to say, but can they do it at COP27?
The COP27 gates - but who is being kept out? - Credit to Matthew TenBruggencate

By Silvia Cesa-Bianchi

This time last year, I had just returned from COP26, and along with many others, had been questioning the legitimacy of its outcomes. Participation in the conference had been compromised by restrictive travel rules due to the ongoing pandemic, and visa and accommodation issues. These restrictions had primarily affected the attendance of civil society and Indigenous peoples in the Blue Zone and outside.

Despite these upsetting premises, I was blown away by the string of events, protests, and conferences organised during the People’s Summit, their active effort to maximise inclusivity through travel and accommodation support, and the 100.000 people who took the streets of Glasgow during the Global Day of Action. It was, in many ways, what I wish I didn’t have to call an "anti-COP" (or maybe I prefer to think about it as the real one).

Children attending a protest during COP26. Creator: Judi Lapsley Miller

This year, with the conference being held in Sharm-El-Sheikh, I wondered whether I would still get the chance to engage in such an unfiltered conversation on climate change and discuss radical solutions. Yet, I struggled to justify the idea of travelling by plane, paying exorbitant costs for accommodation and, once there, in my own capacity and without official accreditation, being unable to freely connect with other activists and attend protests.

These concerns sparked from the troubled record of the Egyptian government with silencing voices from the opposition and violently curtailing the right to protest and free speech. The same seemed to be happening in the run-up to COP27, as flagged by the intervention of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, a press release by the UN special procedures, and busy-as-ever press coverage.

I ultimately decided to follow the talks remotely. However, the same reasons that led me to stay inspired me to reach out to other young climate activists who could share their first-hand experiences at COP27. I was particularly interested in the role and the space afforded to civil society for exercising their right to self-organise and peacefully assemble, as climate conferences appear to be becoming more and more secluded.

My entry point in the conversation was their overall experience in reaching and accessing the conference.

The process of me getting a badge to access COP, especially as a young activist, was one of the most hectic I had to go through. - Aqlila

Clive, a climate activist and human rights educator based in Nairobi, explained that he was unable to obtain accreditation to access the Blue Zone, despite being engaged with several organisations, given the reduced number of badges that were made available this year for NGOs, and made a note of the lack of transparency of accreditation criteria and in the overall process. In his opinion:

The greater restriction to access is the result of the growing pressure by civil society, in particular by young activists, which world leaders are not able to meet with action. - Clive
Clive in Kajiado County in Kenya, teaching a class on how to plant trees. 

Timea, one of the delegates for Youth and Environment Europe (YEE), travelled to Egypt after her organisation secured 11 badges split across two weeks. I dug a bit deeper into some of the obstacles that her group faced after crowdfunding to finance the trip: from managing visas and accreditation for all team members, to dealing with the unexpected last-minute cancellation of their accommodation (which they were forced to replace with a much more expensive option). She even noted the exaggerated prices for food available in the UN venues, later cut by 50% following complaints. Once inside the conference, she was happy to see a very diverse crowd, but still noticed the absence of entire groups from the pavilions:

I have to mention the lack of representation from the LGBTQIA+ community, on account of issues with traveling and visa denial, which constutited a clear human rights violation. - Timea
The YEE delegation during the first week of COP

Diving into each conversation, we were transported in different directions and addressed crucial issues surrounding the event.

Clive denounced the false dichotomy between human rights and climate action, which seemed to be unjustifiably embraced during this event, given the concerns of the international community regarding illegally detained persons as well as the crackdown on peaceful climate activism. Although with paradoxical tones, COP27 did shed light on the reality of climate activism under repressive regimes and created pressure on the Egyptian government to release arbitrarily detained prisoners, from activists to journalists. For example, it was an opportunity, to give visibility to the wrongful imprisonment of British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah.

Selma at the Climate Justice Pavilion

Timea, Aqlila and Selma took me further in their experience with peaceful protesting during the event. Protests were not permitted on the streets or in the Green Zone (the area open to the general public). Beyond the security checkpoints, in the international safe space, people were allowed to gather, but UN officials still provided strict rules to follow: a maximum of 100 people in a designated location, and the prohibition to mention individual names or specific countries.

We kept all the rules in order, and this made us feel safe while protesting; to be on the even safer side, however, we all decided to turn our badges and never display our names. - Timea
Aqlila is a young climate activist from Kenya and a member of Rise Up Movement. She focuses on gender equality, girls education and women empowerment in relation to climate change.
I was not able to do it this time. Protests could only take place inside the Blue Zone and even if some coded messages could be shared, people hated to do it. If these are the conditions for peaceful demonstration, I don’t want to do it, so I decided to step back. - Selma

Their poignant commentary took me to the larger, looming question of where we should accept seeing these events being held. Ensuring broad geographical representation is paramount; yet, having defined a physical area for the international community to gather and promote values of peace, equality, and multilateral cooperation, this space does not become immune to the reality at its doorsteps. Actively ensuring these values, these rights, is a prerequisite to any honest conversation on climate. And in this regard, it is impossible not to make a connection with the fora built to host the World Cup 2022, stadiums whose alarming impact in terms of environmental footprint, corruption and human rights abuse has taken centre stage with the tournament taking off right after COP.

A protest organised by YEE

Participation in decision-making and country representation was another core topic for these young activists.

Selma felt that her country, Algeria, has so far remained on the sidelines of the proceedings and of the conversation on climate. After unsuccessfully reaching out to her delegation to obtain accreditation in advance of the event, she resorted to seeking support from outside organisations, and could not help but compare her situation with the ones of other delegations who are giving space and attention to more radical, young voices. Similarly, Thato remarked that, despite the location, she perceived that African organisations were still not sufficiently present at the event:

Greater African representation would have made a huge difference. I see the same narrative with so many African activists who got their badges from organisations in the Global North ... that really lives to tell the story of what is actually happening. - Thato
The lack of communication from my government has created a dangerous disconnect between the topics being discussed in the negotiations and the problems that we see everyday on the ground. And then they come asking me "why didn't we see you?" but they never look. - Selma

Yet, Selma was thrilled at the proposal, which is currently being consolidated, of a new African climate youth council (as well as one in South Asia) to inform and advise decision-making, something that she believes will go a long way in ensuring better country representation at future conferences.  

Selma and some of her friends and colleagues at the first Children and Youth Pavilion in the Blue Zone. Everyone I talked to made a note of how active and rich of events the Pavilion was for the whole duration of COP27.

Other sensitive issues became sore spots during COP27. Timea's organisation, which focuses on youth participation in environmental decision-making, prepared a position paper focused on the phasing out of fossil fuels, together with other EU-based delegations. Maybe this is a good time to mention that this year saw a 25% increase and the record number of oil and gas lobbyists present at the conference which totalled more than 630. Timea and her team described the resistance met from the delegates they convened with, which fits a broader conversation on fossil fuels that is still stalling on finding the best compromise to spell out its commitments. Their position paper was further promoted during the second week and publicly presented in a press conference.

Thato is an activist from Botswana, advocating for children's rights, loss and damage and climate finance.

Similarly, the agreement on loss and damage, cornerstone of this year's conference, came with some bitterness. As I'm hoping to discuss this issue soon and in-depth with an ad-hoc article, today I will just be sharing an extract from my conversation with Clive, some food for thought while the breakthrough decision on this topic is still fresh:

Interventions on loss and damage must be delivered in form of grants, so that there are no compromises in dealing with loss and damage; developing economies, people's rights, or even increase debts as countries experience devastating cycles of climate change, are central issues in the same countries and communities prone to loss and damage and who are already dealing with numerous pre-existing crises concurrently. - Clive
Cleaning the shores of lake Victoria in Kisumu

After hearing from these amazing people, whose voices and initiatives deserve to take centre stage in the conversation on climate justice, I came back to my initial question, of whether conferences like COP are enabling the transformative role of civil society in the global discourse on climate change, as well as in policy-making.

Regardless of how deliberate we may believe it to be, it is clear that the last two climate COPs fell short of creating an accessible space for all constituencies, and it looks like next year, with the conference being held in Dubai, many of the same issues may arise again. As these multilateral proceedings become increasingly remote and exclusive for the public, it becomes harder for activists to justify and organise their presence.

I really think that the Green Zone should have been COP: that's where you meet grassroots, the people doing projects, and the communities. The Blue Zone just showed me how far apart they are from the real struggles that children are facing, that women are facing,  people who could tell you what is going on ... we need collaboration. - Thato

In this context, the Latin motto "divide et impera" (divide and conquer), kept coming back to me. If a group is smaller and divided, unable to exchange ideas, self-organised, and feel empowered by the support of others, its message will be less powerful. Ultimately, I believe that as activists we have the power to decide how central we want these platforms to be for discussing climate justice, and when these fora no longer facilitate it, we have a right to bring our voices elsewhere, where they can resonate louder, united, in solidarity with those who cannot speak freely.

We affirm that there can be no climate justice without open civic space. Advancing climate justice demands an inclusive, holistic approach to environmental policy that embeds human rights and tackles systemic problems, including historically rooted social injustices, ecological destruction, abuses by businesses, corruption and impunity, and social and economic inequality. - COP27 Coalition

I can't thank enough Aqlila, Clive, Timea, Selma, and Thato for taking the time to talk to me and allowing me to be briefly present with them at COP this year.

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