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#COP24 & #COY14 in Katowice: Part 1. The Icy Shock & Such Sheer Audacity

I have put off writing this blog series for nearly 3 months. I could blame it on writer’s block or on my health, but, on this occasion, it would be misleading. Truth be told, I was incredibly busy during January: it was my assessment period at university and I had to meet some urgent deadlines in my job as a research assistant. Still, I didn’t write this earlier not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t want to.

Ironically, it is something I was once really looking forward to writing. I even planned to add short videos, as I did for my time in Shenzhen. Yet, now, all I want is to get it done and over with. So, here it goes. On November-December 2018, I travelled to Katowice (Poland) for one week and a half to attend two international climate change events: Conference of Youth 14 (COY14) and Conference of Parties 24 (COP24). And what happened there, might have changed me forever…

I still recall how, despite all my excitement about attending COY and COP, I was somehow nervous and apprehensive about going to Poland for the two back-to-back events. As a Black person who has a Spanish passport, but “isn’t really” from Spain, travelling (mainly crossing through passport control) is never the most comfortable experience. However, I don’t want to dwell on this because, even if I get racially profiled and subsequently asked irrelevant questions or forced to go through extra checks, I’m still privileged due to my EU passport: I can travel to various places without actual serious impediments.

Fortunately, I had no problem to enter Poland, my arrival was trouble-free. The rest of my stay in the Polish city of Katowice also proceeded without any incidents or hassle, which made me rethink my preconceptions of the country. To put it bluntly, I was concerned about getting racial abuse or experiencing xenophobia, particularly due to the political climate as portrayed in the media, but none of that happened. There may have been some interesting stares here and there, nonetheless, as I always say, I’m overly familiar with that owed to my upbringing in Spain.

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Indeed, my time in Katowice was quite pleasant.  Something that definitely helped was learning some Polish expressions and pronunciation beforehand. I tried to speak Polish whenever I went outside, normally to order food, buy transport tickets, or shop groceries. Basic words and sentences like “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Please”, “How are you?”, “I’m fine”, “How much?” and “Thank you”, were all I needed, together with gestures here and there. Some people did speak English to me, but still, I always went for Polish first, even if it wasn’t much or perfect. Speaking just the basics of the local/official language wherever I go is normally essential to me: it makes me feel more like a resident and less like a tourist.

That, coupled with the fact that Katowice was reminiscent of my hometown (the wonderful Vitoria-Gasteiz!), allowed me to feel comfortable during my stay in the Central European country. I even adopted a “homely” feel-good routine, such as buying a cup of hot chocolate with cream every evening in the central station during my commute (the hot chocolate was actually thick, similar to the one in Spain, which I terribly miss!). Something I didn’t get the chance to do was eat traditional Polish food, as I mostly ate sandwiches, soup, and mini pizzas, due to the hectic nature of what I was doing there. I also didn’t have time to do touristy stuff, but I wasn’t there to do so anyway. I still got to walk around the city every day.

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Although, at first, it seemed dull and ordinary (almost certainly due to the winter weather), I ended up liking Katowice. It was calm, with a mixture of vintage and modern buildings in its central area. As mentioned, it reminded me of my hometown, due to its classic appearance, serene ambience and medium level of liveliness. Additionally, as it was the start of the winter holidays, Katowice had Christmas and wintery decorations across its streets. During the evening, I always walked by a beautiful and colourful Christmas market, with stalls selling warm food like churros and products like Bethlehem figurines.

Growing up, we had the same things in Vitoria-Gasteiz during that time of the year. This festivity atmosphere in Katowice made a part of me feel “at home”, wherever that is. This is no surprise, as countries and cities across Europe often have significant cultural, environmental and/or architectural similarities. In the case of Poland, it is a Catholic-majority country, just like Spain: all the Christmas and religious references felt just right to me. Thus, I didn’t get any culture shock.

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I did find particularly odd-but-delightful how vendors wrote messages in their tipping jars, explaining what they wanted the money for. I thought it was both witty and touching. Still, the only staggering things I had to get used to were the early sunset and the freezing weather. I still remember the icy shock to my face when I stepped in the country for the first time. I expected it to be cold, but not that cold. I soon discovered I couldn’t even carry hot drinks outside, as they quickly became cold.

In spite of the challenging weather, getting around Katowice was trouble-free. Upon my arrival at the airport, COP24 volunteers were there in a visible marquee. They helped me get the right transport to get to the city centre. Katowice has a good public transport system: there are buses, trains and trams to get to most places. By using Google Maps and checking the timetables on stops, I always found my way around and never had to rely on a taxi (except for my departure, since it was very early on the morning). The trams were especially handy and lovely to ride (just like in my hometown!), quaint and simple.

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When I was riding the bus for the first time, I felt secure and I was not concerned about getting lost, even if I was worried about checking-in at the Airbnb where I would be staying. I wasn’t going to be alone during the whole week and a half, but I was the first member of my organisation to arrive and I had never been booked into an Airbnb before. Fortunately, I had no problems. Upon my arrival in the residence, a friendly man was there to give me the keys and show me around the small home. The place was wonderful: it had beautiful decor and it felt very homely. Words can’t quite make it justice, so the pictures below should help.

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Overall, I ended up liking Poland, contrary to my previous fears and expectations about the country. It was certainly not the physical or cultural environment which made my time in the country as troublesome and draining as it ended up being. It also wasn’t my experience during my first few days in Katowice, whilst I attended the 3-day COY14, just before COP24. As a matter of fact, COY14 is probably one of the most fulfilling events I have ever attended.  COY is the annual assembly of YOUNGO – the official children and youth NGOs UNFCCC constituency for UN climate change processes. It is also known as the International Youth Climate Movement (IYCM).

The 14th edition of the conference was hosted in one of the schools of a local university in Katowice (Uniwersytet Śląski w Katowicach). I attended mainly on my own, as most of my organisation’s members would be coming later for just COP24, but I never felt alone whilst in there. I still remember how amazing the opening ceremony felt: it was so empowering to see youth from across the world coming together to mobilise for climate justice and to engage in UNFCCC and national/local climate policy processes!

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COY14 was mainly divided into two parts for me. On the one hand, I attended the conference sessions, which were on different climate change topics and were hosted by the participants themselves. I found this aspect of the conference very interesting and enlightening. My preferred session was one ran by a Canadian researcher with First Nations teens (indigenous people of Canada).

The teens spoke about their research on the effects of climate change in their natural environment, way of living, traditional knowledge, and indigenous communities. It was a very enlightening session, with a especially touching moment when an indigenous girl from New Zealand stood up and spoke in her native language, showing solidarity with their struggles. Another session I enjoyed was one about composting, as I had always wanted to learn more about the facts, science and procedures behind it.

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On the other hand, I got involved in YOUNGO’s work and activities. I first attended an introductory session about the constituency, and then joined a workshop with the UNFCCC Secretariat, with whom YOUNGO works closely. In the last day, I was also in the YOUNGO open meeting with the President of the United Nations General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa. It was a great opportunity to discuss with her the role of youth in climate action and other general global concerns, such as human rights and conflict of interest.

In addition, I was an active member of the YOUNGO Agriculture and Adaptation working groups (respectively). When comes to climate change, those are my key areas of interest and concern. Prior to COY14, I was already part of both groups, as a lot of work is done online and from the distance during the year. Even though the Adaptation working group was rather inactive at that time, I did some stuff for the Agriculture working group. I contributed to a UNFCCC submission on a workshop under the Koronivia joint work on agriculture (KJWA), the main avenue in the COP/UNFCCC to discuss agriculture in relation to climate mitigation and adaptation.

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During COY14, the main work for all the YOUNGO working groups was collectively writing a policy position paper, with each working group drafting their respective thematic position. I contributed to both the Adaptation and Agriculture working groups policy positions. I had the pleasure of working with youth from across the world whilst doing so (Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Canada, Italy, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Nepal, Afghanistan…), both those present in #COY14 and those working remotely. We worked hard on developing our visions and expectations for COP24. It was one of the most enriching and formatives experiences I have ever had! It was also nice to meet in person some of the people I had already spoken with online.

The above work led to me giving a speech at the COY14 closing ceremony, as I delivered the statement of the Adaptation Working Group, with a summary of our position. It was my first time doing that sort of public speech, in such an event and in front of that many people. If you know me, you probably are aware that public speaking (and speaking in general) is not my strength, due to both anxiety and a sort of speech disorder (I was born with tongue-tie). I initially put myself forward in a nonchalant way, expecting others to follow, but that didn’t happen, so I ended up having to do it. To be honest, a part of me really wanted to do it, whilst the other one yelled at it for such sheer audacity.

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In the end, I did my piece and it went well. Watching a recording of my speech, I realised I don’t look as nervous speaking publicly as I actually feel, even if I have an obvious tick (I keep touching my braids!). All the YOUNGO working group speeches were seen and heard by high profile attendees in the closing ceremony, including the COP24 president, the President of the UN General Assembly, and the Executive Secretary General of the UNFCCC. These attendees were also given a copy of our collective policy position, and subsequently, they gave speeches themselves.

To wrap up, there was a presentation of the local COYs hosted by participants in their home countries across the world, who did an amazing work organising them: mobilising youth at a local level is vital too. And like that, the conference ended. Overall, COY14 was great formative and empowering experience ever. I learnt a lot about others and about myself in a very inclusive, relaxing and heartening environment. It was great to hear and speak to youth from different places, particularly from the Global South. I had the time of my life there, and my only regret is not knowing about this conference’s existence before.

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I probably enjoyed COY14, the supposedly minor event, more than COP24, the supposedly major event. My experience in the later is what actually led to my conflicting feelings about the work I do, the work I want to do, who I am, who I am not, how to stand up for myself and how not to be confrontative. To sum it up: something I was very enthusiastic and excited about (attending COP) turned out to be rather underwhelming, making me feel very emotionally drained at the end. And, to explain how and why, I need a whole other post…

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