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#COP24 & #COY14 in Katowice: Part 3. Radically Meaningful? Unnecessarily Complex

In hindsight, I think I was initially worried about my trip to Poland for the wrong reasons. I was concerned about passport control at the airport, about checking into the Airbnb, about getting around the city, about encountering prejudice, about being lonely during COY… And I didn’t think enough about the main purpose of my trip: attending COP24. Ironically, whereas living in Katowice and attending COY14  went smoothly and greatly, COP24 was a double-edged paradox. On the one hand, I participated in various enlightening events, I was at a youth briefing with (and hence met) the UN Secretary General and the phenomenal activist Greta Thunberg, I attended interesting negotiations and sessions (and even spoke during one!), and I conducted exciting research.

On the other hand, I was involved in an interpersonal “quarrel”, I felt powerless and useless at various points during the negotiations, and I didn’t know to where/with who I belonged in such an international setting. Unfortunately, towards the end of my time in Katowice, the negative trampled the positive: I fell ill, I became very unenthusiastic, and I disengaged greatly from everything. My poor health and nihilism persisted well beyond my return from Poland, thus why I wasn’t feeling like writing anything about my experience till recently. To understand what went down, I must start from the beginning.

After COY14 finished on the 1st December, COP24 started the next day. COP24 stands for ‘24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’. COP is the annual UN conference for climate negotiations between parties (countries), which can also be attended by observers (non-party stakeholders such as NGOs). The key area of discussion during the 24th edition was the rulebook for the notorious Paris Agreement, an international agreement to limit to 2°C the global mean temperature increase. Whilst the Paris Agreement was reached on 2015, the rules for its implementation (collectively known as the Paris Rulebook) were not agreed: this process was to culminate at COP24, which was majorly achieved despite certain challenges and loose ends.

I attended COP24 as an observer and organiser for a UK youth climate organisation. Though during COY14 I was relatively on my own, other members of the organisation did come later to attend COP. I really enjoyed living with them, they were all very nice and it was great having someone with whom to speak and commute every day. We also had other teammates who were staying at other accommodation and who we normally met at the COP venue. As an organisation, our main work at COP was lobbying and campaigning. We met with UK negotiators to discuss a variety of topics, and different members also got involved in different activities that related to climate justice (our organisation’s main focus), from gender to conflict of interest. As part of my organisation’s work, other than help with logistics, I carried out interviews and collected stories to write an article for our blog.

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As during COY14, I got involved with YOUNGO at COP. The Youth NGOs constituency made interventions and statements during sessions like the opening joint plenary, drafted collaboratively by many people. I still remember how intensely we were working on polishing, editing and shortening our opening statement for hours. Though it was hectic, I really enjoyed doing it. As a YOUNGO member, I was also selected to attend a youth briefing with the Secretary-General of the UN António Guterres and the amazing teen activist Greta Thunberg. YOUNGO gave a statement during the briefing, and the Secretary-General then spoke to us, acknowledging how political will for climate action has failed so far and more needs to be done. The highlight of the session was definitely Greta and her inspiring words! My favourite quotes from her were: “The climate crisis has already been solved. We have all the facts and solutions” & “Since leaders behave like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken ages ago”.

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As a member of the YOUNGO Agriculture WG, I attended the first Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture workshop. I contributed earlier on the year to the WG’s UNFCCC submission for the session, so it was great attending it. I also spoke as an observer during the workshop, in front of negotiators from different countries and blocks, to share our WG’s input/vision for the KJWA. Additionally, since I’m also part of the YOUNGO Adaptation WG, I semi-followed the negotiations on adaptation topics. It was interesting to see how much specific language mattered in the drafting of adaptation texts for the Paris Rulebook. Parties often disagreed on how to word things and what to include and without absolute consensus, a final text couldn’t be approved. As observers, the Adaptation WG couldn’t give statements during the consultations, but we voiced our thoughts through press statements at YOUNGO’s press conferences.

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During the conference, I also participated in a few side events on topics like food systems, social forestry, and national adaptation plans. Their panel discussions and presentations were helpful to learn more about climate and environmental issues and practice, particularly from research, civil society and Global South perspectives. I rarely have the chance to hear about contemporary issues from a non-Western and non-academic perspective, so this was a great opportunity. Visiting the pavilions and exhibitions of different countries and non-profit organisations during my free time also helped with this. COP for me was a lot about stepping back and learning from others, not only for my voluntary work in the climate and environmental movements but also for my studies in international development and for my professional career.

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The only side of COP which I didn’t get very involved with were actions/protests by activist groups. This is certainly ironic, as my organisation is all about activism, and most (if not all) of my teammates did participate in different actions/protests during the conference. Whilst I supported them, I didn’t actively join any of these occurrences. I struggle with being hyper-visible, being vocal, and drawing attention to myself in open and public spaces. I’m very self-conscious due to a variety of reasons, including anxiety, childhood ordeals, my speech disorder, and my appearance. Speaking on stage at the COY14 closing ceremony and doing the WG intervention during the KJWA workshop involved a lot of mental preparation for me: it wasn’t easy. However, I was a bit proud of myself, as I considered them small steps towards gradually feeling more comfortable when being visible and outspoken. Unfortunately, this specific topic, among others, led to the complications and personal dilemmas that arose during my time at COP and that ended up marring my overall experience.

Everything began with an argument/difficult discussion I had with some people. The details around this are irrelevant. I will just say that at some point I became something I don’t like: confrontational and extremely defensive. Due to my upbringing, my speech disorder and my anxiety, I’m not good with arguments/conflicts, particularly orally. I normally just avoid them. However, this time I didn’t do that, because I was/felt personally targeted: I spoke out and rationally stood my ground. Unfortunately, my anxiety and my cyclothymia don’t work according to sense, they can easily go out of control, which is exactly what happened. As the issue didn’t resolve itself, I became irritable, I began to overthink, and I reached a state of emotional exhaustion. As a result, my health started to act up. And, from then, it all went downhill. An interpersonal clash led to my own individual and internal quarrel.

Linked to the disputes I was involved in, some personal dilemmas surged. I began to wonder why I was at COP. I had gotten involved in many things, but, were any of them radically meaningful or significant? As much as I enjoyed working with YOUNGO and observing the political dynamics of the negotiations, I felt as if observers (particularly young people) weren’t really listened to by negotiators. In addition, whilst I theoretically supported radical and grassroots activism as the main way to push for real climate action, I couldn’t bring myself to be part of visible protests or disruptive campaigns. Although I have been involved for years in social, political and environmental issues as a volunteer, campaigner and/or organiser, I’m no activist. I don’t join public protests or attend marches (for reasons already mentioned). I function better in the shadows. I normally go for “safer” action like volunteering for non-profit and civil society organisations in roles such as administration, communications and research.

Paradoxically, I believe this type of “safe” work is often not enough to achieve social, economic, environmental and/or climate justice (to understand this critique, read this It can be meaningful, but often it is not transformative enough. At the same time, even if I could be an activist, I probably wouldn’t be able to. Though I dislike this mindset, I’m very calculative and strategic when comes to my life choices. I’m working-class, low-incomed and from a migrant background. I have a family, particularly younger siblings, who greatly depend on me. I don’t get to think just as an individual. I can’t afford to be arrested/punished for civil disobedience or similar actions. My academic and professional choices ought to be made according to their potential productive/profit value. Nonetheless, I have indeed made various “risky”/ “unwise” decisions in this regard, but then again, there are limits to it. I’m just “lucky” that most of my studies, jobs and volunteering experiences so far have been surrounding social, economic, political and environmental/climate issues. Still, I often wish I could do more.

The other internal dilemma that emerged was in relation to representation and belonging. A lot of occurrences at COP are based along national/regional lines. Even YOUNGO, though representing youth at an international level, operates often within a “Global North vs Global South” framework. And, I just didn’t know where I fitted in. I still remember how odd it felt at the briefing with the UN Secretary General when I sat behind a tag reading “SPAIN”. I was representing my country of birth, the country where I grew up, but, it didn’t feel 100% right. The “Spanish” label has never felt completely right, but, in that context, it was worse because I was at COP as part of a UK group: I was supposed to be representing UK youth. Yet, I also felt out of place doing that because I’m neither a UK national nor did I grow up in UK. I didn’t know how to contribute to my organisation’s meeting with UK negotiators.  In addition, whilst I was particularly concerned about the effects of climate change on my actual countries of origin (Senegal, DRC, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea…), I have never even been to most of them, so I can’t speak much on their issues.

In COP, I basically had to wrestle with my privileged position as an EU citizen and UK resident in an international space, whilst being aware that I’m Black and from a 1st generation migrant background: I’m still marginalised within a Western context, and mainstream UK/EU/Spanish “interests” (whichever these are) don’t necessarily represent me. In addition, due to not being and hailing from just one place, I felt as if had no real or authentic right/voice to support or give any specific national or regional perspective. This intensified my feelings of uselessness and disorientation, which originally emanated from my self-criticism about always going for “safe” voluntary work over more radical and disruptive activism. In the end, I left COP and Katowice just craving to go home, drained by my own thoughts and emotions more than by anything else, and feeling as if the experience had just been straight-up awful.

At present, I am more nuanced about my time at COP24. I appreciate all the good that happened, and I try not to exaggerate the bad. I moved on from the clashes I had as I normally do: stepping back, talking less, and avoiding giving an opinion on contentious topics. I’m opening my mind to the fact that activism and systemic change takes many forms, and not all of it is just protests, actions and marches: other types of work can be meaningful and transformational too. And, I have accepted that whilst my identity is unnecessarily complex, I’m more than that, and I just need to be contextually aware of my changing positionality in different settings.

Nevertheless, until recently, I was unsure about whether I wanted to ever attend another UN climate conference again. I even stepped back significantly from volunteering (I temporarily detached myself from a lot of things in general, except for my studies and jobs, because I was ill). I still haven’t published the research article I worked on during COY and COP, as at times I felt the project was not worth it (though I will be sharing it soon). However, I have now begun to be active again within my organisation, and I even put myself forward to potentially attend the next UN climate talks in Bonn. I figured that if I go again (mentally preparing myself better and doing things differently to avoid problems), I would see if the problem is actually the environment at the conference in itself, or just me. I will give it another try, provided I don’t chicken out, and see how things go. For now, I’m glad I went to COP24. Despite the pains it might have caused me, I got a lot out of it, and I’m grateful for that.

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