By Shauna Sylvester
It’s Day 5 and I’ve entered the “Action Zone” at COP26 for the first time. Imagine Rogers Arena set up as a working space complete with IKEA chairs, broadcast stations, small-staged areas for side events, and a giant globe.
It came as a nice surprise because it is hard to find spaces to work here, especially for our Canadian team, who are squeezed like sardines into a small delegation office. Often, I see many of them perched on boxes working in the hallways—writing briefing documents, supporting their negotiating team, crafting speeches, or organizing logistics for the ministers that are here.
I swear, these are some of the hardest-working civil servants. They are up early and among the last to leave and I suspect they are living off caffeine—the food on offer in the Blue Zone is scarce and not very appealing.
Civil servants aren’t the only people working long hours. Today is Youth and Public Empowerment Day and the various youth and civil-society organizations are in overdrive.
This morning, thousands of young people hit the streets, in a huge climate march that spanned as far as the eye could see. It culminated in George Square in the heart of Glasgow, completely filling the city’s downtown core.
Youth have organized Climate Trains, pop-up actions in the Blue Zone, and dozens, if not hundreds, of gatherings. Beside me now, there is a circle of young women from Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and Europe who are all tapping away on their iPhones.
I hear the odd laugh but they seem to be “alone together" in their work.
I juxtapose this with the loud youth caucus meetings I attended in the lead-up to the Rio Summit in 1992, when the Internet was a novelty and there were no cellphones. I suspect this generation’s social-media savvy has amplified their ideas, actions, and campaigns far beyond these four walls in ways we couldn’t have imagined then.
Earlier this week, I realized I was in Glasgow with a team of people who weren’t yet born when the 1992 Rio Summit was held. I suspect it must be hard for them to relate to those of us who have been at this for over 30 years.
Where I see progress, they see inaction.
Where I see shifts in mindsets about climate, they see negligence.
Where I see inklings of hope, they feel despair.
They want action now—and I don’t blame them. I do too.
But I tire easily of the trite analysis of global economic systems, the rejection of any kind of government, and the calls to burn it all down. I’ve lived in countries where they burned it all down and it isn’t pretty—power often gets reasserted at the end of a gun, generally wielded by men wearing the uniforms of a new regime.
Yet are COPs the answer? What alternatives do we have to these glacial diplomatic negotiations? A lawyer, MP, and former federal Green leader, Elizabeth May, makes the case that for a negotiated process like COP to deliver results, it must have teeth.
“Trade agreements are given the tools they need for success like real sanctions for noncompliance. If trade negotiators get chainsaws, then climate negotiators are given paper-cutting scissors. Climate agreements are described as voluntary. But the Paris Agreement is not voluntary—it is a legally binding agreement; it’s just that we have no way to ensure nations abide by it.”
Last night, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel with people who are working on systemic change but aren’t waiting for COP or the revolution. David Miller, former mayor of Toronto and now director of international diplomacy for C40 Cities—a global alliance of cities committed to climate action—was on fire.
He spoke passionately about climate justice and identified key actions that cities are taking now to substantially reduce GHGs—for example: transitioning people out of cars and into public transit, biking and walking; creating sustainable affordable housing; implementing green building codes; developing renewable district energy systems; planting trees; and creating land-use plans that emphasize walking, livability, and safe neighbourhoods.
Carole Saab, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, demonstrated how far the FCM has come over the years by focusing on the need to align all levels of government in the race to net-zero. She is at COP26 to ensure that Canadian municipalities get the financing, integrated planning, and national strategies they need to act. Her message also demonstrates how cities can leverage their innovation, connection to people, and networks to advance national climate action goals.
B.C.'s environment and climate change strategy minister, George Heyman, also drew on his years of fighting for the environment as a labour leader and as former executive director of Sierra Club B.C. He recognized that the province doesn’t have the capacity to solve the climate crisis without strong partnerships with cities, the federal government, labour, industry, civil society, and citizens. His openness to advice and his climate-justice framing was refreshing.
While each of these three speakers work within the system, they are also quick to acknowledge its limits, and the need for economic reform. They are optimistic that this COP will create momentum for change, but they aren’t waiting for the negotiators to deliver the blueprint. They recognize that real GHG reductions are going to be led by cities and provinces acting decisively. Inaction in the face of wildfires, heat waves and flooding just isn’t an option.
This evening, I had a chance to profile the cofounder of Youth Climate Lab, Ana Gonzalez-Guerrero. Ana says that she positions herself in the “in-between space”, where she engages with processes like COP but doesn’t accept the terms of engagement.
“I don’t accept an economic system that prioritizes the needs of a few people at the expense of the many and the planet. We need to push for new economic models that serve everyone, value our ecosystem, and recognize we are accountable to future generations,” she said.
Ana recognizes after attending four COP processes that youth are no longer simply fighting for a place at the table, but they are also not being taken seriously enough when they do step up. She suggests that youth should recognize that COP is only one piece of the puzzle.
The real action, she says, is in local communities, where young people are questioning, experimenting with new ways of doing and being that embody a climate and equity lens, and bridging across difference and generations to ensure long-term change.
I look at Ana and wonder where she will be in 30 years. And then I wonder where we will all be.