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Interviews - issue #8

COP26: a Changemaker’s View

Introduction by Christine Loh

Where the Leaves Fall contacted global changemakers for their thoughts and reactions to this year’s COP26 - the UN Climate Change Conference. What follows is a selection of their responses.

You can read their full interview responses by clicking on the following names: Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, Zanagee Artis, Ann Marie Chischilly, Natalie Chung Sum Yue, James Cromwell, Myrna Cunningham, Aminatu Gambo, Christina Henriksen, Isaias Hernandez, Aryaana Khan, Makaśa Looking Horse, Michael Mann, Dominique Palmer, Davis Reuben Sekamwa, Jini Reddy, Mya-Rose Craig, Mayumi Sato, Rodion Sulyandziga and Maia Wikler.

When world leaders gathered at COP15 in Copenhagen (2009) they were unable to agree on a new climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol because developed economies wanted to apply a legalistic approach, whereas developing countries wanted assistance so they could develop and deal with climate change at the same time.

After all, historical emissions were emitted by the advanced economies in Europe and North America that industrialised early. To avert abject failure, the Copenhagen Accord was agreed as a holding position to keep negotiating.

COP21 in Paris (2015) was a success because it allowed countries to propose their own actions according to their capabilities, even though it was acknowledged that the pledges did not amount to what it would take to avert climate risks. The Paris Agreement had a mechanism of hope that committed every signatory to ratchet up their pledges every five years so that countries could do more in the future once they got the hang of what needed to be done. The agreement has provisions to transfer technologies and funding from rich to poor countries.

Now we are at COP26, which was delayed by a year because of the pandemic. The promised funds have not been made available. Greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, and the latest science, as per the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released in August, shows the truly dire consequences of a fast-warming world. Extreme weather events (see page 30) are affecting rich and poor countries alike, and even the rich world is finding it hard to cope.

The most pressing issue is whether the countries of the world can set aside their political differences to face an existential threat together. Leaders do understand climate change is a threat to all. The question is whether they can stop themselves from being swept along by ideological conflicts and cooperate. The pandemic has made it more difficult for the developed economies to be generous with sharing their wealth and capabilities with developing economies, but wisdom should tell them that is what is needed.

Also, let’s not forget there is the UN Biodiversity Conference which takes place this year in Kunming, China (see page 108). Decarbonisation alone is not sufficient. We must also revive our degraded ecosystems and biodiversity. Kunming happens just before Glasgow and it, too, needs to succeed.

The world has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, with many countries pledging to get there by 2050. This is our date with destiny. Net zero represents a revolution in every sense - politics, technology, industries, management, administration, socio-economic, and financial. To succeed, Glasgow needs mutual understanding between the vastly different circumstances of the developed and developing world, and a commitment to cooperation.

Traditional reindeer herding methods for the Saami people depend on large areas of land, with different types of pastures, where the animals can graze in peace.

What do you feel are the most pressing issues for COP26 to address and why?

Rodion Sulyandziga: I believe that although the year 2020 threw many of us off guard, the issues brought forward by Covid are not new. Our relationship with nature and the crisis of mistreated environment has been and is still a time bomb. Therefore, the most pressing themes for COP26 will be the same as years ago - climate change impacts, biodiversity, and sustainability.

Michael Mann: We need to get industrial countries to rapidly decarbonise, agreeing to reduce carbon emissions by more than 50% this next decade, while getting developing nations to commit to leapfrog past fossil fuels and adopt renewable energy technology. What we need are policies, like carbon pricing and subsidies for renewables, that will accelerate the transition already underway. Despite what some say, the obstacles are no longer technological. It’s simply a matter of political will, here in the US and elsewhere.

Dominique Palmer: We need binding carbon targets, not distant net-zero targets that simply pass the issue onto the next generation. These targets must cover everything including imports, which countries like the UK conveniently leave out of emission statistics.

Davis Reuben Sekamwa: COP26 should promote increased access to sustainable, affordable energy, especially to energy-impoverished communities such as South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. These communities use solid fuels to meet their energy needs, such as coal, charcoal, and wood fuel, which emit carbon dioxide - a leading greenhouse gas. The use of such fuels is dangerous to the environment and leads to indoor air pollution to the end users, who are mostly women and girls.

Aminatu Gambo: We have examples of Indigenous women in Kenya, Cameroon and Mali implementing initiatives to respond to climate change using their traditional knowledge: landscape restoration, watershed protection, energy efficient cookstoves, and the revitalisation of traditional food systems. These efforts are not recognised by states and are not supported in climate policy.

Ann Marie Chischilly: One of the most pressing issues for the UN enterprise with regards to Indigenous Peoples is the lack of formal recognition. Currently, Indigenous Peoples only have observer status as opposed to full member status. Indigenous Peoples are not represented at the UN table to protect their stewardship, instead, oftentimes they are criminalised and/or killed for their efforts.

Makaśa Looking Horse: Indigenous peoples could contribute to global sustainability efforts if provided legal and political rights to use and steward the lands they know so well. Yet, these lands and waters are under growing pressure from industrial development and resource extraction, threatening not only the livelihoods of various fishers, ranchers, herders, and hunters who live there, but also the knowledge they carry with them about managing natural resources.

Christina Henriksen: As Saami, we face unprecedented impacts from climate change, and we are at the same time coping with continued loss of land and pollution due to resource development such as oil and gas, mining and forestry. Our Saami culture and livelihoods are threatened, and we are deeply concerned about what the future holds if we do not act strongly now as a world community.

Jini Reddy: We need to confront and root out the mindset behind economic models that seek relentless growth and extraction at all costs. We live on a planet with finite resources, one that can’t sustain this continual, relentless plundering.

Aryaana Khan: It is important to note the role of colonisation and our present systems on these disproportionate effects of the climate crisis: things are the way they are now due to
over-exploitation of certain people, animals, and the land. We cannot tackle the climate crisis without addressing the histories and ideals that our present systems are predicated on.

Maia Wikler: The failure of global leaders to act on climate change from a human rights-based framework may be the most significant intergenerational human rights violation in history. It is important to realise that climate justice will not come from corporations or market schemes, because these structures are complicit in causing the crisis in the first place.

Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad is an economist, development thinker and activist from Bangladesh. He was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Zanagee Artis is a US climate activist and co-founder of the youth-led climate activist group Zero Hour. He leads their environmental justice education and legislative work to advance progressive climate policy and a just transition.

Natalie Chung Sum Yue is an environmentalist and social innovator born and raised in Hong Kong, and founder of V’air Hong Kong to promote sustainable ecotourism.

What outcomes (and practical measures) would you like to see emerge from COP26?

Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad: COP26 needs to agree to raise mitigation ambition sufficiently with concrete numbers and details relating to how will that be accomplished, particularly by developed and large emitter developing countries, in order for the world to be on track for the 1.5C global warming target.

Michael Mann: It’s all too easy to make promises about the distant future and make generic pledges that aren’t backed up with actual policies that can deliver on them. That’s why we need near-term commitments that lead to the decarbonisation of our economy. Even the conservative International Energy Agency has now said that keeping warming below dangerous planetary levels requires no new fossil fuel infrastructure. That means no more coal mines and no more gas pipelines. Both US president Biden and UK prime minister Johnson can be criticised for talking the talk but not quite walking the walk in this regard.

Natalie Chung Sum Yue: I hope the Paris Agreement’s Article 6 negotiation can be completed at COP26, establishing the rules for a stringent and effective international carbon market to trade carbon credits and emission rights. Having attended negotiations on Article 6 at COP25 in Madrid, I witnessed how slow the negotiation progress was and parties debated for hours on the definition of a single term. This is not matched with the urgent climate action we need.

Aminatu Gambo: Article 6 holds the key to people being a big part of the solution since it states that: “Parties shall ‘promote and facilitate at the national and, as appropriate, sub-regional and regional levels, and in accordance with national laws and regulations, and within their respective capacities: public access to information on climate change and its effects; public participation in addressing climate change and its effects and developing adequate responses.”

Myrna Cunningham: It is especially important that elements defined in the preamble of the Paris Agreement are incorporated into the decisions for Article 6, especially those related to the inclusion and respect for human rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples in these processes. The other point is to actually achieve the commitments [made as part of the Paris Agreement] to raise $100bn a year for mitigation and adaptation actions to address climate change. We are still far behind these targets. I would also like to see financing, especially for adaptation and mitigation actions, that are implemented by Indigenous peoples themselves.

Maia Wikler: I would like to see a framework of climate justice inform climate actions and policy from COP26. This would recognise the needs of those most vulnerable to climate change, demand equitable distribution of climate finance, and promote vulnerable groups’ participation in decision-making on climate mitigation and adaptation. Ongoing human rights violations will continue if climate justice is not at the forefront of climate action, policy and philanthropy.

Rodion Sulyandziga: Indigenous peoples consistently outperform governments as the most effective guardians of nature and ecosystems, and the strongest leaders of climate and biodiversity crisis management. The traditional Indigenous nature-based solutions to climate change offer empowering alternatives to existing systems that are sound, ecologically sustainable, diversified and self-determined. Land grabbing, violation and ignorance of Indigenous rights is the easiest way to hold back and slow down the progress in battling the climate crisis.

Christina Henriksen: In Sápmi, we experience the negative impacts of the green transition, affecting traditional livelihoods like reindeer herding, and threatening our food security. For example, reindeer herding depends on large areas of land with different types of pastures where reindeer can graze in peace, and these areas are dramatically shrinking, partly because of green infrastructure such as wind industries, for example. Climate justice must be the core of the way forward - we must not let Indigenous peoples carry disproportionate burdens of impacts when we seek nature-based or low carbon solutions

Dr Mya-Rose Craig, also known as Birdgirl, is a British-Bangladeshi naturalist, environmentalist and activist. She is also the founder and president of Black2Nature and author of the book We Have a Dream (Magic Cat Publishing).

James Cromwell is an American actor, ethical vegan, and social change activist. He campaigns for animal rights, civil rights and the environment and has been arrested on several occasions for his activism.

Myrna Cunningham, a member of the Miskito ethnic group in Nicaragua, is president of the Center for the Autonomy and Development of Indigenous Peoples and a member (and former president) of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Aminatu Gambo is a human rights advocate from the Mbororo Pastoralist Indigenous community in Cameroon, and is the programme coordinator of political participation and advocacy for the International Indigenous Women’s Forum.

How optimistic are you that COP26 will deliver positive change, and why?

Ann Marie Chischilly: Without any incentives or enforcement mechanisms, it’s difficult to rely on the goodwill of member states. There are no consequences to the member states currently if they do not show up, abide by their climate plans, or meet their national determined contributions.

Mya-Rose Craig: We’ve had constant empty promises from global leaders - anything active from them would be something. I’ve read research that four out of five kids are suffering from eco-anxiety of some kind: the stress of how we’re going to cope with a planet in crisis. Kids want to have honest conversations, but I think a bit of hope is also important.

Aryaana Khan: I feel myself amidst dark clouds while thinking about the future of the climate crisis, but also know that such a future is not set in stone - especially if we can take collective action now. COP26 has the potential to mobilise global communities around solutions, and I am hopeful that people will understand the urgency of this moment enough to do so. As a young person, that optimism is one of the few things that allows me to look towards a different future.

James Cromwell: Human beings are constitutionally flawed. We’ve lost contact with the spirit. We embraced mind and jettisoned heart as the organ of awareness and transformation. We’ve abdicated to the jackanapes behind the curtain, pulling the disconnected levers of illusion, the same ones who convinced some of us that they have all the answers, they’re the experts, and “it’s all the fault of black and brown refugees from the ‘shithole countries’ anyway”.

Natalie Chung Sum Yue: I am moderately optimistic, but climate change has become increasingly politicised. In a meeting on GEF [the Global Environment Facility, which offers grants and co-financing to developing countries to invest in nature] at COP25, representatives from Iran mentioned their applications had been repeatedly denied, and they suspected the reason was due to poor US-Iran relations. Climate solutions are unfortunately hindered when most parties prioritise national interests over collective action.

Aminatu Gambo: For COP26 in general I have reservations… the focus [of these negotiations] has never been on addressing social justice, which is at the core of climate change. Change is what we can see happening on the ground, that is what is important for Indigenous peoples. And Indigenous peoples have been taking actions on the ground without COP, because it is about their survival.

Mayumi Sato: There is definitely a media binary that is often presented when it comes to the climate crisis; one that is bifurcated between a doom and gloom outlook and the other marked by optimism. I suppose I oscillate between the two. On one hand, I recognise that we have caused immeasurable damage to the environment and the communities most affected by it; on the other, we have to believe that there is another possibility, another world, another future, if we are willing to challenge the current structures of our society that continue to cause and sustain such harm. We can restore degraded lands and we can ensure that we keep to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. So I think the question of optimism is really contingent on our buy-in and the willingness of everyone to do their part, and to realise that the climate crisis is inherently linked to all systems of disconnectedness and harm in our world - our public health, mental and physical bodies, racism, classism, capitalism, and globalisation. The climate crisis is so heavily related to our quest for justice, the question is are we ready to reimagine what our world can look like?

Isaias Hernandez: I’m not optimistic, but I don’t think we need optimism - we need creative solutions. Politicians don’t come up with their own beliefs, they are representative of the public’s beliefs. Until people begin thinking and acting with changed minds, the politicians will not follow them. COP26 should show leaders that people are ready for a change. If the right conditions are created, they could spark a climate renaissance, an industrial revolution of sustainability-oriented solutions and ideas.

Christina Henriksen is the president of the Saami Council - a voluntary Saami non–governmental organisation, with Saami member organisations in Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden.

Isaias Hernandez is a US-based freelance environmental educator and content creator who goes under the name Queer Brown Vegan, focusing on topics like veganism, zero-waste, and environmental justice.

Aryaana Khan was born and raised in Bangladesh and is now based in New York, where she does climate advocacy work with various non-profit organisations while studying biochemistry at The City College.

Christine Loh is the chief development strategist for the Institute for the Environment at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She was the former undersecretary for the environment, and a former legislator in Hong Kong.

What do the world leaders, and everyone else, need to change on a personal level?

Makaśa Looking Horse: We do not even have access to clean drinking water. What more sacrifices do Indigenous peoples need to make? On my Lakota side we have $1.8bn sitting in a US Treasury trust fund for the sale of the Black Hills. My Six Nations side turned down $93m for the sale of land that we fought to keep from development. Do we need the money? Yes, poverty is real. I don’t think we need to sacrifice. I think we need to show the rest of the world how to sacrifice in order to sustain life on this planet.

James Cromwell: Saving the world comes at a price. It questions your assumptions. It abrogates your privilege. It demands your commitment. But it’s the answer to your despair. Imagine if every person took that first step all at the same time. There’s nothing we can’t do if we’re willing.

Dominique Palmer: Never underestimate the power of the people, and what you can contribute. It doesn’t have to look like what I do, or like other activists you see. This is all a massive puzzle and we fit into different pieces with our varying skills, knowledge, and experience. We need creatives, those who inspire others, who are great at outreach, those who can coordinate a group, who can educate others, the strategy planners, those good with logistics, the visionaries, those who show up at protests, the list goes on. You don’t have to be perfect - none of us are. If you’re able to, you just have to do something, anything, and start today.

Natalie Chung Sum Yue: Another aspect is advocacy, we can convince our government to prioritise climate change in their agendas if we vote out climate deniers in the parliament.

Michael Mann: Collective action is critical. While there are things we can and should do in our everyday lives to reduce our personal environmental impact and carbon footprint, what we really need is people banding together, voting, and using their voice to demand that our politicians support policies that will rapidly decarbonise our economy.

Zanagee Artis: At this stage in this crisis, I believe that everyone who holds a position of power and has the ability to influence system-level change should do so to achieve climate justice and a just transition. Individual action is not enough to stop climate change while hundreds of billions of dollars are given to industrial agriculture, the fossil fuel industry, and plastics production every year.

Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad: They [world leaders] need to rise above their respective narrow national interests and take a global human-centred, science-based approach.

Isaias Hernandez: World leaders have a responsibility to regulate in an entirely new way: create circular economies, prevent exploitation, localise supply chains, separate business from politics, and fully fund sustainability initiatives. Individuals that want to change on a personal level are already doing so and creating change in others - for the ones that don’t wish to, they shouldn’t have to. The goal is to design sustainable systems and support cultures of regeneration, biodiversity, and cooperation with the natural world. Nowhere is it written that being civilised means we must destroy the planet.

Myrna Cunningham: I think one of the main aspects that needs to change is the view that these climate change impacts will happen to others and not to us. Many people are seeing the effects of climate change in their localities, and if their territories are not affected then they do not understand it. It is important to understand that it is a situation that affects humanity, it is also important to understand what your responsibility is, and how through small changes you can contribute to the process.

Jini Reddy: It all boils down to a person’s relationship with themselves. How many of us, including world leaders, are willing to stand still, to listen within, to confront difficult emotions or unhelpful aspects of ourselves? How many of us are willing to interrogate our personal beliefs and prejudices? And that’s before we even get to our relationship with other humans, and the natural world: do we see ourselves as a part of nature, or as separate entities? Do we listen actively? Are we able to hear viewpoints other than our own? Insight and compassion are powerful forces for good.

Makaśa Looking Horse was born on Six Nations territory (the largest First Nations reserve in Canada) and is Mohawk and Lakota. She has campaigned extensively to secure clean drinking water for her community.

Michael Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, and the author of The New Climate War. His research focuses on climate science and climate change.

Dominique Palmer is a UK-based climate justice activist and organiser for Fridays for Future International and the UK Student Climate Network. She spoke at COP25 in 2019 and features in the Forbes 100 UK Environmentalists list.

Jini Reddy is a journalist and the author of Wanderland, shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize and the Stanford Dolman Award for Travel Book of the Year. She has also contributed to Women on Nature, an anthology of female nature writing.

Mayumi Sato is a climate journalist, human rights researcher, and founder of The Solidarity Library – a digital hub for social justice. She is also a PhD student and Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Davis Reuben Sekamwa is a climate and energy advocate based in Uganda and works as a project manager for the Rise Up Movement, which advocates for climate justice.

Rodion Sulyandziga is a member of the Indigenous Udege, from the Eastern Siberian region of the Russian Federation and is co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change.

Maia Wikler is a political ecology PhD student, climate justice organiser, and writer. Her most recent work appears in Teen Vogue and VICE.

Quelccaya Glacier, Peru, 2015, and Dr Lonnie Thompson holding a photo of the same spot, taken in 2011. The glacier is receding approximately 1% (10 metres) per year.

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Dialogue - Issue #8

Interview - Issue #8