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Interview - Issue #8

COP26: Our Quest for Justice

An interview with Mayumi Sato

Where the Leaves Fall contacted global changemakers for their thoughts and responses to this year’s COP26 - the UN Climate Change Conference. 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. You can read the edited interview that was published in the print edition of Where the Leaves Fall here.

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

Mayumi Sato I think there’s been enough dialogue over the past few years to recognise that countries and communities that are most afflicted with the immediate and long-term ramifications of the climate crisis have the least amount of power in climate policy and decision-making.

We need to use COP26 to receive accountability from high-emitting countries and regions like the US, Japan, India, China, and the EU. We need consistent language and a firm universal consensus on achieving the 1.5C target. We have to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, and transition to a green society, but do so without jeopardising climate-vulnerable groups on the frontlines whose carbon footprints are small, yet are frequently demonised for their lifestyles and occupations because it is not in immediate alignment with how hegemonic actors and politicians in the global north perceive how change should occur. Working towards a lower-carbon and decarbonised society opens up new opportunities in some sectors and closes others; but, generally there should be a net growth of jobs. We have to take this opportunity to ensure that those who have been cast on the margins of our society are able to participate in shaping and building a more climate-friendly and inclusive society and COP26 is a good opportunity to address this.

‘We always like to isolate climate change as this grand challenge that emerged in the past few decades, but we have to understand that systems in place that led to this climate crisis in the first place undergird what is fundamentally wrong in our society.’

— Mayumi Sato

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

Mayumi I will be attending Pre-COP in Italy and there, we will be working with ministerial-level decision makers to shape the COP agenda. I am interested to see how the conversations navigate around central issues that have emerged this past year, like the pandemic. I think Covid taught us all not only the importance of science and public health research and action, but also that good governance is fundamentally necessary and imperative to address a global crisis. Many countries have still not submitted their updated Nationally Determined Contributions, and I hope that we can see greater commitments and pledges when they do. As for the governments that have submitted their NDCs, their updated measures will require a set pathway on how they will achieve it, like a new and updated basic energy plan. I would like to see concrete commitments, and written statements underscoring how governments intend to ensure accountability with greater climate ambition in their policies.

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

Mayumi 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 continues 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 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?

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

Mayumi This point may seem trite, but there is so much that needs to change from the individual to the institutional level. On an individual level there are clear things that can be done; particularly us in the global north, we have to interrogate our actions when it comes to our consumer habits like our use of fast-track delivery services, clothing purchases, food consumption, single-use products, plastic pollution, air travel, among many other things. 

But let’s not be deluded into any narratives of neoliberalism that solving the climate crisis is ultimately and only an individual responsibility. Some people, particularly low-income communities of colour or smallholders are obliged to resort to some actions that will be environmentally detrimental because there are no other financial alternatives - and to be quite honest, their carbon footprint is far less significant than a wealthy family or individual that preaches buying eco-friendly products simply to find out they are flying first-class across short-distance flights in Europe. 

On a larger level, let’s consider the emissions of the global north countries like the UK or Japan, which have amassed so much wealth through industrialisation. Now, we are preventing the global south from achieving greater economic mobility by vilifying them for the amount of greenhouse gases they would have to emit if they were to undergo similar processes of rapid industrialisation. There’s definitely more nuance to this debate: why are we demonising particular communities for their emissions now that we as the global north have benefited previously from these greater levels of environmental exploitation to so-called “develop”?

Governments must hold these “too-big-to-fail” companies and corporate conglomerates accountable for their environmentally-invasive actions. As for corporate responsibility, it is critical that they reduce their emissions throughout the production line - from greater enforcement policy that mandates them to limit emissions, to improving energy efficiency from the procurement of raw materials, to transportation, to production, and to the point of export - but they do so without exploiting the labour of humans and natural resources along the production line. More broadly, I think it is also critical that global north countries alleviate the financial burdens incurred by global south countries to adapt to and mitigate climate change. 

We always like to isolate climate change as this grand challenge that emerged in the past few decades, but we have to understand that systems in place that led to this climate crisis in the first place undergird what is fundamentally wrong in our society.

If we want to change on a personal level, then we have to start tackling the multiple systemic inequities that exist in our society, like corporate hegemony, racism, patriarchy, and class warfare. We need to do a little bit of introspective digging and do some unlearning in ourselves, and think, how can I be a better ally to the cause?

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