We cannot afford to forget

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As 2021 comes to an end, the fate of the planet — and our efforts to save it — remain precarious.

After a year-long delay, the world finally convened at the United Nations' annual climate talks in November to take stock of where we stand on addressing the crisis and how far we still have to go.

Since then, NGOs, environmental groups and human rights activists have voiced frustration over COP26 and the Glasgow agreement that came out of it. Some have described the pact as a failure; others have expressed concern over our ability to keep global warming under 1.5 C — the threshold scientists say is critical to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

There is plenty to be said about the official outcome of the UN conference, but it is not the only takeaway from COP26. Over the course of those two weeks, people from around the world showed the power of a strong, global climate movement. Like-minded citizens met both inside and outside the gates of COP26, sharing knowledge, making contacts and forging alliances, partnerships and friendships that could help to build a better future.

Attending the conference was one of the most professionally challenging experiences I've ever had. COP26 was a sensory overload, with events going on everywhere and thousands of people speaking different languages around me. I was constantly chasing high-profile speakers and following the news of a steady stream of climate pledges and promises. But now that some time has passed, it's time to take a step back and reflect on what happened at COP26 because we cannot afford to forget.

Chapter 1

What the politicians said

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Throughout the conference, the words — and actions — of world leaders were under heavy scrutiny.

Canada had one of the largest delegations at the summit, with not just federal Liberals in attendance but MPs from several opposition parties. The Greens' Elizabeth May and Mike Morrice were there, along with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and MP Dan Albas, environment critic for the Conservative Party.

For her part, May, the Green Party's parliamentary leader, was critical of how the Canadian government has handled the climate emergency so far, particularly when it comes to oil and gas.

"It's overdue that Canada stopped funding fossil fuels overseas, but it really makes it rather obvious: why are we not pledging to stop funding fossil fuels at home? Expansion of fossil fuel enterprise, building the Trans Mountain pipeline, approving offshore oil developments, subsidizing fracking should be stopped within Canada," she told Canada's National Observer.

Meanwhile, new Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault defended the Liberal government’s record and expressed confidence in Canada's ability to draw down planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

"I think that we have reasons to be optimistic," he said, "I think people think that it is still possible to come out of here with a good agreement, but it's not a done deal yet."

More broadly, former U.S. president Barack Obama seemed to bridge the geopolitical divide between countries, urging a united approach to tackling the climate crisis. During the second week of the summit, he delivered a much-anticipated speech that encouraged world leaders to set aside their conflicts and collaborate on fixing the climate crisis, which affects all of humanity.

Barack Obama giving a speech to the delegations at COP26. Photo by Nora Legrand

"There are times when I am doubtful that humanity can get its act together before it's too late, and images of dystopia start creeping into my dreams. And yet, whenever I feel such despondency, I remind myself that such cynicism is the recourse of cowards," he told the crowd.

"We can’t afford hopelessness. Instead, we are going to have to muster the will and the passion and the activism of citizens pushing governments and companies and everyone else to meet this challenge."

Chapter 2

The mood on the ground

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Every day, Glasgow’s streets were filled with people expressing their frustration and anger at world leaders.

“Power to the people!” was a constant refrain from activists, while both inside and outside COP26, civil society groups highlighted the ways in which people around the world are taking climate action into their own hands: Indigenous communities building clean energy microgrids, young people spelling out what they want from a just transition, even cities and towns building food security into their climate plans.

Vanessa Nakate's speech at Fridays For Future march in Glasgow. Photo by Nora Legrand

Young people were undoubtedly a force in the many marches and protest actions that took place throughout the conference, particularly on Nov. 5, when teens and local schoolchildren joined thousands in the streets of downtown Glasgow. The massive Fridays for Future march and rally featured activists from around the world, including Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and Ugandan Vanessa Nakate, who spoke of the need to centre voices from vulnerable countries in conversations on climate change.

"While the Global South is on the front lines of the climate crisis, they are not on the front pages of the world's newspapers. ... We've seen activists from the most affected areas being erased from pictures, from conversations and removed from rooms," Nakate told the crowd. "But how will we have climate justice if people from the most affected areas are not being listened to?"

As COP26 came to an end, civil society leaders also took aim at the negotiations, calling out rising tensions over the inaction of wealthy countries in addressing the crisis and highlighting the needs of those most impacted by global warming.

"The countries that have contributed least to the problem are paying the first and most brutal price, and there seems to be absolute indifference by those who have the most power," human rights advocate Kumi Naidoo told a room of reporters on one of the last days of the conference.

The following day, hundreds of activists made sure the official delegates heard their concerns, marching across the Blue Zone — an area reserved for registered attendees of COP26 — until they reached the entrance gates. Outside the conference, they set up a small stage for those who had something to say. There were stories and poems showing the solidarity that came out of the two-week conference.

"Over the last 18 months, the COP26 coalition, together with many groups around the world, have been organizing and mobilizing to bring as much people power as humanly possible to COP26," one activist said from the small stage set up outside the conference. "In the last two weeks, we have mobilized over a million people across the world through student strikes through the Global Day of Action and through actions on every single continent and in most countries around the world.

"That is because of the work that you have done," she told the crowd. "Every single one of you have brought the power and the heat to these bullshit negotiations."

Chapter 3

Where do we go from here?

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The success of COP26 — and the fate of the planet — depends on what we do next.

In his speech, Obama encouraged citizens of the world to collaborate with one another no matter their political allegiance, pointing out that climate change is blind to opinions. He also called on young people to “stay frustrated” and shared some advice his mother gave him when he was younger.

“If I was feeling anxious, or angry, or depressed, or scared, she’d look at me and she’d say: ‘Don’t sulk. Get busy, get to work, and change what needs to be changed,’” Obama said. “And luckily, that’s exactly what young people around the world are doing right now.”

Naidoo, the human rights advocate, also had words of encouragement for those feeling disheartened by the outcome of COP26.

"I appeal to all those who are going to feel down at the end of this result. Don't feel down," he said during a press conference. "When this thing ends, with whatever wishy-washy outcome they're going to come up with, the next day, let's just brush ourselves up, get our courage back and do everything possible to resist every fossil fuel infrastructure manifestation everywhere in the world."

No doubt the younger generation will stay angry. They have a reason to be. But they will also be resilient and not wait for the people in power to change the world.

COP26 has ended, and world leaders and delegates are back home after making insufficient progress on the climate emergency. Activists are back home, too, with more ideas, more knowledge and new relationships. Perhaps that will be enough to write a more sustainable future.