In the Pacific, some island nations have recorded zero cases of COVID-19. There’s Kiribati, the Cook Islands, Nauru, and Niue. The numbers don’t necessarily mean the deadly virus never reached their shores, but it certainly didn’t leave a mark.
Now, leaders of these island nations must wrestle with the possibility of exposing their communities to the highly contagious coronavirus if they are to attend the United Nations’s annual climate negotiations, better known as COP26. This will be the first time since the pandemic began that world leaders, activists, and civic society will gather to discuss specifics around the Paris Agreement, emissions reductions, and carbon markets.
However, planning a major gathering where tens of thousands will descend onto Glasgow—which is seeing the majority of Scotland’s thousands of ongoing COVID-19 cases—may very well be a gamble of life and death. Scotland is experiencing the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the U.K. The U.K. is pledging to do lots in an attempt to avoid such risks (from mandatory quarantines to free vaccines), but these come with their own obstacles.
Hopeful attendees are still waiting for vaccines, and quarantines require an even longer time commitment from those traveling in from countries on the U.K.’s red list. Travel is already a pain for those flying in, especially from Pacific islands where there aren’t many commercial flights. Add in all these other extra layers, and attendance becomes a logistical nightmare for the global majority.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we stand in solidarity with those choosing to stay home. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Many folks feel they must attend COP26. It’s worth the potential COVID-19 risk because the alternative—going unheard—may be even deadlier.
Chief Ninawá Huni Kui lives in a remote village in the Brazilian Amazon. His last name is that of the people he represents—the Huni Kui—who are facing immense threat due to the climate crisis and the deforestation that threatens to destroy his people’s home. This is why he travels every year to the U.N. climate summit—to honor his people and ensure their voices are heard. This year will be no different.
Ninawá will be in Glasgow to speak out against the violence Indigenous people face in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro. He’s got his vaccine, and his community has luckily been largely vaccinated, too, he said. And yet, he knows that attending is a risk. His son was born only 30 days ago. “I need to sacrifice myself and go so that I can guarantee a future for him and future generations,” Ninawá said in broken Spanish. The Indigenous leader doesn’t expect much to come out of this COP. After all, these conversations have been going on for over 40 years, but he recognizes the value of participating.
This is what many advocates from the Global South face. Those who are vaccinated must decide whether they can or should attend. They must weigh the urgent threat COVID-19 poses to their communities at home with the ever-changing reality the climate crisis brings to their waters and land. Allies in the Global North must confront the global vaccine inequity made clear in the lead up to COP26 and figure out who will speak out if not frontline voices themselves. Many climate organizations called on the U.K. to postpone the conference in September, but it seems unlikely that organizers will pull out at this point.
Tasneem Essop joined that call. As executive director of the Climate Action Network International, Essop was instrumental in that decision. “We did not take that decision lightly,” said Essop, who is based in Capetown, South Africa. No one wanted to delay discussions; they only wanted to increase global participation. What good is a COP if the most-affected by climate change can’t even be there? And that’s why Essop is going this year. She’s gone to every COP since 2005, but even she was hesitant about this one.
“I’ve actually been isolated since the start of COVID,” she said. “I’ve kept myself safe in that way, have not opened myself up to risk to get infected, and I am now making this decision—and it’s a difficult one—to travel all the way to Glasgow. But this is what we need to do, and it’s difficult but necessary.”
There’s a lot on the table at this year’s conference. For instance, the implementation of article six in the Paris Agreement, which lays out how carbon markets and offsets will work under the international treaty. Many advocates worry that developed nations will simply pledge to plant some trees or buy up forests to avoid actually cutting their emissions. And that’s not an adequate solution.
“What’s at stake here is the survival of all of humanity—but most significantly the survival of those on the frontlines,” said Jaron Browne, organizing director of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, who will be attending COP26. “We cannot afford to have industries and nation states pretending to be taking climate action and, oftentimes, even causing more harm.”
You can see why representation is so important at these meetings. Ati Gunnawi Viviam Misslin Villafaña Izquierdo, a 23-year-old leader of the Arhuacos Indigenous people in Colombia, will be attending COP for the first time this year. Environmental and land defenders live under immense threat in Colombia, where 65 defenders were killed in 2020 (the most from any country). Indeed, Indigenous people face the most violence globally for their environmental advocacy. Villafaña Izquierdo feels it’s her responsibility to go to COP and speak out about that. The pandemic didn’t really affect her community, and she’s trusting in the spirits to keep her and her people safe.
“Our spiritual leaders told me my purpose is to connect with our cosmo vision and our goals at COP,” she said in Spanish, “but I am going to be very careful when I’m there.”
Sophie Ogutu, the national coordinator and international committee member representing Africa for the World March of Women in Kenya, is still seeing the pandemic affect her people in Kenya. There’s the economic downfall, but also the education. Children missed out on so much school. She’s going to COP this year to demand more for her people—and ask the wealthier nations that created this mess to pay their fair share of the climate cost. She’s not scared of COVID. She’s more scared of the future her continent faces.
“Sadly, Africa and the Global South are the most affected by these changes,” Ogutu said. “To be honest, people are struggling to survive already. It is in these regions where people need to find new ways of living in a changed climate where there is a lot of pressure on natural resources and the environment.”
“We are facing genocide in our communities.”
Still, there are plenty of folks who have decided not to go—even those in the Global North. Brandon Wu, the director of policy and campaign with ActionAid USA, is skipping COP this year because it feels “utterly insane” to him to hold a massive event during the pandemic. He has unvaccinated children at home and can’t take the risk. But he understands the desperate need for climate action, especially from the global majority. If enough people from the climate justice movement don’t attend, that could be detrimental.
“COP is the only democratic space where folks from the Global South have a seat at the table and can advocate for what they need,” he said.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the CEO and president of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, won’t be there, either. She planned on making this her first COP, but she can’t support attending a “superspreader event,” especially the way the U.K. has organized it. Still, she gets the other side: “An equally principled person could say, I gotta go .”
So, here we are. A global climate summit meant to address humanity’s greatest issue will go on—even if the people who will be most affected can’t attend. Those who do will bear a great responsibility given how few there will be. They’ll also bear a great burden if they catch COVID or bring it back home. The climate crisis makes a double-edged sword out of everything. Fail to act, and you’re doomed. Make the wrong step, and you’re still doomed.
For the warriors on the frontlines, however, their land and people are worth the risk. They don’t have time to worry about a virus when another virus—greed—is threatening to exterminate them back home. Chief Nanawá put it best.
“We are facing genocide in our communities,” he said. “The world must know what’s happening. The people at COP don’t care about us. They only care about their negotiations and contracts, but it’s important that they listen—and learn to care about people’s lives.”