WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
The world’s largest climate gathering kicks off this weekend. The Frontline talks to Ayisha Siddiqa, who co-founded Polluters Out, a group dedicated to removing fossil fuel industry presence from climate negotiations.
On Sunday, government officials, advocates, scientists, and climate enthusiasts will converge in Glasgow, Scotland. The annual Conference of the Parties, better known as COP, is kicking off. COP26 will be the first time climate negotiations happen in person since the pandemic began, and youth climate activists are already leaving their mark.
The last time folks gathered in person to talk about the Paris Agreement was in 2019. Though these meetings are meant to push progress on climate action, Spain’s biggest polluter was a sponsor that year. This jarring reality was enough to push youth leader Ayisha Siddiqa over the edge. She’s since dedicated her work toward ending the relationship between COP and polluting industries—be they fossil fuel companies or giant energy utilities—through the co-creation of Polluters Out. The coalition is calling out the corporate involvement in these negotiations, which Siddiqa believes is hindering global progress on the climate crisis.
Welcome to The Frontline, where you’ll hear directly from Siddiqa. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. This will be the 22-year-old’s first time attending a COP, and she’s got plenty planned. We talk about her journey to arrive at this point in her career, as well as the deadly legacy fossil fuel giants have left behind in their wake.
How did you get involved in the climate justice fight and eventually launch Polluters Out?
Justice has always, always been a part of my climate fight—whether I knew it or was able to articulate it. In 2019, I helped organize a 300,000-person strike in New York City. The next day, there were youth-climate meetings at the United Nations in New York city. That U.N. conference was a patronizing, theatrical, and insubstantial event. It meant to teach youth how to use iMovie and be influencers when many of those who were attending were frontline communities directly impacted by the climate crisis. I wasn’t in attendance, but many of my friends were. It’s ridiculous. I had organized a massive strike and had been working for two years, but even then I couldn’t get in. And I lived in New York. These conferences are not only inaccessible for working-class people and grassroots organizers. They systematically leave out the people who will challenge them.
Then came COP25 Madrid, which was sponsored by oil companies. There were a lot of protests inside, but I couldn’t go. I couldn’t afford a plane ticket or a hotel in Spain. We can talk about climate justice all day every day, but these events are so inequitable. Isabella Fallahi, whom I met at the protest in New York, was there. We started talking, and she expressed the fact that there is no active youth movement calling on COP to end its relationship with fossil fuels.
Polluters Out has a very tangible task. It is not only measurable; it is achievable. It has been done before. The World Health Organization set a precedent when they kicked out Big Tobacco. That allowed the U.S., the U.K., and other wealthy nations to put taxes and warning labels on tobacco. It changed the course of what we thought. And this is just tobacco, right? It’s internally harming people. Fossil fuels are the leading cause of the climate crisis—the leading cause. Since we created Polluters Out, we’ve formed chapters all over the world. We’re a coalition. We support local groups on the ground because we also understand that not everybody has relationships to polluters that are Big Oil. There’s mining and plastics. Pollution is a very broad term.
What Polluters Out is pitching is a conflict of interest policy with the UNFCCC, the nations that make up the U.N., and fossil fuel companies. The reason we have these three entities is because the U.N. can tell governments to stop taking money from fossil fuels, but it’s the governments that host the conference that actually pollute. Governments need to abide by this, and that is really difficult because leaders change year to year. Lastly, fossil fuel companies also need to say they won’t enter the COP—not only fiscally but physically. This requires collaboration among all of these large entities. And I believe it is achievable.
How are you feeling about COP?
A lot of emotions. I’m disappointed. A lot of my friends in the Global South are unable to attend. They didn’t get visas or couldn’t afford the hotel and flight. And you see governments already trying to lobby a U.N. report to say fossil fuels aren’t that bad. Australia and Saudi Arabia are among the world’s biggest carbon exporters, and they’re making last-ditch efforts to make their countries look like they’re meeting the requirements of the Paris Agreement when they’re not.
So it sounds like you’re feeling disappointment, frustration, anger.
Yeah, and sadness—but also hope. The reason I say hope is because I was able to call Mary Robinson, the former prime minister of Ireland. She is responsible for the progress that has been made in the Paris Agreement. She told us to raise hell, verbatim. She looked us in the eyes and said, Raise hell. COP wouldn’t be where it’s at without pressure from civil society. The only group that is treating the climate crisis like an emergency is the youth.
I was at TED, and we had talk after talk after talk—and then they put a literal criminal onstage. Then, we were told to compromise with him and told that we were irrational for walking out. At the same time, world leaders say they’re treating it like an emergency. If they were treating it like an emergency, we would be over the discussions by now. There would be no talk. There would be action.
“As it pertains to COP, we won’t stop reminding governments that we need polluters out.”
Have you seen any changes in the conference since Polluters Out launched? I saw a story from the Wall Street Journal on the fossil fuel industry’s limited involvement this year, but you mentioned TED, which shows how far we still have to go. I’m curious if there are any changes you’ve seen that have bolstered some of that hope you mentioned.
I have. In fact, I read a few moments ago that BP will no longer be a sponsor. We’re so beyond the point that both sides need to be there. I’m not ashamed or afraid of saying this at this point because I’ve got nothing to lose: The CEOs of Exxon and Shell and Chevron are equivalent to war criminals. Those war planes require fuel. They don’t drop bombs without fuel. People don’t die without fossil fuels.
These changes are a step in the right direction. I’m so glad we’re getting there slowly, but it’s the bare minimum. We need legitimate action.
What comes next, Ayisha? What can you share about Polluters Out at COP26 this year?
Our mission right now is to get this conflict of interest policy in effect. Polluters Out wasn’t created to be a permanent group, so our mission will be accomplished if we get this conflict of interest policy in.
As it pertains to COP, we won’t stop reminding governments that we need polluters out.