The climate crisis has a way of connecting seemingly isolated incidents that happen continents apart. Floodwaters in Pakistan are only just receding after submerging one-third of the country following intense monsoon rains that displaced 33 million people. Somalia faces severe famine after a fourth failed rainy season. While these two experiences may be on opposing ends of the spectrum, climate change sits at the root of both.
These disasters have taken place in the months leading up to COP27, the international climate change conference happening over the next two weeks where world leaders, advocates, and businesses are coming together to discuss what they’re going to do about the planet’s most pressing issue. In an ideal world, the upcoming conference would be a source of hope for those affected, looking toward decision-makers to alleviate their plight. In reality, activists have little hope for COP27 after previous negotiations have been accused of being exclusionary, leading activists like Greta Thunberg to boycott this year’s conference for its greenwashing and for Egypt’s human rights abuses.
Following COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, and the recent crises developing countries face, there have been growing conversations both among climate experts and civil society around the unequal impact of the climate crisis in the Global South—and the need to amplify voices from the region. The end of September saw climate protests in about 450 locations worldwide calling for climate reparations that would honor the financial struggles low-income nations face due to climate change. Activists want to see accountability from the countries responsible and more space given to those most vulnerable. There is an urgent demand for a perspective shift at COP.
The lack of representation of diverse voices is one of the main criticisms COP26 faced last year. It’s part of what many Global South activists want to see improve in COP27, which kicked off Sunday. A history of inaction at previous conferences has made both activists and policy experts wary when voices aren’t respected.
“We live in a time and age where, if you’re not at the table when people are discussing these issues, chances are your demands and voices will never be heard,” said Kenyan climate activist Omar Elmawi, who is also the coordinator of the campaign to stop the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, which would run nearly 900 miles from Uganda to Tanzania and result in massive carbon emissions. “Even if declarations are made in good faith, [Global South activists will] see a lack of buy-in because they will say, This is your solution, not ours.”
“We live in a time and age where, if you’re not at the table when people are discussing these issues, chances are your demands and voices will never be heard.”
For Elmawi, international representation is not just about being seen or heard. It’s about being involved. It’s about the power to make decisions. Amid expressing his appreciation for the conference happening in an African country this year, he also pointed out that Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, is an expensive city due to its proximity to beaches and high tourism, so some of those most vulnerable to climate change may not be able to afford to stay there. On top of that, Global South attendees may struggle to meet Egyptian visa requirements, which include no criminal record and sufficient bank funds for Kenyans, for instance.
“A colleague of mine wanted to get an Egyptian visa, and she was told she needed a certificate of good conduct, and that can take at least two months—if you’re lucky,” he shared.
With the Global North still pushing back against loss and damage negotiations—which revolve around the idea that the countries that have contributed most to global carbon emissions should pay the countries most impacted and that have contributed very little—it is crucial to have affected communities leading negotiations and having a final say at COP27. In 2009, Global North countries promised $100 billion in annual climate financing by 2020. This year, Denmark finally became the first country to pledge over $13 million. The hope is that more dollars will be offered in the coming weeks.
“Without reaching a framework to help countries facing an existential threat, there is no climate justice,” said Yusuf Jameel, research manager at Drawdown Lift, a project to deepen understanding of the connection between climate action and poverty alleviation in South Asia and Africa by climate-focused nonprofit Project Drawdown. “I would say there is no adaptation time left anymore.”
Countries that are reeling from severe climate impact or rebuilding after disaster amid resource scarcity will find it more difficult to focus on mitigation and adaptation, agreed Adeline Stuart-Watt at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, a research center at the London School of Economics and Political Science focused on environmental policy and training. That’s why loss and damage negotiations cannot be further delayed.
“Pakistan is a very stark example of loss and damage that can be attributed to climate change,” she said. “Loss and damage has been very divisive in the past, and COP27 can be a good opportunity to work in solidarity.”
“Without reaching a framework to help countries facing an existential threat, there is no climate justice.”
Though every country gets a seat at the table, the COP process isn’t exactly equitable. Richer countries like the U.S., U.K., and Canada ultimately control where their money goes. They can afford to send more delegates, giving them serious political power and influence over negotiations. Delegation size isn’t everything, though: last year, Kenya had the sixth-largest delegation at COP, yet the negotiations offered little to the African nation, which faces food insecurity due to the climate crisis.
Pervez Aly, who is a lead organizer with Fridays For Future Pakistan, criticized Pakistan’s Ministry on Climate Change. Though members of the governmental body are the ones heading to COP27, Aly said leadership is far removed from many of the realities in Pakistan—such as what’s occurring in Gilgit-Baltistan, a region occupied by Pakistan that India has disputed and where Aly is from. There, climate change is already fueling glacier loss and flooding. While many people in Pakistan are demanding debts to be forgiven as a form of climate reparations, that’s not the narrative the public sees from the media.
That’s why the solution for many activists is greater collaboration between civil society and policymakers. The people have the answers. Solveig Aamodt, senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research, an institute focused on climate research and policy in Oslo, Norway, pointed out that COP negotiations are important because they keep climate on the international policy agenda—but they also allow advocates from around the world to come together and meet in person.
“Every government has to send someone there,” Aamodt said. “So many actors come to COP, so it’s possible for dialogue across countries but also across different groups in society. Someone doing more can also push others to do more.”
Aamodt crucially pointed out that climate activism cannot exist in isolation from other issues because of its impact on them: “It’s key to see other social justice issues in connection with climate. And that’s easy to do in a speech but difficult to do in actual projects.”
The difficulty, however, results from excluding real experts—like farmers, for instance. Patricia Kombo, the founder of PaTree Initiative, which promotes climate education in Kenya, said that while she believes land degradation is one of Africa’s biggest issues, she doesn’t see enough conversations about farming at COP. Why? Because those who know the most about the issue are simply not given a seat at the table, Kombo said.
“African countries depend on agriculture, so I expected to see farmers [at COP] and for people to have a chance to negotiate for themselves,” she said. “People from the Global North don’t understand the real voices on the ground. In COP27, I feel the biggest voice should be farmers.”
Farmers aren’t the only ones missing in these spaces. Indigenous people, women, gender non-conforming people, and communities living off the land are still fighting for their grievances to be taken seriously, too. Yet many Global North leaders and their constituents see these groups as backward and uneducated because they don’t fit the Global North’s standards of what it means to be progressive.
The climate disasters unfolding across the globe—and those yet to come like Bangladesh’s rising sea levels, which risk displacing some 50 million people by 2100—highlight the urgency of making room for these voices. As Aamodt said, social injustice is part and parcel of the climate crisis, yet the people in power only benefit from talking about it, not taking action—at least until the climate emergency encroaches on their own privilege.
The Global South needs more than representation. Its people need a livable future. And that future is only possible when the decision-making power is no longer being taken from them. That can be possible at COP27—but only if leaders in the Global North step aside and take the time to listen.