Do Climate Conferences Matter?

The United Nations’ Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP27) in Sharm Al-Sheik, Egypt was one of the most unifying moments in my year for engaging a diverse group of stakeholders, despite some of its flaws. I was fortunate enough to attend the first week of COP27 through the SustainUS delegation and meet youth, elders, activists, policymakers, business leaders, and more from all over the world. More than just listening to their perspective or work, I discussed, learned, and grew in my ways of thinking about what change looks like and what avenues are open to us to enact that progress. As someone who is currently not in school, the experience provided me a rare opportunity for intellectual engagement and introspection of theory but also immediate action and directly applicable practice.

Most, if not all, of the people I met were earnestly working toward the same goal of addressing climate change. Some were specialists on climate finance, drawing on public accounts to attract private investors into funds. Others were grassroots organizers, who diligently worked on the ground in their communities. These people would never otherwise have interacted with each other. In their separate spaces, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear them criticizing the other. In my head, these groups represented the more macro-level divides in climate advocacy between the multilateral and the local, the institution and the people. At COP, in the frenzy of the blue zone and beyond, it was suddenly possible to cross industry and ideology. That was the most valuable experience of the entire week.

Going into COP, I will admit that I personally only had experience in working with YOUNGO (the official children and youth constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and affiliated groups, primarily focused on climate education, finance, and youth engagement at the UN. I was aware that there were more direct or local efforts but had never felt the need to participate in them, in part because I felt comfortable and supported in the community that I worked with. Such feelings are normal and even beneficial – it is crucial that the network you work with is welcoming and inclusive. However, the exposure to other stakeholders and politics means that I now feel like I have ways to access other ways of mobilizing action, whether that be direct or through party bilaterals. Even if I do not end up working on the same issues as others or feel that this is the best way for me to personally make change, having a better understanding of complementary efforts around the world means that we can build better coalitions and informal networks to connect people to what draws them in. I hope to see this level of openness to engaging with other methods outside of COP.

This is critical because I have noted how many movements are fractured by ideology or by opportunity constraints. The youth climate advocacy movement is no different. From what I have experienced, it seems that funders and the media are focused on a few individual faces (sometimes considered “influencers”) rather than the work of communities. This is not to say that I believe certain routes of action are inherently more productive or effective than others. In There is a certain level of value to all the efforts that people invest in the climate crisis. But I do believe that having a more diverse array of networks supported would be beneficial in uplifting the valuable work that is being done.

Continuity and persistence are also critical. At the next COP (28) in Dubai this year, RCC Presidential Fellow Joy Reeves will be attending and representing the Rachel Carson Council. Having a robust youth presence at these conferences is of paramount importance as we address the pressing global challenges posed by climate change. Our voices, fresh perspectives, and innovative ideas are invaluable in shaping sustainable policies and driving change. Furthermore, continued youth engagement at COP28 will serve as a powerful reminder to world leaders that the decisions made today will have far-reaching consequences for the generations to come. It is through active participation, advocacy, and collaboration with young activists and leaders that we can ensure a more equitable and resilient future for all.

RCC Fellow – Angela Zhong – Harvard University

Angela Zhong is a first-generation Asian-American and Harvard junior. She is studying economics, environmental science public policy, and a citation in Mandarin. Hailing from Houston, Angela has felt the impacts of natural disasters and climate change first-hand. She previously served as her school’s first-ever Minister for Climate and Sustainability on the Undergraduate Council Executive Cabinet. Angela is passionate about youth climate advocacy and was fortunate enough to represent youth at COP27, COP15, EarthX 2022, Stockholm+50, C40 Cities Summit, and many more