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Some of the Most Important Connections at COP28 Aren’t Between Heads of States

In the ashes of disappointing negotiations rises a global climate movement demanding action and building solidarity.

Attendees of the People's Plenary at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's 28th Conference of Parties shout in support of the Palestinian people at Expo City Dubai on December 11, 2023.

A cache of international documents published in late November by the nonprofit Center for Climate Reporting revealed how Emirates officials plotted to use the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 28th Conference of Parties (COP28), hosted in Dubai, as an opportunity to expand their oil contracts with other countries.

The revelations were published days before COP28 began, dealing a huge blow to the public confidence in the climate negotiation process. Scientists, policy makers, grassroots organizers, advocates and researchers worldwide are growing increasingly skeptical of the UN negotiation’s ability to deliver meaningful climate action. Even still, COP has its silver linings: The most hopeful elements of the summit aren’t always the negotiations themselves but the convening of its skeptics, who sustain a vibrant climate movement.

The COP summit is the annual convening of world leaders held by the UN to discuss international climate goals, implement treaties, take stock of progress and build national coalitions. There have been some meaningful breakthroughs through the negotiations, like the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015 where most countries formally agreed to cut emissions. However, the process has witnessed various setbacks with political stalemates, failed proposals and inaction by polluting industries. Creating meaningful international climate commitments at COP is nothing short of an uphill battle.

But in the background of these negotiations, thousands of nonprofits, researchers, scientists, representatives of grassroots movements, industry leaders, Land Defenders, academics and local government officials likewise come together. Their goals are diverse, with some groups interested in shaping negotiations for better or worse. Others are there to meet with their national officials and hold them accountable by recording their promises.

Over the past three years, I’ve worked with various organizations preparing for the COP summits. My work has touched on everything from food systems, loss and damages, to feminist and youth movements. Last year I even had the opportunity to speak on a panel about gender and climate change at COP27, hosted in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. I also worked with the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and Climate Justice Coalition, a network of organizations breaking down silos between reproductive rights and climate issues, on advocacy strategy last year. It was exciting to collaborate with gender equality organizations and experts across the world working toward a just and sustainable planet. There was so much to learn and share about how the climate crisis is affecting different communities. Yet it was very empowering to find common ground with others and witness an ever-growing, passionate, diverse and energetic climate movement solidify its vision and voice.

These summits are important political moments for the international climate movement as activists pursue climate action across multiple fronts. It’s always surprising to see the numerous and diverse events happening at and surrounding the COP — food systems, urban development, energy, human rights, public health, animal well-being, forestry, marine biology, water systems and the fashion supply chain, to name a few. It’s an important reminder that the fight for an equitable and sustainable world is multifaceted. With such a wide range of issues falling under climate change, a greater climate movement can often be fragmented and siloed. This is the magic of global climate convenings that bring these issues under one roof.

Even when the formal negotiations at these summits are stalled, there is no shortage of connections, collaborations and conversations happening. COP28 is an opportunity for local governments, grassroots movements, researchers and policy makers to meet each other and share knowledge, policies and strategies to build transnational networks. It has also been the site for critical cross-pollination as people from different sectors involved in climate action connect their work.

The role of for-profit businesses tends to be a little trickier, as more and more corporations attend. At best, COP28 can be a space for green technology specialists to strike important connections, learn about new opportunities and support implementation on the ground. Some corporations have taken action in making emission-cut commitments. At its worst, polluting industries can use COP28 as a lobbying opportunity to distract from meaningful climate action. This is especially true as a record number of lobbyists inundate COP28. Earlier this year, a rule was implemented in which fossil fuel-associated lobbyists were required to disclose their affiliation so that other stakeholders can fairly assess these companies’ role in their work.

Most importantly, as various stakeholders make fruitful connections during COP28, their very presence helps keep the pressure on the governments in the negotiation. Being in a space surrounded by experts across the climate sector helps challenge climate dis/misinformation, flag commitments and keep a watchful eye on governments. This is essential when polluting industries use the summit as a prime opportunity to pressure governments to keep their interest in mind. Advocates, scientists, researchers and local officials are the safeguards defending the need for real climate policies.

Even with the exciting opportunity to engage in global climate movements, many climate justice advocates aren’t quite sure if this is enough to overcome the corporate capture of the COP process. This has led to calls for boycotts during the last few COP events, and alternative climate spaces for various organizations calling out the empty promises from leaders of the most polluting countries. Throughout the year, there are dozens of various climate summits, conferences, events and spaces that convene various stakeholders. Still, there aren’t other strong mechanisms to bring together the majority of world leaders to consider the climate crisis and implement systematic change. As the clock ticks and our window of time for urgent climate action closes, I question if we have time to reinvent the wheel or to create something better.

Our best hope for future climate summits is the unwavering work of nonstate actors to keep politicians in check and fend off the nefarious influence of corporations and the fossil fuel industry. Their work is only possible with the support of everyday people who continue to demand a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels.

As COP28 negotiations wind down, many participants remain skeptical of its ability to lead the necessary change we need to avoid climate collapse. This concern is heightened as the summit’s host country, the United Arab Emirates, continues to undermine the global climate negotiations.

But amid this convening of heads of state, a legion of researchers, scientists, grassroots organizers and local officials are some of the most important actors. In the ashes of disappointing negotiations rises a global climate movement pushing for change, demanding action from governments and working to build solidarity.

I hope this solidarity can change the tides of lackluster political will at future COPs and get world leaders back on track to fulfilling their promises.

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