Reflections on COP26 with Emily Tammes
I was lucky enough to attend this year’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of the Parties (COP26) virtually via the Global Voices UNFCCC Fellowship Program, and it was an eye-opening experience to say the least. Attending a mixture of Blue Zone (not publicly accessible) and Green Zone (publicly accessible) events, I was struck by the uneven gender ratios between the two. Blue Zone events are run by the conference hosts, and typically set the tone for the closed negotiation sessions where Country Delegates refine the details of future international climate action and cooperation. On the other hand, Green Zone events are organised by private and civil organisations, and tend to take a more conversational tone as a space to showcase and share ideas and innovations. While the Green Zone Events I attended generally had either female dominant, or gender balanced panels, Blue Zone Events were typically dominated by Caucasian males, with minimal exceptions.
In many of the Green Zone sessions I attended, women from across the world from a variety of different socioeconomic situations, all had the same point: societies — especially in developing, agrarian economies — tend to be female-led at a local level, with women’s knowledge being garnered and respected. However this knowledge has great difficulty being translated beyond the local, and onto the regional, national or international stages. The struggle for recognition of female voices and knowledge recurring motif across many of the Green Zone events I attended.
Additionally, while the female speakers in the Green Zone were impassioned, emotive and easily accessible, the formality of the Blue Zone meant that many female speakers, as with their male counterparts, frequently lacked emotion and relatability. It seems impossible that we can truly achieve cross-societal climate action while the climate policy and innovation space remains bound by stale bureaucracy.
However, there was one speech from the Opening Plenary that I found particularly moving, and that has stuck with me. Kenyan environmental activist Elizabeth Wathuti’s speech at the Opening Plenary was a powerful demonstration of the direction future climate dialogues need to take. As a young woman of colour, Wathuti’s presence at this high-level event was a symbolic moment for a desperately under-represented demographic on the international stage.
The children cannot live on words and empty promises. They are waiting for you to act.
Juxtaposing moving personal anecdotes of struggling children in her home community with scientific fact, Wathuti brought forth the voices of generations before her with awe-inspiring passion. Speaking in such a compelling manner, Wathuti became a face for the unknown billions — predominantly in the Global South — suffering from human-induced climate change, largely caused by geographically distant developed countries. Within the framework of conflict remembrance, Wathuti paused her speech with a call for a moment of silence, to reflect on the plights of those not privileged enough to have their voices heard on the international stage.
Join me in holding a moment of compassionate silence for the billions of people who are not here with us today, whose stories are not being heard, and whose suffering is not being felt.
Wathuti’s well-measured, yet fierce composure in the face of adverse climactic impacts she has contributed little to, was an exemplary representation of where future climate dialogue needs to go. We need the voices of the women, children and youth of the Global South, not just the Global North, and we must listen to their experiences if we are to truly combat the mammoth challenges presented by anthropogenic climate change.
Please, open your hearts. If you allow yourself to feel it, the heartbreak and the injustice is hard to bear.
Just as the COP26 conference has highlighted, we must listen to the women. More often than not, especially in developing economies, the women are the primary caretakers of the land and understand the beautiful symbiotic relationship between us and the living ecosystem around us. We ought to value female perspectives equally, if not more than we currently do male.
I recently read Sand Talk: how Indigenous thinking can save the world, by Tyson Yunkaporta, and perhaps one of the most significant moments of the entire work was towards the end, where Yunkaporta created a link between the demise of matriarchal societies and the transition towards increasingly unsustainable lifestyles. Within the framework of the current uneven global wealth distribution, Yunkaporta highlights the recurrent historical downfalls of societies that have attempted to suppress the true strength of women. Indeed, it is this uneven landscape that we must continue to redress via figures such as Wathuti, if we are to truly have a positive impact on our planet.
Wathuti, and the powerful female activists like her, have an additional important role to play in reminding us of our raw strength as women. While colonising societies have sought to pacify women, and thus rendered themselves unsustainable, Yunkaporta presents the continued acknowledgement of feminine strength in Indigenous cultures through the knowledge of female and male spirits within the same entity, as a critical aspect of their inherent sustainability. Perhaps if men learnt to embrace their feminine side, and allowed women to harness their raw, masculine energies, we would be in a stronger position to help heal our planet.
Thus, although COP26 was dominated by the quintessential stale, pale and male stereotype, there was also much to be gained in the boundaries. Figures such as Wathuti would likely not have been granted access to the podium in the Green Zone, let alone the Blue Zone, even 5 years ago. We have come so far in a short period of time, and yet we have so much further to go.
I am woman, hear me roar.
One of my favourite movies of the year has been Cruella. Emma Stone highlights the primal power of woman in her adaptation of this infamous Disney “villain”, and yet she is not a villain but rather and anti-hero. Cruella demonstrates what happens when men try to squash the pure ambition and innate strength of women, and those in charge should take note: she embodies the female leader.
The future is female, and no, I am not suggesting a reversion back to matriarchal societies, but rather arguing for compassionate understanding. As Wathuti repeated throughout her speech, “please, open your hearts”. The male leaders of the world need to listen, and empathise with the plight of women. We must take our knowledge and leadership beyond the local, and there must be a global shift towards recognising the true capacities of female knowledge. That is my key takeaway from the COP26 Climate Conference.