At U.N. climate summit, activists, Indigenous delegates call on wealthy West to do more
The 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference known as COP26 wraps up in Glasgow, Scotland today. The event provides an international stage for global leaders to explain how they intend to fight climate change, but environmental activists say not nearly enough is being done to avert a climate catastrophe.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with independent journalist and writer Amy Kolb Noyes, who attended COP26 through an invitation from a Northern Vermont University adjunct professor working with iCET, the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation, a Beijing-based international nonprofit. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Give us the broad takeaways from COP26 in Glasgow over the last two weeks. What is actually coming out of this international climate summit?
Amy Kolb Noyes: There's been a couple of big announcements. The two biggest carbon-emitting countries, China and the U.S., have agreed to take some action to phase out coal, to cut methane emissions, and to protect forests. But I should note critics doubt that agreement will go far enough.
And some countries, companies, and localized governments like cities and states have committed to phasing out fossil fuel vehicles by 2040. China and the U.S. did not make that pledge, but some states and U.S. carmakers did sign on to that.
What other big issues really failed to come to fruition out of this meeting?
Definitely. The pledges made by policymakers at COP26 do not add up to the global emission reductions that scientists say we need to avoid major climate change. They won't hold global warming to 1.5°C, which was the standard set by the Paris Climate Agreement back in 2015.
So, the world's political leaders say they're going to do things to address climate change. But you say there were many activists and delegates from Indigenous groups, in particular what’s collectively been called the “global south,” who are really skeptical about this. What did you see in that regard at COP?
Yeah, I was really impressed by the number of young people, especially young women, who were there representing their communities. They were very vocal, many saying their politicians can't be trusted, and that they're the people protecting the earth and the carbon sinks, like the Amazon rainforest.
One activist from northern Pakistan, named Ayesha, had strong words for Western countries while speaking at a youth rally last Friday. She says wealthy Western countries have a history of exploiting the "global south" for natural resources like oil, the very resources that are often the primary drivers of climate change.
“I became involved in the climate movement not because I wanted to protect the environment, although that is a very important and necessary reason," Ayesha said. "I became involved because the 'global north' has slaughtered, bombed and starved my people to death in the name of oil.”
We heard from speakers from many Indigenous communities at that rally. And they're really getting it from both ends. They're experiencing violent weather events from climate change, and there's also big industries like oil companies prospecting the land they're trying to protect.
There's this immense frustration among activists who say the climate crisis that could displace or eradicate their way of life is being ignored by wealthy Western leaders.
Here's one young woman from Jamaica — unfortunately, I didn't get her name — but she was speaking at that same rally:
“Last week, my heart was broken by the people inside that COP building," she said. "By the world leaders who steal our sacred words and use them to defend and uphold the oppressive systems of capitalism and white supremacy. Who tell us the action needed to prevent sea level rise engulfing my ancestral home in Jamaica is impossible or not practical.”
You can hear the emotion in her voice there. Indigenous communities in the "global south" say they're protecting the vast majority of the Earth's natural resources, and they have a very low carbon footprint for their communities, but they're already suffering the consequences of global warming.
Some really emotional sound there, Amy. One thing that seems inescapable about this climate conversation is that it's as much a financial issue as it is an environmental one. You sat in on some high-level talks I understand related to finance and climate change at COP26. What did you hear there?
Yeah, I learned that $130 trillion will be needed to achieve worldwide net-zero emissions. That's a really big number.
Here's U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calling for global leaders to embrace the expensive investments needed to combat climate change. Investments, she says, will have major economic upshots.
“Tackling the climate crisis is imperative," Yellen said. "And at the same time, it's the greatest economic opportunity of our time. We can, and will, create good-paying jobs and new industries as we tackle climate change. This holds true not just for the United States, but for all countries.”
And another figure that stood out to me is, there are still 800 million people in the world living without energy. So, it behooves us to make sure new energy systems that are coming online rely on green energy, rather than coal-fired plants, or something like that. And if we want that to happen, we're going to have to figure out how to pay for it.
And really all this connects back to one of the reasons that you were able to attend COP26 in the first place. You were invited by a Northern Vermont University adjunct professor, who has been working with an international nonprofit. That professor, I understand, is hoping to get some accreditation, which could see NVU students potentially attend future COP events. What else can you tell us about that?
This is so exciting to me. Adjunct professor Lucia Green-Weiskel is proposing NVU add a global climate change course, where students can learn about climate policy, technology, science, finance, all of it. And they'll work with Vermont lawmakers on local policy objectives. And then they'll travel to future U.N. climate change conferences as a student delegation.