What I learned about (climate) change at COP26

Lily Margaroli is President at Exeter Students' Guild

After a week spent in the blue zone of COP26 as a student rep, “rubbing shoulders” with world “leaders”, I feel none the wiser as to how they are going to solve climate change and hit our 1.5 targets.

But on the flipside, I’ve never felt more invigorated – about the changes that I can make and I think higher education can make to improve our impact on the climate.

I often meet people who seem to bemoan a lost world, where higher education was somehow separate from and able merely to observe the rest of society.

COP felt like that. It was so easy to imagine that outside the boundaries of Glasgow the world had stopped, where people had simply become spectators, and everyone was hanging on to every last decision and conversation that was being had.

But the bubble quickly shattered and reality kicked in when I returned – and people weren’t asking what I thought of the initial hesitancy of India’s president to attend, or what I thought about the fact that the largest delegation at OCOP came from oil and gas companies? Instead, they asked “so what is COP?” and on the UN, “what can they actually do if countries break their promises” – and in explaining this, I suppose the answer is … in reality, not a whole lot.

The event itself aimed to put concrete plans in place to commit to the Paris 21 1.5 agreement. Despite the late flurry of activity, which seemed to be strategically placed at the end of the event so it didn’t seem like a complete failure, we haven’t seen any legitimate plans to keep to 1.5. Even if countries keep to their commitments, which we know they won’t, we will see a 2.4 temperature rise. How can that be our best case scenario?

When trying to drive change, there are two camps – “if you fail, try try try again”, and “if you do the same thing over and over again and expect different results you are mad”. COP 26 fell firmly into the latter. The parties are meeting for the 26th time to solve climate change, clearly it hasn’t been solved yet, but we still continue to go down the same routes to try and solve it.

Climate change is a symptom of a broken system, where focussing on treating a symptom is never going to solve the problem, it will keep coming back time and time again. We need to shift our focus onto changing our system so that it doesn’t inherently lead to greedy, short-termist, profiteering activity at the expense of the world around us (amongst a plethora of other pitfalls that our current economic system has).

But the enormity of the challenge of changing a whole system – which student leaders face every day on a range of issues – doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference or should give up. Here’s what I learned about tackling the enormous challenges during my week in Glasgow.

The frictionless pleasures of the elite

After an 11 hour train journey from Exeter to Glasgow, I was not at all surprised to find that it had taken Biden less time to arrive in Scotland from all the way across the pond. I was not expecting Biden et al to take a Greta-like trip across the Atlantic, but it does seem like a slap in the face to the delegates who have been so strongly encouraged to considered the impact of their travels on the climate to find that not only did Biden fly over in a huge plane, but so did a fleet of his cars.

We all remember being a child and being told to “do as I say not as I do” and, at least personally, the absolute rage which ensued. It seems we are being told the exact same things from our leaders. They are able to enjoy the frictionless pleasures of life. The rest of us must wake up at 6am to get on an old, hot, ramshackled train to get to sunny Scotland.

It reminds me of the G7 event, held slightly closer to home here in Cornwall, where they served steak and lobster at the leader’s dinner. You don’t have to be campaigning for compulsory veganism to spot that doing so might signal a lack of commitment to sustainability.

How can we listen to the words of our world leaders when in an entire year, I won’t emit as much carbon as Biden and his team did just by stepping foot in Glasgow?

It is easy, especially for politicians, to point fingers. Conversations from leaders in the West often concluded that “yes we must do more, but gosh look at how terrible that country is”. It’s all well and good to move blame to other countries, but we must remember that if your country is struggling with issues that impact the day to day lives of their population – like putting food on the table, housing conditions, and the impacts of the ongoing pandemics – climate change isn’t going to be on the top of your agenda. And we should remember that for some countries, climate change is already impacting day to day life.

If during the height of the pandemic in the UK, Boris Johnson stood up and said actually we are not going to put all of our resource into dealing with this issue, we are going to put 10 percent into the pandemic and 90 percent into the climate crisis – we would have (reasonably so) been fairly unhappy.

So we shouldn’t expect other countries to prioritise the climate crisis over working on solutions for other problems which in the immediate future pose more of a risk to their population.

Treating the symptoms won’t heal a broken system

I have always been interested in the stark disconnect we see in almost every policy field between policy making and research. This was physically displayed at COP26 – plenaries (where decisions were made by policymakers) were in a completely different area to the science pavilions (where all the researchers and academics were and shared their knowledge and findings).

That gap between policy and research has to be bridged, and effort needs to come from both sides to do this. Researchers must understand the political implications of the decisions politicians must make, and be cognisant of this when lobbying for change, in the presentation of recommendations, and in the specific recommendations that they make. Politicians need to listen to the scientists, and academics and researchers must be invited into the rooms where decisions are made, given the floor to speak, and listened to.

Heavily academic rhetoric might not sway the public vote, but it’s the spin doctors’ job to take the top-level academic work and make it resonate with the public – not ignore what the scientists say just because it might prove difficult to explain.

Hope is not lost and lessons learned

The good news is that outside of the negotiating rooms there was a distinct “Irn Bru” induced buzz about the place – a combination of frustration towards the lack of leadership from our so-called leaders, and a feeling of excitement towards the amazing work that was being undertaken by researchers, activists and social justice groups created the perfect atmosphere to talk about what we could do to save the world. Or maybe it was the frustration felt towards those on the “inside” which drove the connection and action of us left on the fringes.

In my role I will be taking three key things forward with me. Firstly, making our campus and community more sustainable. This may not, on an international scale, make a huge difference – but small alterations (think improved recycling facilities, more plant based food options, reduced single use materials) will lead to our community making more climate aware choices, and these small behavioural changes can embed thinking about the climate into our everyday lives – which will have a big compounds impact on the future!

Secondly, I’ll be lobbying for climate education in all courses – at least as an option – but ideally compulsory). Climate change will affect all industries, so everyone must be aware of its impact, and since climate action is needed in all industries (and all industries must work together to solve this issue) we need every academic area on board.

Finally, let’s review that pesky 2050 carbon net-zero goal.

There is no doubt in my mind that we need the big guns to make some serious policy changes and commitments if we are to remain on track with goals set out in the Paris Agreement. But the pressure to force this decision starts local – for me it’s personal changes and lobbying.

In my role as Students’ Guild President, I won’t stand on the sidelines – we must not fall into the trap of asking more from our community without making serious changes at an institutional level, we have the leading researchers within our institution, so we must take heed of their words and work and act now.

I implore others to join me in making the personal changes where possible – and for one of those personal changes to be making your voice heard in asking the institutions you are a part of to be more ambitious in our fight against climate change.

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One response to “What I learned about (climate) change at COP26

  1. Sadly this reads as many other reports from attendee’s, and whilst student fervour can be a good thing how many of those attending actually questioned the reports, and proposals, in depth if at all?

    Dwight D Eisenhower’s farewell address. Or what has come to be known as the “Military-Industrial Complex” speech. Was a warning on many levels, mostly we hear this part:

    “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

    But this part is more important and is perhaps a prescient warning:

    “Akin to and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial military posture has been the technological revolution during the recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central. It also becomes more formalized, complex and costly.

    “A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by or at the direction of the federal government. Today, the solitary inventor tinkering in his shop has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields.

    “In the same fashion the free university – historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery – has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

    “Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

    “It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system-ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”

    The wholesale failure to question the ‘received wisdom’ and apply Scientific Method by blindly accepting ‘consensus science’ is a failure that reflects badly upon the whole University Academic Enterprise and our preparation of our students for the ‘real world ™’ and the critical thinking it will require to deal with climate change.

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