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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Welcome to COP27. Thank You for Not Protesting

Inés Yábar, a 26-year-old climate activist from Peru, was not sure if she wanted to go to COP27. In prior years, she had been excited for the UN climate meeting—to have two weeks to talk about the health of the planet, and only the health of the planet, with the most powerful people in the world. Three years ago, she first attended the conference as part of the Peruvian delegation, sitting in closed-door meetings where she was often the only person under 30. At the next, as part of the group Restless Development, she chased down delegates and gave them personalized letters from young people who, for reasons of money or visas or credentials, could not attend. Then she would join the hundreds of thousands of people taking part in rollicking weekend protests outside the conference venue in Glasgow, Scotland. Badge-wearing activists from within the conference mingled with anarchists and instigators on the outside, hoping to grab the attention of the cameras—and, hopefully, the negotiators. “It was a reminder to everyone on the inside—myself included—that we had to do more,” she says.

But Yábar was no longer entirely sure she believed in the concept of COP. There was the hypocrisy, the greenwashing, the inaction—a lot of, as Greta Thunberg put it, “blah, blah, blah.” And there was the decision to hold it in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, a city hemmed in by the gleaming, coral-filled Red Sea on one side and a concrete barrier on the other. A city in a police state that frequently imprisons protesters, where no one was expecting many activists to show up. A city where protesting has to take place in a designated zone. “Do not protest here,” Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, warned his fellow Egyptians at a Human Rights Watch event held at COP last week. It simply wouldn’t be worth the risk of surveillance and reprisal. And for many activists from outside the country, especially young people, holding COP here has meant it has been too difficult and costly to attend. Some funders that would send young activists to the conference have pulled out, citing human rights conditions.

“The organizers don’t want the pressure,” says Simeon Kalua, a 23-year-old climate activist from Malawi who was unable to get to COP27 due to lack of funding and sponsorship. He wanted to be there to turn diplomats’ attention to drought in his country and press them on their failure to deliver on climate promises. Seeing so many activists like Kalua unable to make it, together with the limits on the right to protest, swayed Yábar’s decision to go at least one more time. It seemed all the more important to spread the messages of those absent.

At COP27, young activists like Yábar inside the conference have found themselves in an odd position. Activists attending COP have always had to strike a balance between holding UN-issued badges and advocating for their causes. But the inability to join with more radical protesters, and ratchet up tactics outside the venue, is new. The result has been simmering tension at the conference, without the usual release valve of outside protest. “It’s taking the teeth out of climate activism,” says Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies environmental protest movements. “The people who are there are trying to not get kicked out.”

Much of Yábar’s time has been spent in the COP’s dedicated space for youth and children, which the UN and Egypt have promoted as an important first for the conference. She’s happy to see all the young faces—both the first-timers and the veterans with large social media followings, sometimes referred to by other activists as “the golden circle.” And she continues to think that young people have an important role in pressing delegates on climate justice from the inside. But “it’s a curated experience,” she says. A dedicated space for photo ops and talks about climate justice, as she puts it, is simply not the same as protesting. “We need both.”

Occasionally, that tension has burst into the open. At the HRW event, supporters of Alaa Abd el-Fattah and other imprisoned Egyptian activists briefly rushed the stage. And at President Biden’s address to the conference, four protesters interrupted his speech, letting out a war cry and holding up a banner calling on the president to declare a climate emergency. They were immediately deemed a threat by UN security and stripped of their COP badges. Even then, they had hoped to calibrate their disruption to get their point across without losing access. “It was strategic for us to not be as disruptive as others have been,” says Jacob Johns, an Akimel O’otham and Hopi climate activist from Washington state who organized the action, speaking from his hotel in Sharm el Sheikh. The group has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to get their badges back from the UN.

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Fisher had expected to see more instigation inside the conference this year. Anger at the COP process has been mounting with each year of inaction, she says, and she assumed that choosing Egypt as a host might inspire some people to register with a plan to disrupt the proceedings. That could still be the case, especially if the talks appear to be headed toward a disappointing conclusion. “The whole world will be watching whatever happens in Egypt,” she says. “My money is still on something happening there.”

So far, that hasn’t happened. Each morning, small NGO-affiliated groups have gathered near the conference entrance, chanting slogans about issues that are core to the negotiations, such as climate reparations, or pushing back on the COP process and membership, which includes more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists. Most of the actions have attracted a few dozen protesters and roughly an equal number journalists. They appear on a tidy schedule, each graciously yielding a shaded patch of the conference area for the next.

“Those aren’t protests. Those are meetings,” said a young attendee from Palestine, who did not wish to be named before she arrived safely home, as she pulled out her phone to record two men, one dressed as a T-rex and the other as a skeleton. The dinosaur was set to receive an award called “Fossil of the Day,” given to the COP participant deemed most hypocritical by Climate Action Network, a watchdog group. The citation, read over the Jurassic Park theme song, described a failure to uphold basic human rights and the ability to protest on climate issues. The recipient, in absentia: Egypt. The crowd gasped. “I hope I’m still allowed here tomorrow,” the skeleton said. The next day, the prize again went to Egypt.

Briefly on Saturday, the traditional day for large protests outside COP meetings, NGOs held a sanctioned march inside the venue that they called a “symbolic” action, highlighting the inability for protesters to gather outside. Activists have otherwise spurned Egypt’s dedicated protest zone. A visit to the area, which involved a lengthy shuttle ride from the area where delegates are meeting, followed by a lengthy search for the site with the help of bewildered security guards, found a barren scene. A staff member, lounging in the shade cast by a shipping container with a coffee bar inside, said he hadn’t seen any protesters there.

Instead, those protests have been happening elsewhere in the world. In the lead-up to COP, activist groups like Just Stop Oil began a campaign of throwing food at (glass-covered) artwork. And during the conference, dozens of protesters in the UK and Europe have been arrested for blocking roads. Fisher expects those actions to continue escalating. Because how could they not, as the impacts of climate change only get worse? But perhaps not at COP, she says, pointing out that COP28 will be hosted in Dubai, another place where it is not possible to protest without permission.

Perhaps that's a better way of galvanizing politicians to act on climate changes anyway, she adds, noting that nation-states, not international meetings, are increasingly seen as the crucibles of climate action. “It used to be that if you cared about climate, you needed to go to climate negotiations to get your voice heard,” Fisher says. “That isn’t true anymore.” That’s one reason Johns chose to interrupt the American president, in particular, at COP. “We must mobilize in our own countries,” he says.

In the meantime, Yábar continues her work trying to amplify the voices of people missing from the conference. There have been moments that inspire optimism, she says, like when the Kenyan delegation stopped by and didn’t just give the young people a speech, but joined them in small groups and listened to their concerns. And she is happy, as a third-timer, to be a guide for the newbies at a notoriously overwhelming event. But the tension is still simmering. People in the youth groups were murmuring about an action of some kind, and she and her friends started making protest signs, using materials provided by UNESCO. They had not decided how to use them yet. But, she adds, they had been given free rein to say whatever they wanted.

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