One of the most anticipated rounds of international climate negotiations this decade will go down at a United Nations summit in Glasgow over the next couple weeks. But many representatives from the frontlines of the climate crisis won’t be there: people from islands that may be lost under rising seas, representatives of indigenous tribes, and activists who typically turn high-level negotiations into boisterous events with their demonstrations.
The 26th annual United Nations Conference of Parties, or COP26, is the five-year anniversary of the Paris climate accords. Signatories, which included nearly every country on Earth, agreed to limit global warming to a level that might be manageable for humanity. Those nations are not close to meeting the goals to which they agreed. In a typical year, the summit also attracts thousands of people without badges to enter the conference grounds to push for certain policies. But this year, when Paris accord signatories have been asked to come with heightened ambitions, it will be harder for these activists to make themselves heard.
They won’t be coming mostly because of the pandemic, uneven vaccine rollout, and miles of red tape. Those who were able to get over those hurdles did so at enormous costs and anticipate more challenges on the ground.
“How much can you actually reasonably negotiate when you’re exhausted, and when you feel something is unfair … And on top of that, you’re scared of getting COVID,” says Adrián Martinez, founder and director of the NGO La Ruta Del Clima based in Costa Rica. “How will that affect a balanced and just outcome?”
This year, many participants from vulnerable and developing nations want money to go to places that have already suffered permanent and irreparable damage because of climate change. Some populations in low-lying islands, like the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, for instance, have already begun to abandon their homes. The battle to acknowledge loss and damage has ensued since Paris, and now advocates are continuing that fight with one arm tied behind their backs.
A third of small island nations and territories in the Pacific, which are considered among the most vulnerable to rising sea levels that eat up low-lying land, won’t be sending any government officials to negotiate on their behalf, The Guardian reported last week. Instead, the countries will tap people from their missions in Europe or the US.
During the Paris negotiations, those nations fought to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees, rather than a less ambitious 2 degrees that other countries preferred. That half-degree difference means 40,000 fewer people around the world will have their land gobbled up by rising seas by 2150. In Paris, the small island nations won a sort of half-victory. The language in the agreement ended up committing countries to hold global average temperatures “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.”
UK event organizers said that they would provide vaccines to delegates who needed them but didn’t begin offering first doses until about two months before the summit, which kicks off October 31. That didn’t leave much time to receive two-dose vaccinations or make travel plans that comply with the UK’s COVID-related restrictions. The UK required visitors from “red-listed” countries to quarantine in a hotel for up to 10 days upon arrival, a huge extra cost for many people traveling to the conference — up to $3,600 per person, according to Martinez.
Last-minute changes — which were usually out of attendees’ control — saddled participants with higher bills. Martinez and his colleagues booked an Airbnb near the summit six months in advance. But weeks before the conference, the host doubled the price. They rushed to find somewhere else to stay and settled on lodging in Edinburgh — more than an hour’s drive from Glasgow.
Even with travel plans set, attendees are anxious. “This will be the first time I’m going to set foot basically out of my house. COVID has ravaged our country very badly. I’ve had personal losses,” says Tasneem Essop, executive director of the international Climate Action Network, who lives in South Africa. “For me, it’s a bit traumatic, you know, the thought of actually going and traveling to Glasgow and being part of this big event. But I am going.”
All these added stressors ultimately sap energy from advocacy and negotiations at the summit, which often go around the clock. “All this disruption has, for sure, reduced a lot of the delegations from the Global South,” Martinez says. That means fewer subject matter experts to tackle certain priorities, according to Martinez, and delegates might not be able to take breaks by tapping each other in and out of lengthy negotiations. That creates an uneven playing field, he says, because wealthier nations will likely have the resources to vaccinate and fund larger delegations — which he fears might give them more influence during the talks.
The Climate Action Network and Greenpeace actually pushed COP26 organizers last month to delay the summit. But after having already postponed the negotiations for a year because of the pandemic, summit organizers did not budge.
A coalition of environmental groups, called the COP26 Coalition, started a program this year to help potential attendees get their visas and fulfill requirements to participate in the summit. It had over 150 open cases. Of those, two-thirds of the people they sought to help ultimately decided not to attend. That’s probably just a small fraction of everyone who ended up falling through the cracks, according to Rachael Osgood, the lead immigration and international logistics coordinator for the coalition.
“This is the structural silencing of thousands of people. And those thousands speak on behalf of the most affected areas around the world,” Osgood says. “They represent millions. And for all those on the frontline of this crisis, who have little to no representation, this is a death sentence.”