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Reframing COP26

This month, our Journal welcomes a guest, our friend Oonagh, activist and filmmaker who worked in Occupy London, to share some ideas on change-making.

"Reframing COP26", by Oonagh Cousins, 29.09.2021

We are on the cusp of a shift in human behaviour and thought. A recent international survey by Global Commons Alliance found that 74% of people agreed countries should “move beyond focussing on jobs and profit, to instead focus more on the health and wellbeing of humans and nature.” That’s massive!

When I was an organiser in the Occupy Movement 10 years ago, the mainstream public agenda was finances first. To say “people and planet first” was wishy-washy hippy idealism. After decades of campaigning & centuries of endurance, it wasn’t until COP21 that indigenous leaders were allowed in the room where policy is made. This year, 100 indigenous leaders will attend. For the first time in COP history, its science department will begin dialoguing with indigenous elders. With thousands of years of ancestral knowledge, the world’s “oldest scientists” will meet with the new.

Amidst the general despair surrounding climate talks and the ever-terrifying climate reports, this essential shift in thought presents a hard-fought opportunity that would be frivolous to dismiss. Nobody can know if it will be enough to avoid catastrophic climate change at this year’s COP26, but it might. And if we rally behind it, the chances improve!

I have been an activist for 15 years in the UK. Alongside small clusters of ordinary people, I’ve helped organise grassroots movements like Sisters Uncut, that spilt onto national and international agendas, informing policies and sparking global action - several times! I helped found Sisters Uncut with less than a dozen people in a small office room, and only a year later there were hundreds of Sisters with groups popping up across the country.

The big question is: how do we win in the face of injustice? I ask myself that question most days. There is no single answer, but there is a reliable point of reference - if we want to know what winning looks like and how to achieve it in the face of terrible odds, I would say this: look to the global leadership of black, indigenous, brown & people of colour (BIPOC) movements, particularly when women lead. From the Bishnoi Women of 1730 to Standing Rock in 2016, environmental justice is not new, it’s a centuries-old battle. Despite centuries of persecution, the environmental leadership of indigenous communities reveals they are by far the greatest protectors of our natural world’s vital regions.

While 80% of the earth’s biodiversity rest in the safe hands of the indigenous, half the world's net financial wealth belongs to the top 1%. In turn, the wealthiest 1% account for 50% of emissions. History shows us the bottom line of power is to preserve the systems and quality of that power. The collective good doesn’t feature so highly as maintaining the familiar and the comfortable. Unfortunately, that comfort is built on an unsustainable system of extraction and extinction. In order to prevent the worst of climate change, we cannot rely only on meetings of the powerful at events like COP26.

Their bottom line is still based on profit and growth. If we promote the work of BIPOC climate leaders, local communities and a whole lot of young women currently flooding climate activism, we can count on them to advocate for a future that works for all. For example, the Indigenous Caucus was an important part of reducing the Paris Agreement’s initial aim of 2°C warming to closer to 1.5°C in 2015. There is a huge difference between those decimal points representing an immeasurable gift to life on earth.

When ordinary people try to move political mountains, we have to be tactical. Mapping out our best allies, and key annual events when our small body of people can have the greatest impact, preserves precious energies - COP is just one of these. In 2019, Nemonte Nenquimo, leader of the Waorani people, won a precedent-setting legal battle against the Ecuadorian government, protecting half a million acres of Amazon rainforest. Another immense gift to life on earth. More recently she co-founded Minga Indigina and the Allianze, which will bring 100 indigenous elders from around the world to COP26 for advocacy and creative interactions with civil society.

The work of fighting for climate justice happens all year round, but singular moments to come together in collective listening, dialogue, and action still have value. To rewrite our relationship with nature, action will be global or it will fail. Much like the non-hierarchical activism I’m used to, working as collectives requires a lot of patience for meetings and seemingly endless dialogue. The difference here is that COP is very much hierarchical and those with the most power are wealthier, industrialised nations who’ve caused the most harm.

Speaking with a UK environmental policy civil servant recently was both hopeful and cautionary. “I was not anticipating the [UK] 2030 ban on petrol and diesel cars would be agreed to. There was huge lobbying from the car industry to stop this commitment and the government did it anyway.” A Green Rush has begun in Europe with leaders eager to beat their counterparts in innovation and leadership. “The UK wants to be at the forefront of innovation - to be a leader… It has reduced emissions by 50%. We used to be 2% of global emissions, we are now less than one.” All good news, but is it good for everyone? “I believe you can get rich from the shift to Green. I’m not hopeless. I believe we can make 1.6 or 7, which isn’t great but it’s better than 2 degrees. Of course 1.6 degrees still results in massive suffering.” Oh. “Also…Where does cobalt come from to make your batteries to power all these smart tech solutions? Child miners in the Congo.”

If the interconnected nature of climate science and ecology has taught us anything, it’s that we act as one - divided we fall. In recent years, people across the political spectrum have argued that we have to “prioritise” climate solutions at any cost. They are profoundly wrong. It is in all our best interest that those with proven environmental leadership, who live closest to the land - and are the most marginalised by systems of oppression -, are leaders in the climate crisis recovery plan. Climate change, like all crises, exacerbates pre-existing inequalities. Wealthy powerful people who spend their time indoors might pretend climate change won’t touch them or their children (they’re wrong). But we can trust that those already living and fighting on the front lines of the crisis won’t take risks. Thousands of years of stewardship have already proven the spirit of preservation of life for all.

The Indigenous Environmental Network released a report in August 2021 stating that Indigenous resistance against fossil fuel expansion projects in Canada and the U.S. has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of the annual emissions in both countries. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) latest report makes several references to Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ knowledge of the Earth as essential resources in battling global warming.

In the 2015, Paris Agreement’s preamble parties acknowledged that action should be guided by knowledge of Indigenous peoples. But preamble acknowledgements do not equate to binding law. For COP26 to be a success, this initial recognition must be backed by clear policy enforced with binding laws holding power to account.

This summer, the IPCC finally confirmed what we’ve long known to be true; “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. (...) Human-induced climate change is already affecting weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.”

They told us that time has run out, climate change is here to stay. We saw unprecedented flooding and fires across the world. The people who thought they might be far from harm across Europe have been rightly frightened and, hopefully, humbled. The IPCC also told us that if we act boldly now we still have time to prevent the worst of climate change. Humility here is a profound strength which those of us accustomed to comfort and the illusion of power it offers might harness to survive. Our arrogance will destroy everything if we don’t re-ignite the power of humility.

The same survey, which found 73% of respondents ready to focus on people and planet before profit, also saw 83% of people willing to do more to become better “planetary stewards to protect and regenerate the global commons.” Humans, it seems, are ready to step into our power as stewards of the earth we cohabit.

From conversations with both national and local government, the value of COP is clear “We’re not gonna get anything done without international agreements.” The British government is desperate not to embarrass itself. “COP needs momentum behind it when it happens. We need to put on a good show or it’s an embarrassment. (...) The Net Zero Roadmap wouldn’t have happened without COP.” Like our climate, politics and businesses operate on a global platform, activists and NGO’s must do the same.

The actions of indigenous and community activists across the globe has profound impact on all our futures. Activists would do well to explore what BIPOC movements we can support. There is an encouragement to think local and to think micro: planting trees in your garden, letting the grass grow for pollinators or switching to electric cars. These are needed initiatives. But they’re also not enough; they atomise the immense growth in climate consciousness to individual actions.

It is individualism that has caused this mess. Nature is asking us to reconnect with our commons, to collectivise.

The privileges of big business come clear when we learn that British Petroleum helped popularise the term “carbon footprint” to keep the focus on individual actions rather than their own whopping responsibilities. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. If we do not stop these companies, the trees in our gardens will not make the difference needed. Despite a record number of climate pledges by big businesses, governments do not have regulatory and monitoring services to ensure these pledges are more than words. Governments need to put in place legislative and regulatory frameworks for big business’ climate claims. COP26 is the place to make this happen.

In many areas, local communities and indigenous activists have been fighting these companies on the ground for tens if not hundreds of years, in one form or other. Where indigenous and local activists in the Amazon basin fight illegal extraction, you can bet the offending companies have headquarters in your capital city, or perhaps your bank invests in them. Big business is always international.

An idea is to build alliances with local activists overseas and agree on a smart target in your own country. By supporting their cause we resolve our own and turn climate crisis into climate justice for all!


ORGS to Follow

  • The Minga Indígena is the indigenous peoples’ alternative to COP26 in Glasgow 2021. There will be over 80 activities for civil society to engage with indigenous elders.

  • Alianza is a collective coordinator of the Indigenous organisations of the Amazon Basin.

  • The COP26 Coalition is a UK-based civil society coalition of groups and individuals mobilising around climate justice during COP26.

  • Union of Justice is a European, independent, people of colour (POC) led organisation dedicated to racial justice and climate justice. See Magid Magid, former mayor of Sheffield/UK.

  • Climate Reframe: the who’s who of climate activism and expertise in the UK. A fantastic directory to lead you to the contacts you need for COP26 and beyond. “The Climate Reframe project will highlight some of the best Black, Brown, Asian, People of Colour and UK based Indigenous Peoples who are climate experts, campaigners and advocates living and working in the UK.”

  • Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (LCIPP) gives indigenous peoples and local communities all over the world a new and direct way to share their knowledge, and facilitates their engagement in climate action with Parties and other stakeholders.

  • The Be The Earth Foundation Instagram ( is a great source for insightful ideas on what you can do to take action, interesting orgs to follow, and other opportunities for activists and change-makers.

People to Follow

  • Nemonte Nenquimo is an Indigenous activist and member of the Waorani nation from the Amazonian Region of Ecuador. She protected 500,000 acres of rainforest from oil extraction with a precedent-setting legal case against the Ecuadorian Government.

  • @LizWathuti, Climate Activist, Kenya. Liz Wathuti is a Kenyan environment and climate activist and founder of the Green Generation Initiative, which nurtures young people to love nature and be environmentally conscious at a young age and has now planted 30,000 tree seedlings in Kenya.

  • @AutumnPeltier is an Anishinaabe Indigenous clean water advocate from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. Autumn Peltier is also Chief Water Protector for the Aniishnabek Nation and has been called a "water warrior".

  • @xiyebeara is a Mexican-Chilean climate activist and member of the indigenous Mexican Otomi-Toltec nation. Xiye Bastida is known for being a leading voice for indigenous and immigrant visibility in climate activism. She is on the administration committee of the People's Climate Movement.

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