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Why COP26 means that public engagement matters more than ever before

By Robin Webster on November 17, 2021

Construction workers in Egypt fortify the banks of the Nile against erosion.

The goal of keeping warming to 1.5C is still alive, but it’s on life support. And going forwards requires hope. So where is hope to be found? It has to be in the rising tide of concern about climate change around the world, and people’s desire to show up and be part of the solution.

The media loves drama, and over the years many of the 26 COPs have delivered. The Glasgow talks fulfilled the brief, encompassing last minute negotiations, deadlines, tears and arguments over the exact textual meaning of ‘requests’ vs ‘urges’. 

But Glasgow was different to many previous COPs in one key way: we are now in the era of delivery and not promises. Arguments over targets and negotiation texts can only get us so far. You can hear it in the restlessness of protestors outside the conference fence, you can hear it in the determination of young climate justice campaigners to make their voices heard, you can hear it in the words of delegates from the global south where rising temperatures are already hitting livelihoods and lives. There is an increasing impatience pressing at the gates. The question they are asking: ‘but what are we actually doing?’

1.5C, Glasgow and public engagement 

Research released during the conference shows that the plans countries have laid out so far for reducing emissions (known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) still add up to a terrifying 2.4C of temperature rise by the end of the century. 

We are now at 1.1 degrees of warming. Crossing the 2 degrees threshold is enough to put over 1 billion people under extreme heat stress; bleach over 99% of coral reefs; double the extinction of plant species and intensify the melting of sea ice in summer by 10 times, fueling up to 6 metres of sea level rise in vulnerable parts of the world. The Maldives Environment Minister, Aminath Shauna stated it baldly in the final plenary, “The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees, for us, really is a death sentence”.

A man walks along a giant sea wall protecting Jakarta.

Theoretically at least, ‘1.5 is still alive’ after the negotiations. An agreement made in Glasgow – known as the Glasgow Climate Pact – requests that countries “revisit and strengthen” their climate pledges by the end of 2022. This may seem like a thin victory, but it wasn’t a given before the conference started, and it puts diplomatic pressure on governments to strengthen their plans over the next year. 

As the Secretary-General of the United Nations put it during the negotiations, if 1.5 is still alive, it’s on life support. Changing the political, social and economic priorities of governments around the world to refocus on new, ambitious plans for COP27 to reduce emissions as fast as possible would be – will be – a momentous task. 

But going forwards requires hope. So where is hope to be found? It has to be in the rising tide of concern about climate change around the world, and people’s desire to show up and take part. At this point in history, people who are willing to be central to societal transformation are needed around the world, to build a mandate for unstoppable change and hold governments to account. 

This doesn’t just mean taking action on the streets – though that really matters, in countries where it is possible. The evidence shows that people are deeply influenced by those around us – what we see them doing, and the conversations we have in our lives. Public consent and public pressure go together in driving politicians to make change. The change we make, the change we ask for in our communities – even down to the conversations over the dinner table – all have to be part of that story. 

In short: whole-society, meaningful ongoing engagement is needed to deliver the social change that will stir politicians to deliver better and stronger pledges.  And in 2022, it matters as never before.

Placing people at the heart of climate action 

In November 2022, COP will take place in Egypt, which is situated  in one of the most vulnerable regions in the world, particularly impacted by water and food insecurity which is already being exacerbated by climate change. 2 degrees of temperature rise could have devastating consequences for people’s lives and livelihoods, in a country where nearly 30% of people rely on agriculture and desertification is rapidly spreading.

So governments will  return to the table in a country whose citizens face an existential threat to their survival, and answer the question: have you done enough? Are you willing to do enough? COPs aren’t just about the drama of the negotiators inside the halls any more. The answer to that question will only be yes if people around the world participate in making it so. 

Shopkeeper writes in a ledger by the light of a solar-powered lamp, in a shop selling solar equipment. Newada, Bihar, India.

Climate Outreach’s work at COP26

At COP26, Climate Outreach raised the profile of public engagement through a number of high profile events, including a joint press conference from COP26 in the last stretch of the climate negotiations, calling on governments to act urgently in the interest of human rights. Climate Outreach also co-hosted with the UK Presidency the flagship event on public engagement, demonstrating with voices from around the world why people must be at the heart of policy initiatives. Climate Visuals exhibits featured in some of COP’s most influential negotiating spaces including the Ministerial Leaders’ Lounge, and included work by photographers around the world. This presence was made possible with the generous support of the IKEA Foundation, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the KR Foundation 

Climate Outreach also worked closely with civil society partners and progressive governments to ensure that negotiations for a new 10-year Glasgow Work Programme on Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) would deliver an ambitious and inspirational agenda to facilitate public engagement on climate change issues. 

Climate Outreach’s Egyptian civil society partner undertook a series of interviews at COP26 on what the COP process is and why it matters in the North African context. These videos by Greenish – the first in the series has now been released – will be valuable resources for Egyptian civil society to help lay the groundwork for COP27.

Over the next year, Climate Outreach will focus on driving public engagement through sharing practical, evidence-based insights on how to turn people’s concern about climate change into action, supporting civil society to engage more effectively in the lead up to COP27, and building the awareness of negotiators on the importance of public engagement on climate change.

Climate Outreach's work at COP26

Climate Outreach at COP26

By Robin Webster

Robin leads the Advocacy Communications programme for Climate Outreach, focusing on providing civil society campaigners with knowledge, tools and research to help them engage all sorts of people on climate change. She loves working with campaigners for their resilience and positivity even when facing up to the world’s biggest challenge. She has been knocking around the environmental world for twenty years as a researcher, journalist and campaigner, first becoming interested in the disconnect between political debate about climate change and how we talk about it in real life whilst working as campaigner for Friends of the Earth. She helped to start up Carbon Brief when it began life as a climate science and energy blog and has spent more time than is healthy digging into the intricacies of climate policy, including as a researcher for the European Climate Foundation. 

Robin has a Masters in Conservation from UCL and an undergraduate degree in Biology. She is the author of Climate Outreach’s #TalkingClimate handbook amongst many others, and has lived in the UK, USA, Uganda and Austria. In her spare time Robin hikes, swims, cycles and teaches and plays at comedy improv, which she thinks is the best art form in the world.

3 responses to Why COP26 means that public engagement matters more than ever before

  1. Parvez Babul , Bangladesh says:

    November 17, 2021 at 11:30 am

    Its a great, awesome and helpful write up! Many congrates to Robin Webster and thank you so much indeed. I have given below link of my story on COP 26, published recently in the Daily Observer in Bangladesh.
    COP 26 and climate change politics: Unequivocal failure.
    PARVEZ BABUL, The Daily Observer, 16 November, 2021. Link to view: https://www.observerbd.com/news.php?id=340088
    Happy reading! Feedback solicited.

  2. Claude Saint-Jarre says:

    November 17, 2021 at 11:44 am

    Je suis pour la multiplication des conférences dans la populations, toutes les strates et professions, ainsi que partout dans les territoires au rythme d’au moins une par mois au cours de la prochaine décennie.Des expert.es et non-expert.es devraient prendre la parole et aller la prendre dans leurs conseils municipaux là où c’est possible.. Vous pourriez publier une liste de demandes à faire dans les conseils municipaux qui sont des gouvernements de proximité.

  3. Kapila Gunarathne says:

    November 26, 2021 at 7:07 pm

    I have noted very impressive ideas on climate change today. I have been working in the field and like to know more in-depth.

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