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Good COP, Bad COP: Reflections from a climate change conference

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By Philip Gass, December 14, 2018

“I get stress.” 

After two weeks of shuttling conference delegates around town during COP 24, one of the biggest climate change events of the year, that’s how my taxi driver responded when I asked how he was doing. People are short-tempered when their taxis are late, or when traffic is bad, or when they have trouble conversing with drivers who don’t speak their language.

Many people I spoke to also felt guilty about taking taxis at all, given they’re at a climate change conference. The bus is more sustainable, but it turns a 20-minute one-way trip into a 1.5 hour journey, keeping them from much-needed food, bed, family phone calls and—at best—five hours of sleep. 

My five-year-old son also "got stress." He complained to his teacher this week about an achy tummy. He was worried because his father was travelling, and he hadn’t heard from him in a few days. I’ve been one of those folks who is catching little sleep, getting back to my hotel long after the little guy is in bed.

To be honest, I also got stressed at COP. I worry: Will the taxi get me to the conference centre on time? Will my meeting with this prospective funder go well? Will I be an interesting panelist? Will people attend this event?

Phil Gass speaking at COP24
Phil Gass speaking on a COP 24 panel discussion on decarbonization

I worry whether the negotiations will be successful. Of course, I worry about my son at school—and about his future in a changing climate.

Also, I worry that people will only hear about what didn’t happen at COP 24—not enough got done, countries stalled, it’s all hopeless. I worry people will only remember a tweet from a world leader saying we’re wasting time.

There are things I don’t worry about, though, and positive things I hold on to.

I don’t worry about the resolve of the negotiators, who also spent time away from their own children two weeks before Christmas. I don’t worry about the bottomless energy of youth delegates, who may be loud and disruptive at times but only because they care so much. They know in 10 years many of them will be the tireless negotiators facing down youth delegates who say they have to do more, and faster, and better.

COP delegates
Delegates at the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland

I don’t worry about the ability of my colleagues in the non-governmental sector to come up with ever more innovative approaches to reduce emissions or build resilience to climate change.

Driving back to my hotel, my driver explained how the suburb I was staying in used to be a prosperous community dominated by the coal sector. It is now derelict. Many people had left because the mines had closed and there was no work. Just two hours earlier, I had been at a side event of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, where new members were announced and commitments were made to phase out coal for all the necessary environmental reasons. But more than that, members committed to a Just Transition, to helping those facing job loss in an already declining sector. Workers badly need supports, including new and decent jobs, and a social safety net that will protect their communities through difficult transitions.

Youth delegates disrupted that event too. But they and the ministers on the panel want the same outcomes, even if they disagree how (and how fast) to get there. I hope both sides take time to visit the suburb I stayed in to better understand why their efforts are so incredibly important.

Nikiszowiec coal miner settlement and district in Katowice
Nikiszowiec coal miners' settlement and district in Katowice

To borrow from a U.S. President who faced the seemingly impossible task of putting a man on the moon, those of us working on climate change and resilience and fossil fuel subsidy reform and Just Transition strive: “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win...”

It’s important to remember this now more than ever. We will worry. We will get stressed. We will face setbacks along the way. We may not get an ideal outcome from COP 24. 

But what keeps me going is knowing progress will be made. It may be painful, but we will push for more ambition and better jobs and clean energy. The people at COP know their task is hard. They will continue to do it anyway, because they know there’s no other option.

We owe it to them to recognize their achievements, even as we look down the road ahead.

Katowice COP24
A delegate stands in the main meeting hall of COP24 in Katowice, Poland.