Women Climate Leaders Aren’t Satisfied With COP 26. You Shouldn’t Be Either

“Promises will not stop the suffering of people. Pledges will not stop the planet from warming.”

—Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist from Uganda

Fridays 4 Future protest inside COP 25 in 2019. (John Englart / Flickr)

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP 26, began on October 31 in Glasgow, Scotland, and came to an end on November 12. During the conference, leaders from around the world pledged action, ranging from promises of billion-dollar-plus investments in climate change initiatives to setting ambitious goals to cut back on fossil fuel emissions.

But many activists are frustrated at the general emptiness of such promises as governments continue to prioritize the economy over the environment, and the voices of the privileged over the marginalized, who disproportionately shoulder the burden of climate change. Indeed, it is ironic that the global organization founded on colonialism, and its leaders—almost all wealthy, white men—claim to contribute to a more just, equitable and sustainable world, while poor Black, Indigenous and women of color do the bulk of the real work to combat climate change.

Women are at the forefront of local, national and global environmental movements as both the greatest victims and greatest fighters of climate change. Yet men continue to make most of the decisions to combat the destruction that they themselves designed. Meanwhile, women advocating for the environment are harassed, assaulted, and murdered globally.

Activists at the COP 26 held a memorial in Glasgow for the 1,005 land and environmental defenders murdered since the 2015 Paris Accord Agreement.

“Remember it’s not if, it’s when you will go missing if you are involved in land rights,” said Indigenous activist Sii-am Hamilton outside COP 26 on November 9.

Audre Lorde said it best: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” 

Below are a few multi-generational female environmental activists’ reactions to the U.N. Climate Change Conference, their thoughts on what needs to be done to combat environmental destruction, and their idea of real, sustainable global change.

Sonia Guajajara: “This Is Environmental Genocide”

Sonia Guajajara, a prominent Indigenous environmental activist of the Guajajara tribe in the Northeastern Amazon, spoke at a COP 26 special session, stressing the need for Indigenous voices to be central in climate change discussions for real change to occur.

“We are not the ones who are creating the pollution … but we are the people who are killed by it: This is environmental genocide,” she declared.

As the leader of the organization Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil—the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, or APIB—that represents approximately 300 Indigenous ethnic groups in Brazil, Guajajara spent COP 26 tirelessly advocating at protests, panels and special sessions for the inclusion of Indigenous voices and traditional knowledges.

“Although Indigenous people form only 5 percent of the global population, they protect 8 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity. Yet, they continue to be excluded from decision-making,” Guajajara pointed out.

Despite the COP 26 promises by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rose in the month of October—about 339 square miles of forestland cleared—and scientists have uncovered the rainforest’s birds are beginning to show physical signs of the impact of climate change. Activists continue to point to hypocrisy of the COP 26 pledges while the governments continue to allow rampant destruction of natural habitats.

“Governments need to reforest their minds and understand that climate change is already a reality, not a problem for the future,” said Guajajara. “We Indigenous peoples are here to bring our contributions to all Humanity and the entire Planet.”

At the Indigenous Listening Session of COP 26, Guajajara captured the dire situation in a call for change.

“We are here to echo the call of Mother Earth because she is crying, and it is our duty to replicate her call while we still have time. What happens when she stops crying?”

Vanessa Nakate: “We Are Drowning in Promises”

“God help us all if you fail to prove us wrong,” Vanessa Nakate said in a plea to the COP 26 leaders to disprove her and her peers’ lack of faith in the climate summit.

Vanessa Nakate is a prominent climate activist from Uganda, a leading voice of young people advocating for action globally in the face of the climate crisis. She among others have pointed out that although the African continent only contributes 3 percent of the total global emissions, it disproportionately suffers the impact of climate change disasters.

At the COP 26, she addressed what she saw as performativity on the side of the political leaders participating: “Let us be honest, we have been here before. After a quarter of a century of climate conferences and new annual commitments, planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This year will be no different. We are drowning in promises.”

Nakate’s questioning the basis of the climate conference isn’t a far reach: The threat of climate change in Africa has sped up instead of slowing down since the first U.N. Climate Conference in 1995, with increasing temperatures and sea levels, changing precipitation patterns and more extreme weather throwing health, safety, food and water security into jeopardy on the continent. Three out of the 10 countries facing the greatest threat from climate change are in Africa, with many of them already being plunged into climate-induced disaster.

“Commitments will not reduce CO2 emissions,” Nakate said. “Promises will not stop the suffering of people. Pledges will not stop the planet from warming.”

Instead, Nakate posited that immediate and drastic action is what is needed, painting a picture of the bright future that would lay ahead. “The farms can blossom again. The animals can rejoice. There is a loud singing in once-parched lands. The pain and suffering are gone. There will be enough for everyone.”

Greta Thunberg: “‘Small Steps in the Right Direction’ Equals Losing”

The young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg had three words in response to the climate conference: “Blah, blah, blah.”

In complete dismissal of the 12-day event, Thunberg held that nothing had been achieved in Glasgow and that “the real work continues outside these halls.” Firmly staying outside the event, she joined using her social media outreach of 5 million followers on Twitter to communicate the urgency of the climate emergency. Not content with the promises made at the COP 26, she called for the world leaders to curb emissions, cut fossil fuels entirely, and for banks to stop funding climate destruction.

During the first week of climate discussions, Thunberg joined a youth protest outside the summit and led a choosy chant as a clear indication of how the younger generations felt about the leaders who continue to talk circles around action without enacting any real change: “You can shove your climate crisis up your arse!”

Fridays For Future, an international student movement founded by Thunberg, released a statement on the last day of the conference calling it “the most exclusive ever,” noting that over 500 fossil fuel lobbyists were welcomed at the event while frontline activists struggled to have their voices heard. It read:

While negotiators from the most vulnerable nations have fought hard to change the course of the negotiations, they are now asked to sign away the lives and land of their people at the behest of wealthy global north nations.

Thunberg set the record straight of what was needed to truly combat the issue at hand in a final response to the COP 26: “Unless we achieve immediate, drastic, unprecedented, annual emission cuts at the source then that means we’re failing when it comes to this climate crisis. ‘Small steps in the right direction,’ ‘making some progress’ or ‘winning slowly’ equals losing.”

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Leela de Paula is an editorial fellow at Ms. and a junior at Smith College studying government and gender studies. Her academic interests include global feminism, international politics and feminist legal theory. She calls many continents home.