Alexis Pascaris

Reflections from COP26

November 23, 2021 |

On the eve of my departure for the global climate conference, COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, I sat around the dinner table with my two uncles, grandmother, and grandfather to relish in a home-cooked Italian meal. It was a typical gathering at Nonna’s house in Farmington Hills: the table was adorned with lush green beans and roasted poblano peppers from the garden, our bowls were brimming with handmade pasta smothered in home-canned tomato sauce from bygone harvests, the air was filled with the aroma of our family bakery’s ciabatta bread warming in the wood-fired oven, and the quiet drone of the evening news hummed in the background. 

COP26 protests

Protests on the streets of Glasgow.

I savored my mouthfuls of tagliatelle pasta, elongating each moment in an attempt to delay the reality of the taxing journey ahead. Although I was physically present at the table, I was mentally distracted—lost in thought about the climate crisis and how my unavoidable duty to defend my planet was taking me far from the comfort of home. 
But amid this emotional unrest and reluctance, my attention was suddenly captured by a TV commercial about “Protecting the Great Lakes.” The first 5 seconds of sweetness quickly turned sour as I realized this was not a commercial about revering Michigan’s natural resources, but rather egregious propaganda by Enbridge Inc. in its ongoing mission to mislead the masses about the threat Line 5 poses to the Great Lakes region. What the commercial failed to proclaim is that a rupture of Line 5 would catastrophically damage the Great Lakes, and that the oil surging through the pipeline produces more atmospheric carbon than several coal-fired power plants combined. My distraction immediately dissolved into distaste; my anger fueled into action. That night I packed my bag in an indignant fury, ready to launch myself into the world’s largest assembly dedicated to organizing global climate action: The United Nations Climate Change Conference.
The 26th annual “Conference of the Parties” (COP) takes the trophy for being the most attended climate summit since Paris in 2015, having rallied more than 30,000 individuals from every corner of the globe. These prodigious gatherings resemble a splice between a Parade of Nations and the Summer Olympic Games—but instead of flying flags in honor and people competing for fun, this global summit is an arena for governments to flex their “contributions” and exalt themselves as “climate champions.”

Many describe these gatherings as a three-ringed circus: at the core sit the negotiators, in the surrounding halls are development banks, businesses, and members of civil society, and beyond the confines of the convention center are activists making noise in the streets. My delegation badge, bestowed upon me by the Youth Environmental Alliance in Higher Education, was my golden ticket into this circus. With eyes wide, I spent my days swimming in a sea of collective hope, fighting internal dialogue that oscillated between despair and optimism, and searching for validation that our shared goal to limit global warming to 1.5℃  was still alive. 
From the outside looking in, COP26 was poised to be “the beginning of a prosperous era.” Yet from within the circus, it felt like disheartenment rather than triumph. This year’s motto, “The world is watching,” hung like an eerie eye over our shoulders.

COP26 meeting room

Gathered for the good of the planet, at COP26.

For me, COP26 was a harsh reality check. The reality is that the climate crisis is not an abstract tomorrow, but a present day phenomenon that is wreaking havoc on our sisters and brothers, human and non-human. I heard, felt, and witnessed the suffering caused by global north capitalism and fossil fuel dependence, and the consequent climatic impacts on vulnerable nations and peoples. I gazed into the eyes of those who are living with the horror of drought, crop failure, wildfire, extreme weather, sea level rise, starvation, loss, and injustice. These eyes scream urgency for the severity of their circumstance and beg others to take the action needed to salvage the rest of humanity.
The unfortunate reality is that although some have yet to experience such loss for themselves, ecosystems have been devastated, communities are grappling with spiritual and cultural forfeiture, and the voices of indigenous peoples and their traditional knowledge have been oppressed. Underrepresented and marginalized peoples are in uproar, yet their stories aren’t being told nor is the world properly responding to their suffering. These are the stories I want to share and uplift, because these are the stories that foreshadow our common fate if we fail to act as a unified whole.