Youth as Agents of Change at COP26: We Brought Our Own Chair to the Table
By Hailey Campbell
When you got off the train for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly referred to as COP26, there was a bright pink sign along the station that read “People make Glasgow.” As I reflect on my COP26 experience, this sign persists in my mind. It reminds me that COP goes beyond the global outcome; it’s about the people you meet, the ideas you exchange, and the friendships you build that inspire you to keep moving forward. People don’t just make Glasgow. People make COP.
Two years as a volunteer with the Youth Constituency of UN Climate Change’s (YOUNGO) Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) Working Group, 100+ hours of Zoom meetings at 6:00am, multiple ACE workshops with observer and party stakeholders, and the coordination of the ACE Youth Forum all lead to my presence advocating for an inclusive, rights-based, and ambitious decision on climate empowerment at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.
You’ve likely seen a combination of tweets and news articles proclaiming the Climate Pact outcome as a “betrayal” or “a step toward keeping 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach.” With all the media attention surrounding this global event, the world has overlooked one of the most important policy outcomes and bright spots of the conference — the Glasgow Work Programme on Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE). ACE is a framework that aims to empower all members of society to engage in climate solutions and ensure that they are equipped for a just transition through six mechanisms: education, training, public awareness, public access to information, public participation and international cooperation.
At COP26, I served as a co-leader of YOUNGO’s ACE Working Group, a team of young individuals from all across the world. Our hope was to use the policy documents we created in the last two years to fuel our interventions in negotiation rooms and bilateral discussions at COP, ultimately leading to the first ever inclusion (albeit limited) of young people in a UN Climate Change Work Programme.
Despite the goal of being “the most inclusive COP ever,” COP26 was neither inclusive, nor accessible. Our team was given a single intervention and access to just two negotiation sessions. During the other 12–18 hours of negotiations, we were completely excluded. We couldn’t hear what was being negotiated, we weren’t given updates on the draft text, and we didn’t know whether our requests were being included. Despite being among the stakeholders most impacted by ACE, we were abandoned.
After traveling more than 36 hours from Hawaii to Scotland, I found myself overly frustrated with the system. Powered by the intersection of my frustration and my unwillingness to give in, I went back to the drawing board to determine how we could fight for youth inclusion from a new angle on the ground at COP26. Over the next seven days, we camped out in the hallways of the COP26 Blue Zone, the area restricted only to badge holders. From 8:00am to 9:30pm, I conducted what became known as the “walk and talk,” catching negotiators as they headed to their next session to gain updates on the status of negotiations while pushing them to champion our ideas. Even though we couldn’t be in the room, we let negotiators know that we were right outside their closed doors and ready to stand up for our right to be included in the Glasgow ACE Work Programme.
When the gavel hit at the Closing Plenary for week one, a historic ACE Decision had been made. Although the new work programme is not perfect, for the first time in a UN Climate Change Decision, young people were acknowledged as agents of change who deserved to be included in climate decision-making processes at the national and international levels. In fact, the text mentions young people more than 15 times and includes most of our youth inclusion requests. Parties even shared their excitement to collaborate with us on designing the ACE Action Plan at the June 2022 UN Climate Change work session in Germany.
In their call to action for COP26, the COP26 Coalition shared that “climate justice recognises that all of our struggles lead back to the same unjust system.” In addition to fighting this system from the streets, young people, like my YOUNGO team, are transforming the system from within. We are bringing our own chairs to the tables and hallways of COP to make our voices heard. We are showcasing that we are not just leaders of the climate movement on the streets. We are leaders in fighting for more inclusive policies from inside the system. This is further proving why we deserve to be at the decision-making table and to have our stories shared with global communities.
Although we are fighting the system, we can’t do it alone. Everyone has a part to play in transforming systems that perpetuate climate injustice from the ground up. Diversity and inclusion must be a part of climate negotiations. Whether it’s calling your legislators, protesting, or choosing which companies to buy from, everyone can, and should, do something. Everyone can stand up in the hallways of their community to fight for climate justice.
Haily Campbell is currently an Americorps Climate Adaptation Research Analyst in Honolulu, Hawaii and served as the co-leader of YOUNGO’s ACE Working Group at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. She has extensive experience in climate resilience planning, project management, and stakeholder engagement in municipal, NGO, and academic settings.