COP28 embodies everything wrong with the climate crisis. For two weeks, I was part of the problem.
By Cynthia Yue
Twenty-eight years ago, our world’s leaders gathered for the first-ever UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) to recognize the growing need for international cooperation on our world’s most pressing issue: the climate crisis. Remarkable feats have been achieved at the annual COP: from the monumental Paris Climate Accords to this year’s agreement to transition away from fossil fuel usage, our world has taken strides in the right direction. Yet, twenty-eight years later, our leaders are still failing to meet the mark.
At my first COP ever, I expected to enter a world of climate action. I ended up realizing that what was once two weeks of dry, bureaucratic talks has morphed into a festival of influencers, billionaires, and politicians stepping into a smoke-and-mirrors facade themed around saving the planet. The message needs to grow clearer: it is no longer enough to just speak truth to power; we must also bring power to the truth.
Over the past few years, I’ve stood at the crossroads of advocacy and diplomacy to empower our populations and gather stories from young people across the globe as the 10th U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations, a UNICEF Youth Ambassador, and the 2023 U.S. Climate Youth Delegate to the G20. Through my climate advocacy work, I met Alex, a twelve-year-old Alaska Native boy, who lost five friends who had fallen through melted ice over the span of nine months. I remember Gus, a student from Georgia who looked out the window and saw a wildfire one day and a snowstorm the next. There was Desiree, a Black woman whose home filled with three feet of water after a historic flood in Iowa, and Jane, a young woman from Louisiana who called me from her car while fleeing from a hurricane. I came to COP28 to fight not only for them, but also for all of us.
I expected COP28 to be a unified conference. Instead, it felt like five different conferences melted under one name. Inclusion rests at the core of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Yet, the UNFCCC built one of the most exclusive spaces on the planet. Not only was the conference segmented into two different zones, one of which required a particular "Blue Zone" badge for access, but even within each zone, the key events, meetings, and negotiations which produced the bulk of multilateral agreements were closed to the public. This segmentation encouraged the tokenization of youth and other vulnerable communities. Side events and protests throughout the COP called on leaders to set ambitious targets for climate action, yet their main intended audience—policymakers—was sequestered behind closed doors. During a plenary session on food security, I stood on stage to advocate for the inclusion of young people in the policymaking process, only to stare down into an audience of older policymakers scrolling on their phones; these same audience members later took the stage to tell us how much the youth mattered to them.
Controversy embroiled this year’s COP from the beginning. COP28’s President, Sultan al-Jaber, who serves as the head of the UAE’s state oil company, said there was “no science” behind the phase out of fossil fuels to keep our planet under the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold. During COP28, a record number of lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry were in attendance, and Blue Zone pavilions included representation from fossil fuel exporters. These conflicts of interest set the tone for negotiations at COP28.
This year, I worked with the Climate Youth Negotiators Program to support and attend the COP negotiations. Negotiators work tirelessly to pass texts, even getting some member states to agree to measures they had previously refused to consider. I can still remember the midnight crisis messages from friends in negotiations frantically fighting to keep the phrase “phase out” in the agreement’s text. To even reach a place where we directly mention “fossil fuels” is a moment decades in the making. In spite of all of its drawbacks, leaders at COP28 were able to finally acknowledge fossil fuels as a culprit of the problem, fund loss and damage for vulnerable countries, commit to tripling the global renewable energy supply, and cut methane emissions. In fact, the latter issue united the Special Envoys for Climate from the U.S. and China, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, respectively, in a groundbreaking event that allowed two ideologically opposing nations to look past their differences for effective climate action. However, to bring these parties together, collective agreements tend to be vague, non-binding, and less ambitious than needed to safeguard humanity’s survival.
Even with all of its faults, I truly believe that COP has the ability to bring diverse voices together; COP needs to exist, but it is in great need of reformation. It is essentially our world’s only space that can bring over 193 member states and observers to the table to negotiate for climate action. For climate activists like myself, it is a space for us to meet, unite, and activate as a coalition of young people fighting for our futures. COP28 gave me the chance to engage with youth and indigenous leaders, meet with interviewees for my Kennedy School Policy Analysis Exercise, and speak on behalf of our world’s youth during high-level meetings and events.
However, from what I saw, in its current form, COP has a long way to go before it grows into what it was meant to be: a conference where we set ambitious targets and hold the world accountable for climate action. We need binding agreements with strong language and ambitious targets. We need more transparency when parties with conflicts of interest are in the room. We need meaningful yearlong inclusion and for decision-makers to listen to our demands, both at COP28 and in other processes such as Nationally Determined Contribution consultations.
Billions of marginalized people will never have a platform to share how floods, droughts, and rising waters are ripping apart their communities. For centuries, they have been denied a seat at the table because they are people of color, because they are impoverished, because they are young. And yet, these populations disproportionately face the brunt of environmental injustices. The reality is that they tend to understand the earth way better than most. For too long, they have been silenced. And if our leaders continue to shut them out, our earth will one day grow silent, too. Inclusion cannot be tokenistic; it is our duty to recognize that they matter now more than ever because they are people of color, because they are impoverished, because they are young. In every space, negotiation, and agreement, we must uplift their voices. Future iterations of COP are no different.
Twenty-eight years ago, our world’s leaders gathered for the first-ever UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP). Nearly three decades later, they are still struggling to collectively admit that phasing out fossil fuels is a keystone to achieving effective climate action. Nearly three decades later, they are still struggling to listen to the voices that matter the most.
Nearly three decades later, my generation is still struggling to hold the generation that greatly contributed to the crisis accountable for their actions.
Names have been changed in this article to preserve and protect the individuals’ identities.
Cynthia Yue is a Master in Public Policy Candidate at Harvard Kennedy School. Her internationally-recognized work through her fellowship with MTV and the White House, roles at the UN, and grassroots activism has reached millions of young people for human rights at the nexus of climate action, social justice, and mental health. Born to immigrant parents and raised in a rural state, Cynthia seeks to bring attention to policy interventions to uplift historically underserved populations including BIPOCs and rural youth.
The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author alone.
Courtesy of Cynthia Yue