Demonstrating Hope: Notes from COP27

It’s hard to say if the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP27, was good or bad. It’s a question of perspective and orientation. What was COP27, which recently concluded in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt? COP27 was an implementation COP, meaning that it followed up on the commitments made at COP26 in Glasgow and most importantly the commitments made at COP21 in Paris in 2015. The Paris commitment to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is critical to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis. 

The difference between 1.5 degrees and 1.6 degrees of warming—let alone 1.5 degrees to 2.0 degrees—would be catastrophic. Global tipping points for everything from the glacier loss to biodiversity loss hinge at each higher degree point. We have already witnessed severe strain at only 1.2 degrees of warming, and we can expect the strain to intensify in the coming decades. Staying committed to the 1.5-degree threshold is essential. 

Despite a rocky start, negotiators were able to settle on a historic agreement on loss and damage. This agreement, while still poorly defined, commits to the creation of a fund to support developing countries that have already experienced devastation from climate—such as Pakistan due to this years catastrophic flooding—and other countries that will not be able to adapt to the coming changes. It’s an important win in a long-fought battle by smaller countries demanding equity in the face of inequitable climate impacts.

We cannot let hope remain an idea that we point to but do nothing to achieve.

Another achievement of note was the recognition of cultural heritage as being impacted by climate change. The Sustainable Urban Resilience for the Next Generation (SURGe) Initiative calls for contextually and culturally based approaches to climate adaptation and mitigation, and serves as an important recognition of what we are truly fighting to protect. The power of culture and our traditions was a key element of CEE’s work this year with the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. The initiatives that we champion must connect with the things that people care about the most to drive and motivate them. This is an important step forward in the UN process And I know we look forward to finding ways to accelerate its implementation in the work to adapt, and mitigate the climate crisis.

While these were positive takeaways from COP27 (and there are of course others), what was lacking was a clear indication of the threat of fossil fuels, nor were there new emission standards. The failure to include these basic elements perpetuates the fossil fuel economy and continues to allow big polluters to continue on their destructive path which places the 1.5-degree boundary at risk. 

Outside the negotiations, COP27 had a very different vibe. The pavilion spaces were robust and bustling, full of people keen to share their solutions, their ideas, their fears and anger, and their hope. I was especially drawn into the programming at the Climate Justice Pavilion where our friends WeACT, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice, and others kept environmental justice and Indigenous voices at the front of every conversation. I saw old friends from CEE’s work on the UN Food Systems Summit from the Eat Foundation, the World Health Organization, the SDG2 Hub and so many more. 

CEE was proud to co-sponsor the Food4Climate Pavilion. Very special thanks go to ProVeg for their incredible organizing and leadership in bringing the pavilion together. Pavilions are not cheap nor are they easy to organize but they serve a vital function of evaluating key issues and voices into the COP27 space.  We partnered with the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation to host a side event: “Building MENA Climate Resilience Through Engaging Women of Faith in Food Systems Transformation.”  This panel built on the discussion at the Holistic Climate Solutions Summit during Climate Week to promote the key role women of faith and their values play in transforming food systems in the Middle East and North Africa  region. Panelists focused on the struggle to make their communities more resilient and improve food accessibility, while preventing health-related diseases and strengthening the nutrition and wellbeing of the most vulnerable.

We also were proud to have been part of the opening plenary at the Global Landscapes Forum, which happened just down the road from COP27. CEE Senior Advisor Gopal Patel and I led a panel called The Stories We Live by: The Importance of Ecosystem Restoration through the Lens of Values, Culture, and Spirituality.. We were delighted to be joined virtually by CEE Karenna Gore and speakers who participated in the Values, Culture, and Spirituality Consultation series as well as Maged El Said, Cècile Ndjebet, Fabiola Dondero, Natalia Alekseeva, and Gavin Edwards in person. The plenary served as a capstone for the work we did this year to support the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, and I hope will serve as a launch pad for the next steps. 

The key takeaway from our consultation series and the panel is that ecosystem restoration is a step into a relationship. It’s not enough to simply plant trees and hope that they grow. Because the Earth has become so degraded, restoration requires nurturing and healing, and reestablishing  a general understanding of how we fit into the ecosystems that we occupy. For the last 150 years, the relationship between humans and Earth has been one of exploitation and consumption, giving nothing back and taking everything. It has pressed us to the brink, and now at this point—when we know more than we ever have about how the Earth works—we have to make the choice to give back. To love back. To care.

I was particularly struck by something Cècile Ndjebet said on the panel. “Women are thinking about the future because they know how important forests are, how important is the ecosystem for them. So those practices should oblige us to involve them in the management, and they have been restoring the degraded land. It’s not because they are those who are degrading the land, but mostly because they see that if that is not done, the key values from the forest key importance, from the ecosystem will be lost.”

A final cap to my time as COP was to join a Climate Education Hub panel: “The Spiritual and Generational Urgency for a Climate Neutral and Nature Positive Planet.” We are all afflicted by the same trauma perpetuated by a system that values greed above all else. How we are affected is different by degrees of trauma and pain, and we must be attentive to how we care and where we place our resources.

What I took away was that, despite a future caught up with uncertainty, those younger than myself refuse to roll over. Life keeps moving forward because it has to. It’s a force that can’t be stopped. It matters how we harness that force. It’s important that we use it to create joy and beauty and art and memories worthy of being told again and again. 

I am very glad to have attended COP27. It illuminated both our failures and our successes, and left me wanting more. Hope is lived. It’s embodied in action. We cannot let hope remain an idea that we point to but do nothing to achieve. Despite the backsliding and obvious corporate capture and greenwashing—and despite nauseating numbers of fossil fuel representatives or the adornment of greed by multinational development banks—COP27 was full of people who embody, act, and demonstrate hope in everything that they do. That’s what I’m holding onto now that COP27 is over. In spite of tremendous odds, many of us are on the right side of history working hard to create a future worthy of every living thing that comes after us.