By Shirin Ermis (she / her)
It’s that time of the year again, world leaders are gathering in a dystopian conference centre to discuss the future of the planet. Amidst them, huge numbers of activists usually gather outside the conference centre and within in the “green zone” — the non-negotiating zone — of the conference. For decades now, activists have been a keystone in the events held at and around COPs each year.
This year, many activists announced they would be staying away from COP. Among the high profile ones is Greta Thunberg. The activist, who became known for her school strikes, has denounced the commencing COP, saying that the “space for civil society is extremely limited”. Indeed, Egyptian authorities made it remarkably difficult for activists to participate. Everyone wishing to join protests must accreditate at least 36 hours in advance, demonstrations are only allowed during working hours and are to be held in a special area away from the conference centre. To this, add the fact that many environmental activists are detained by this regime: In the run-up to COP, multiple demonstrators have been arrested on their way to Sharm el-Sheik, as Human Rights Watch reports.
In the days leading up to COP, a coalition of 1,400 civil society organisations has released a petition. Amnesty International, 350.org, and Climate Action Network are among the institutions that have signed the petition calling for more civic spaces at the conference and the security of activists.
How important are activists at the climate conference considering they are not usually in the rooms where decisions are being made? While often not involved in negotiations themselves, the activists play a vital role in attracting media attention to the event and amplifying the voices of underrepresented groups like the youth, Indigenous peoples, and women. To back this up, there is research evidence that the presence of climate activists holds the UN accountable.
The role of activists is not limited to raising attention outside of COP. During the conference, many negotiators and world-leaders participate in events discussing the need for keeping global warming within safe limits. I attended COP23 myself several years ago and the overwhelming feeling of global solidarity is what I remember most from these days. Once you have talked to people directly affected by extreme weather events intensified by global warming, there remains no ambiguity about the urgency of action.
With activists now warning that the repression of activism in Sharm el-Sheik could undermine the success of negotiations, the future of the planet may be more precarious than ever.