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Opinion: Underrepresented groups must be heard for COP to have moral authority

Adventurer, travel writer and Environment Journal correspondent Ian Packham calls for increased participation from underrepresented groups at COP, as they face the brutal effects of the climate crisis head on. 

More than 200 countries are attending the UN’s latest ‘conference of the parties.’ For too long the negotiations have been railroaded by the global north, responsible for most historic greenhouse gas emissions. Things might now be finally changing for the better as underrepresented groups from across the globe find their voice.

In travelling across Pakistan earlier this year, it became obvious that youth activists were the country’s most passionate advocates for tackling climate change. While men in smart suits are seen as fiddling while Earth burns, the youth voice has been growing louder and clearer since Swedish activist Greta Thunberg became a household name.

This is not just in discussions on climate – Malala Yousafzai (herself Pakistani) became the world’s youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2014 for her campaigning on female education. Many, including myself, thought Thunberg was also in line for the prize as her solo climate strike at 15 became a world movement known as Fridays For Future.

Thunberg has made a deliberate act of not attending COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, claiming the summit series is nothing more than greenwashing. They are ‘designed in a way that allows and even encourages countries, nations, and world leaders to use loop holes in these schemes to benefit themselves,’ she told the BBC recently.

The voice of the next generation will still be present at COP however, with those from countries most affected by the impact of climate change, such as Pakistan, making their voices heard like never before.

Pakistani activist Ayisha Siddiqa, who I managed to talk to briefly before my visit to Pakistan, spoke at the Children and Youth Pavilion – the first in 30 years of COP talks. ‘For me, the stakes are so high that I can’t just give up hope for change,’ she says of her presence at the negotiations.

The youth voice, along with those of indigenous communities and people of colour, have been missing from COP negotiations for too long, even though they together represent most of the planet’s 8 billion people. Their exclusion could even be seen as a deliberate ploy to water down demands for more action.

It’s financial barriers which stop many attending. Staying for the full two weeks in Egypt would cost an attendee around $10,000. The average annual wage in Pakistan is $4,300, and substantially less in parts of Africa, which has the biggest population of young people of any continent.

But now the voices of these underrepresented groups are starting to be heard, which can only be a good thing. Without them, COP runs the risk of becoming an empty shell. With them, there’s a real chance that the pressure of those facing the realities of the climate crisis will force the richest, most polluting nations to move faster and further than they would otherwise.

‘All of these world leaders ultimately have a heart and that’s what we’re trying to pierce, so they can stand up to the vested interests,’ sums up Maya Mailer, co-founder of Mothers Rise Up and co-director of Our Kids’ Climate.

If world leaders being embarrassed into action by some kids is what it takes, this 38-year-old is all for it.

Photo by Ken kahiri

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