“Green” by Example: Pageantry and Greenwashing at COP27
This article was originally published on The Years Project in December of 2022.
“Green by example,” read billboards across Sharm El Sheikh, as thousands descended on the Egyptian beachfront resort town for COP27. Politicians came to re-evaluate last year’s climate pledges. Activists came to keep fossil fuels from hijacking negotiations. Fossil fuel execs came to cover their asses, which are currently on fire.
I, along with cadres of students, journalists, and eco-influencers, came to write it all down.
The host country tried to cultivate a “green” image at the conference. On the plane to Sharm, a highlight reel played featuring reusable straws, refillable water bottle stations, and all-new electric buses. They also recommended Egypt’s COP27 app. However, upon landing, I received a message to immediately delete it. The app’s permissions give the Egyptian government access to one’s photos, emails, microphone, passport number, and location. The concern is it is being used to track critics of the oppressive Egyptian regime. The green façade started flickering.
Performative greenwashing prevailed at COP. Private jets flew over every fifteen minutes; plastic bottles abounded from Coca-Cola- sponsored trucks, shiny startups pitched silver bullets. A friend of mine remarked that “lots of folks aren’t here for the right reasons.” I had to wonder, what are the right reasons to fly thousands of miles to drink bottled water in the desert with John Kerry, even as rising floods and fires storm our neighborhoods back home?
It made me think, why the hell are any of us here?
Ideally, there is some value to the conference. It is an annual convening of all nations who signed on to the UNFCCC to up the ante on the ~voluntary~ commitments they make to reduce their emissions. Only party delegates are able to take part in negotiating commitments. My ‘observer’ badge allowed me access to the UN-affiliated blue zone, but not the negotiations.
The rest of the blue zone is devoted to side pavilions, panels, booths, and informal consultations. My favorite was the Climate Justice Alliance booth, where, on my first day, I struck up a conversation with the man handing out pamphlets demanding “no false solutions”. We hashed over performative “solutions” versus just transition principles like land sovereignty and wealth redistribution.
Ananda Lee Tan, the strategy advisor at the Just Transition Alliance, was happy to commiserate with me about the perplexity of false solutions like geoengineering. It’s absurd the lengths that people will go through to remain comfortable, he chuckled uncomfortably. The expensive technology that hopes to catch emissions out of the sky is neocolonial in its exertion of power, we agreed. It’s a desperate grasp by the global elite to maintain the crumbling structures of industrialized capitalism at the expense of those in the global south. I felt energized as we discussed the possibility of pulling the whole system up by the roots instead.
This caught the ear of a passerby who seemed annoyed by our fast judgment of these so-called false solutions. He works at Harvard studying solar geoengineering, and he's quite enthusiastic about it. He remarked that, whether you like it or not, we live in a world with eight billion people who will continue demanding more energy, and we’re just going to have to deal with that. This seemed to skirt around the real problem – yes (though its assumption of endless and inevitable growth also troubled me), but the question persists - how are we going to deal with it, and who will it ultimately benefit?
I asked him who decides whether we implement geoengineering - governments, corporations, or community members who will be most impacted. He said, “I don’t know, but probably not the last one.”
In this way, geoengineering and other market-based solutions perpetuate the same systems that cause the problem. They are an attempt to continue business-as-usual while carefully balancing the equation to “net-zero”. They address the symptoms, not the illness. The local effects of solar geoengineering are largely unknown, and those who will be affected most by these new technologies are not those who are advocating loudest for using them. Again.
This conversation set the tone for much of COP. Very rarely were we talking about ecology – mostly, we were talking about power. Loss and damage, a core talking point, was essentially a question of reparations. However, when many of those in the global north are in denial about the role of colonialism and capitalism in the climate crisis, it becomes impossible to accurately assess the solutions. The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.
For many activists, accessing the negotiation spaces at all was challenging. Others focused less on diplomacy and more on community spaces outside the conference, cultural celebrations and art shows. While these events were more enjoyable, they were also distracting, as a small cohort struggled to hold down the fort in negotiations choked out by fossil fuels. Admittedly, if I were more policy-oriented, less of an anarchist, and more of an extrovert, I could have been considerably more useful in advocating for climate justice inside the blue zone. But there are many reasons why activists were less present in the negotiation rooms than fossil fuel and financial institutions; and while it may be partially by choice, it is also largely by design.
There were hopes that, being in Africa, the global south would hold more power this year. However, most African activists I spoke to were disappointed by the conference and were unable to enter negotiations. Meanwhile, over 600 attendees had links to the fossil fuel industry, and many were registered as members of their country’s delegations, allowing them into high-level rooms that were inaccessible to most. Hilda Flavia Nakabuye said of activist presence: “we are present, but we are not represented. It seems as though we’re just here for the photos.”
It appeared that the conference organizers were doing everything they could to make sure activist attendance was noted, while restricting their ability to make an impact at every turn.
I joined the Fridays for the Future protests one afternoon with a few hundred activists. Organizers, mostly Fridays for the Future activists representing the Most Affected People and Places (MAPA), spoke about the hypocrisy ongoing inside the negotiation halls, the failures of the global north and colonizers to assume responsibility for their role in the climate crisis, and the need for direct funding for losses and damages. There, I was handed a half-sheet of paper outlining some restrictions for demonstrating. I’ve transcribed them below:
THANKS FOR COMING TO THE ACTION
here’s a reminder of the UNFCCC Rules we have to follow when protesting in the blue zone~
You can’t name or shame:
A specific person or politician
A specific company
A specific country
That includes banners, signs, chants, and speeches made at the action. (when talking to media after the action or on social media you can do whatever you want)
Power to the people!
Luckily, activists are creative. Little was said, though much was implied, about the failures of a certain leader of the world’s most polluting nation who had briefly passed through that day. After thirty minutes, it was time to disperse. All UNFCCC-approved actions have to remain within a strict time frame. Some scattered, others stayed.
Gender and equity were also a point of tension. In a “family photo” of 110 world leaders, only 7 were women. At several panels, it was pointed out that everyone asking questions were men. Aside from spaces deliberately focused on gender and diversity, the disparity was clear.
There are varied reasons why it is more challenging for women to occupy these spaces. We’re indoctrinated into a culture of imposter syndrome - not to mention how few women get access to begin with, or the casual sexism within and outside of the conference. As I was commiserating my own experiences with some other women one day, I realized that each of us feeling slightly objectified, ignored, or infantilized was amounting to a lot of good ideas being left unsaid.
I say this from a white-passing, cis-passing perspective. Many LGBTQ+ activists expressed concern about COP being held in Egypt, where the police force arbitrarily arrest and torture queer people. Alongside women, queer people are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. But many social inequalities that put people at higher risk, such as racism and sexism, were reduced to mere talking points at COP, even as they existed within the conference itself.
How can institutions like COP hope to envision a just and equitable global climate future when they struggle to even create a just and equitable conference arena?
The negotiation results are a mixed bag. The final conference text includes the creation of a loss and damage fund to start climate repayments to poorer nations - this is good news, a major shift after decades of stonewalling by the United States. However, it’s only good news if the money appears - it hasn’t always in the past.
Fossil fuels are missing entirely from the final text. Next year’s COP28 will be held in the UAE, another major oil producing region, and the newly-announced president of the conference is also the head of the state’s oil company, confirming the fossil fuel industry has successfully hijacked the conference.
These conferences seem to do more harm than good. They often replicate the same systems that are responsible for the damage. Though they are one of our only mechanisms for holding large institutions accountable, there is not much accountability. The pledges made are often lies, and as emissions increase and funds fail to materialize, it remains clear that we cannot live and breathe off empty promises.
I’ve long believed that these conferences are in no way more important than those that happen every day in our own communities. However, we also need to learn how to better operate within the systems that oppress us, while dismantling them. If climate justice activists stop trying to get into these rooms, our work will be made much harder.
In Sharm, I witnessed large renewable energy projects planned after panels, and comrades swapping strategies in line for coffee. It reminded me that we’re not just here to ask for government action. We’re also here to build resilience in spite of government inaction. True solutions happen in our neighborhoods, classrooms, and farms - which, luckily, are where we already are.
At the end of the conference, I received some safety guidelines for leaving from another organizer, including freezing your social media and deleting messages about the protests. Activists seem to have been recategorized from photo props back to dangerous dissidents. While this is frightening, it’s also a reminder of our power, and the threat we pose to the oppressors. Though they pretend they’re not listening, they almost always are.
At its worst, COP has been a hypocritical indulgence of the neoliberal elite exacerbating the same problems it claims to solve. But, at its best, COP can also be a place for comrades to share strategies, organize globally, and to hold our leaders accountable.
COP27’s success depends on leaders’ ability to follow through. If funding emerges, maybe we can start implementing true, community-led solutions that don’t prioritize those in power. Luckily, for many of these solutions, we don’t need to pass any policy to begin – we can begin right now. But if those in power continue to buckle before big oil, countless more will die. If COP27 is attempting to set an example, it is one of little more than a fossil fuel frenzy, a scapegoat for neocolonialism, extractive capitalism, surveillance, and destruction. Brought to you by Coca Cola.