COP reflection #3 – on ‘Moral Courage’

Mair Kelly is from The Mizen Head in West Cork, Ireland, a very rural area with a strong reliance on farming and fishing communities, which is where her interest in climate justice, ecology and a just transition stems from. She is currently working with YMCA Ireland on their Future Generations Climate Justice Project.

On Monday 8th November I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak as part of a panel on Moral Courage: Climate Justice and Human Rights, alongside fellow YMCA Ambassadors Ylli and Diana and moderated by Kumi Naidoo on the Ferry for the One Young World Extreme Hangout.

While I had been in Glasgow for a few days, Monday was when I spent my first proper time in the Blue Zone – a stark difference to my previous days which were spent at strikes and actions. COP26 is supposed to be the epitome of all things climate action, but I feel like it has been more about leaders dragging their feet and making idle promises. However, this event was better than I ever anticipated, and our conversations around our climate justice journeys, different feelings, thoughts and perspectives rejuvenated my hope and motivation for change.

Back in 2017, I attended the Irish Dóchas Summit with YMCA Ireland, an event that brings together all Irish non-governmental organisations, and Kumi was the keynote speaker – we even interviewed him with YMCA Ireland (he was fantastic as always). Dóchas was one of the first proper introductions I had to the concept of development and climate justice, and so this panel at COP26 was particularly poignant for me. Sometimes when it comes to climate action I feel like I’m in quicksand, moving in slow motion and unable to quite reach something real and tangible. However our shared conversations showed me how far I’ve actually come, from watching panels of activists to actually joining one.

I would usually be a little nervous about something like this, but this time I was just looking forward to it. Diana, Ylli and I already got along really well, and we’d met and discussed the event beforehand with Kumi. We all come from different backgrounds, and Ireland, Hawaii and Kosovo are different in many ways, but despite the distance, we share a big love for our people and planet, so it felt less like a panel and more like a chat among friends.

Kumi, the “disruptor” got the audience to steer the conversation, looking at the links between climate change and human rights. Diana shared her experience and insight into the challenges in the Pacific Islands, Ylli explained Kosovo’s challenges of conflict and deforestation, and I added the perspective of a rural and coastal youth. I hold a lot of admiration for the two of them and Kumi and felt incredibly lucky to be there. We covered areas like extremism, climate refugees, measuring climate justice, inclusivity and representation at COP, and of course, moral courage.

But how do you define moral courage? We were asking ourselves this right up until we walked onto the stage. Morality is a fairly ambiguous term, so how do you describe what that looks and feels like…?

Kumi explained that we need a balance of optimism and honestly, and I certainly feel that. I think attending COP and the feelings it instigated helped my understanding of moral courage. When I first arrived I felt frustrated, sad, angry, tired, but once I connected with other activists and advocates I felt more hopeful, motivated and much stronger. Participating in events like this gives me energy, reminding me of why I was there and what I wanted to see.

Mair Kelly Pic: Méabh Lonergan

When I see people taking to the streets creating action, connecting and growing despite frustration with world leaders and not being allowed into negotiations; when they move through anger, sadness and exhaustion to take action; when I see our community – the climate justice community – trying to motivate and mobilise despite all these challenges, that is when I see true moral courage.