COP reflections #2 – ‘An emotional journey’

Date: 22 November 2021

Mike Bromfield is an events producer: he is also a YMCA England & Wales Youth Ambassador, the Chair of the Board of Trustees for YMCA Essex in the UK, and a graduated Change Agent of the World YMCA. Commissioned by YMCA Scotland, he produced ‘Creating Youth-Led Solutions’, a film short that documents how young people are championing climate action in communities around the world. He joined YMCA’s COP26 delegation in Glasgow from 7-12 November 2021.

As my sleeper train pulls out of Edinburgh Waverley making tracks back to the south of England, leaving Scotland after 10 nights for the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, my mind turns to my own journey over the last few months, all leading up to what may have been one of the most important international Summits in living history.

It has been a journey of learning and of privilege, honour and inspiration, as I was commissioned by YMCA to produce a documentary short on six stories about youth-led solutions leading the way in climate action – not in preparation for a net-zero future by 2050, but right now.

My time in Glasgow itself has also been an emotional journey, one of humility leaving me completely re-energised, but simultaneously feeling abstract sadness, powerlessness and hopelessness in the face of the oncoming tide. But still I leave feeling hopeful.

As I watched the UK’s Remembrance Day Service and Cenotaph parade which took place in London immediately after COP (in which YMCA was represented), I couldn’t help but feel watched by the eyes of the future. Will those eyes look to the past – our present-day history – and wonder why we didn’t do more?

We already have undeniable evidence of life lost caused by climate change and biodiversity loss with increased natural disasters, air pollution, food shortages, water scarcity, job loss and poverty – the interconnectedness of it all is astounding. In the years to come, will we remember those we’ve lost by the actions of our own societies as we solemnly utter the words ‘never again’ – when it’s all but too late?   

Perhaps the phrase ‘climate justice’ is too abstract for us to get to grips with, because when we boil it all down to the actual daily reality – this is about people. As Kumi Naidoo, former Amnesty and Greenpeace Secretary General, said ‘the planet will be fine [eventually] after all is said and done. This is about saving ourselves’.   

We only have to look at the natural beauty that has emerged around the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in the years since it exploded in 1986, that humanity had to flee to see nature’s astounding ability to recover. (See ‘A Life on Our Planet’ with David Attenborough, Silverback Productions for Netflix).

Humanity’s role in this plays out as Cornish fishermen go out of work because of depleted stocks in the ocean; as Californian and Australian families lose their homes to wildfires; as Nicole in Arequipa (Peru) finds that she cannot access clean drinking water. It’s about the tragic death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah in London, whose asthma was induced and exacerbated by air pollution. 

This is impacting our neighbours, our children and our godchildren – we don’t have to wait for the ‘climate crisis’ or rather, the humanitarian crisis, to happen: it’s upon us at this very moment. So this is about ‘me, about you, about us’ (the words of World YMCA Secretary General Carlos Sanvee at COP26). A problem of human design, which will only be fixed by human intervention, innovation and solutions: so much of which we are already equipped to do. 

But that leadership isn’t coming from our Governments, and certainly not at the intensity we need it to. And our global leadership is failing to take us forward with the transitions we need to make.

That inaction is breaking our children’s hearts and damaging their health. More than half of child and adolescent psychiatrists in England are already seeing patients distressed about the state of the environment. Imagine that for a moment: being 12 years old and feeling powerless to the oncoming tide, and not being able to fully understand why we aren’t fixing this. When I was a child, my biggest worries weren’t anywhere near the scale of not knowing if I would even have a planet to live on in the years to come.

“The patient’s name is Earth. She presents with CO2 poisoning with a recurring presentation in symptoms of oxygen depletion, food scarcity, heat exhaustion. Her vitals are through the roof.”. (Dwight Tomlinson, YMCA Ambassador).

Right now we are the planet’s disease… but we also have the power to be its cure.

After two weeks in this intense environment, it’s no wonder that I feel such a mass of emotions right now. I’ve spent weeks working up to – and through – COP26, spent time with inspirational young leaders who are changing the story with their ground game, and it has recharged my batteries and given me hope that there is a change in the tide.

At a grassroots level – in our homes, schools, churches, universities, local businesses and charities – change is happening and we are waking up to the reality of our future and acting on it at pace.

But we also have to push our politicians to accelerate that change – to work with them and quickly, because our window of opportunity is closing. They must know this is not just an issue, but the issue – and that we the electorate will use our democratic processes to elect to – or remove from – office. 

We need to restore biodiversity; reduce the Carbon Dioxide levels in our atmosphere that are warming the planet and raising sea levels causing untold damage to Pacific Island nations and the 40% of the world’s population living near coastal communities; curtail the practices of deforestation; restore our oceans; remove plastics from circulation and divest from fossil fuel.

Ultimately our transition to a sustainable world is a story of inclusivity, justice and equity for all. A society that values all persons and planet equally – the latter being the lifeblood that sustains the former, without which we cannot survive.

Related to that, my ‘anthem’ from COP26 comes from Norwegian artist Aurora, whose live performance of her song The Seed will stick with me for a long time to come: ‘when the last tree has fallen, and the rivers are poisoned, you cannot eat money’.

My journey home may now be complete, but my personal journey very much continues. I have a newfound energy to use my voice, privilege and any influence I can muster to embed sustainable thinking and practices into every aspect of my personal and professional life. To try and take my family and friends on that same journey, to meet my clients, colleagues and acquaintances where they are currently, to build bridges and walk together to bring this story to its bright and bountiful conclusion.

It has been young voices at COP26 that have shown more bravery, leadership and courage than the majority of the western world’s heads of state. It’s our job to listen to, learn from, elevate and embolden them.

You can watch the global film premiere of ‘Creating Youth-Led Solutions’ held at the Glasgow Science Centre IMAX Cinema on Friday 12 November here. To find out more about Mike’s work, visit his website.