If COP26 promises access and input, why are young people being blocked and topics ignored?

Shakil, from the USA, is an international consultant with experience in community relations, youth advocacy and organisational change management.

“Today I’m at a session representing indigenous peoples, and the first thing you notice are the outfits. Everyone is wearing their own traditional dress, reminding me just how boring a suit and a tie can be. The panel opens with a discussion followed by questions from the audience, and a woman from a Caribbean nation takes the microphone. She addresses COP26 President Alok Sharma directly: “Mr. President, we need your help. Our tiny nation is disappearing”, before sitting down and looking defeated. Nothing said after this has quite the same level of desperation to it, and I feel emotional at the end of the panel. It’s difficult to think about how hard some people have worked and how far they have come to do or say anything they can with the little agency that they might have. My mind thinks of the voiceless, and the injustice of it all.

On day three I try to enter a conference room where my local state senator is giving a speech. All the way out here and two of us from the same place at the same time – what an opportunity! But as I go to walk in, a security guard yells at me. She rests her hand on her hip, brushing the edge of her gun and shouts firmly “you are not allowed in!” Her voice is so loud that I feel instantly guilty, and as I try to ask a question, another guard tells me to move on. So I do. This is the fourth time in three days that something like this has happened to me, and I’m probably the 100th person it has happened to.

Day four and I’m in a panel where Alok Sharma is explaining the importance of being inclusive, stressing that inclusive practices and local efforts have a vital impact on climate change action. Then I see on the news that Heads of State are making big speeches about supporting young people to change the world. This doesn’t line up with the COP I’m seeing, where young people constantly find themselves restricted. There are more security staff than young people at COP, and the administration here want invited guests to behave and follow every rule. Unless of course you have money and power. “How typical”, I think, as a hum of suits walk past me in formation.

At the end of each day I meet up with my fellow delegates and talk things through with my peers, and reflections are slowly turning from positive to sceptical. What is going on? Why is security so oppressive to its already vetted guests? And in every high level setting, a pattern is emerging as the same few topics remain undiscussed: big oil, public funding transparency and youth agency. Though youth organizations are present at COP26, nothing about us or our work is being discussed by the suits.

This is also reflected in the Blue Zone. YMCA has provided each of its young people with access and opportunity to represent everything we can, but doing so during a global pandemic that dramatizes inequity is no easy feat. But we’re here – we made it – and yet on arrival at this world event, discussing solutions about our future, we find ourselves blocked. Our access is limited and our voice diluted. If we find it this hard what about others with less agency? What is our responsibility in this grey area? And with that, my mind goes back to the voiceless.”