Food for Thought: COP 27 Interview with Hamline University Professor Patty Born-Selly 

By Liam Schwartz, Alliance Intern from Hamline University

We wanted to get an insider’s view of what really went on behind the scenes at the UN Climate Conference. We immediately thought of Patty Born-Selly, who attended both COP26 and COP27. Patty has a MA in Education from Hamline and is currently enrolled in a Hamline doctoral program. She is the author of two books about environmental and science education for teachers who work with young children.

What was your sense about what made COP27 special from COP26?

I think part of why it was super significant was because it was supposed to be where they talked about implementation. So, my hope, and I think the hope of others, was that this would really be the COP where they would lay down specific plans and really set some tangible targets. However, that didn’t happen as much as everyone had hoped. The other significant thing was last year in Glasgow, there was a lot of real momentum around loss and damage financing. This made it clear that something was going to happen this year and it did, which is great.

Additionally, it was significant since the location of it brought up so many questions for people, not just because of Egypt’s human rights record, but also because Egypt is very fossil fuel heavy. The whole event was sponsored by Coca Cola, which is the world’s largest plastic polluter. There were so many things that sort of seemed inconsistent with the vision of a COP and the vision of the UNFCCC. A lot of things went unanswered, but it got a lot of people thinking about things. It also brought a lot of visibility to the human rights situation in Egypt, which I think was important. Will positive changes happen as a result of that? I certainly hope so.

I’m still really mystified by the UN and how they choose the location for COP and why a country with a record like Egypt’s can have a COP there. But that’s obviously above my pay grade. I don’t get to be part of those conversations, and I don’t think the UN is super transparent about how those decisions are made.

What was hopeful about this COP?

There was a real focus on climate justice to a degree that I hadn’t seen previously. There was a climate justice focused pavilion, which Robert Bullard, his organization, and his work created. There was tons of amazing workshops and sessions there. There was a lot of conversation about climate justice, which gave me a lot of hope that it’s starting to really get the airtime that it needs

The loss and damage financing was a huge step in that direction as well. I think the US is doing a lot more than I realized, and that made me feel pretty good. For example, the inflation reduction act that Biden passed is hugely important. There are a lot of other countries doing cool things.

It was refreshing to learn about not just what governments and big, huge NGOs are doing, but also grassroots things that are happening that are really what’s going to tip the scale. The people are not okay with the status quo. People are not okay with leaving all the decisions to the governments. People are taking matters into their own hands. We know that this needs to change, so we’re going to do our best to change it. We’re not going to stop pushing for that change until the change happens. That was really exciting.

Could you please describe some insights into the loss and damage component as well as role of the United States within that?

The United States was one of the big holdouts. They were one of the countries that was very much opposed to the loss and damage language. This was in no small part because it would sort of suggest accountability. I think that there’s been a real reluctance on the part of the US that is willing to take responsibility. I think part of what the concern at the federal level has been that if we accept responsibility, suddenly we’re opening ourselves up to lawsuits and who knows what would happen then? That’s the complicated part of it. Countries that are finally acquiescing and saying, “Okay, fine, we’ll do loss and damage,” are still so scared of litigation and still so scared of being held to account. It’s not surprising, but it’s kind of gross. We’ve done an incredible amount of damage to the climate as a country, and the least we can do is acknowledge that, right?

Essentially the way that the fund works, as I understand it now, is in Paris, they agreed to come up with the equivalent of the USD$100 billion a year for climate finance. This was supposed to fund the just transition and green jobs and act more like an adaptation fund. We’ve fallen so far short of that goal every year.

The loss and damage piece of it is different than that. That was intended to be a mechanism to help that’s really focused on adaptation and resilience. The loss and damage is more like compensation and reparations. Climate reparations give the countries more freedom to use the money in the ways that are culturally appropriate for them and how it can best work in the reality that each of these countries faces. That’s not something the US or any other developed country gets to decide. They know best.

The intention is, of course, that there’s this committee that will form and the committee will decide how the money is distributed, who gets the money, what they have to do with it, et cetera. The concern there is that committee is still being formed. There are 24 nations represented, so certainly not a whole picture of what’s going on. There are some questions around whose voices are being represented and who’s aren’t and who gets to pick who is on the committee. There’s a lot of unsettling questions that remain about how this is all going to work, and they’ve got to have it figured out before the next COP.

So, I think there’s going to be a lot of action around this and a lot of people paying close attention to what’s happening because it’s very exciting that loss and damage made it onto the final document as a priority. It’s also concerning because we know how that goes, right? If the big banks and the big rich countries get to make the decisions, how are we not just re-creating a system where smaller countries are going to go into debt to the bigger countries. There are just a lot of ethical potentialities. That’s what we must be careful about.

I think there was another important question and a win on the loss and damage thing. At the end of every COP, there’s this big packet of decisions that were made and proclamations and commitments and all that. The first part of that is called the cover text, and essentially, it’s the executive summary of what happened. The cover text language includes a discussion of remaking financial systems, transforming financial systems. This is an implicit acknowledgment that existing systems have not served everybody equally and have not been just. So that’s amazing that the language is there because it acknowledges something that’s never really been acknowledged in that way before.

There’s a coalition of folks who are saying, “We have some ideas that we think will help our communities. The process of getting that language written into the final documents and all the negotiations hasn’t worked for us, so we’re doing it anyway. We’re doing it the way we know we need to do it. We’re doing the things that we know we need.” I was really excited about that because that’s what’s got to happen. The UN is wonderful, and it’s so great to have everything unified in that way. However, when there’s a country like New Zealand and other organizations saying, “We’re not going to wait five years for you to agree on a treaty around whatever. We’re going to do what we know we need, and you guys can deal with it. We know what we need to do, and you’re either with us or you’re not.”

I was having dinner with a student who had come to COP who noticed, “There’s so much green washing here, so what’s the hope? What can we actually do?” I said to him, “What gives me the most hope is how young people are approaching this situation and the story.” There’s a group of people, my generation and older, who will work within the system to change it. We’ll do all these things, and we’ll write all this policy. There’s a place for that, of course, that’s important. Then you have this generation that students are a part of who’s believe that’s not necessarily the most effective way to create the kind of change we need. I feel like this young generation see things in a way that older generations don’t. You’re so much more evolved in that way, politically and ideologically,

There is so much more willingness to say that system isn’t working, so we aren’t going to try to work within that system. We’re going to change the system, which I think is super exciting. I think that’s what must happen. Things must change at all levels. Yes, there’s a time and a place for sitting in a negotiation room, writing a treaty, obviously. There’s also a time for people to say, “Sorry, what you’re doing isn’t working, or not working fast enough.”

There’s also a huge role for nonviolent action at scale. In Glasgow, we saw the biggest climate protest in history. In Egypt, we saw virtually none because Egypt made it illegal to protest. There is a clear recognition that there is massive power in civil society to look at things that need to be changed and say, “You can go negotiate all you want. We also know we need to change this and we’re going to make it known that that’s has to happen.”

What is your sense about decreasing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels? How do actors, like big fossil fuels corporations and governments that are developing with the use of fossil fuels, fit into the story?

The reality is, unless we reduce drastically our use of fossil fuels, nothing else matters. We can install as many solar panels as we want, but if there’s still countries that are going to continue to use at the rate at which they’re currently using fossil fuels, it’s a bit of a catch-22. The problem is there is such a huge lobby on the fossil fuel industry side to convince governments that we can have clean coal or nuclear is the way to go. That’s such a loud voice. Perhaps consequently, I didn’t hear anything about a windfall profits tax or anything like it.

I would like to see the UN stop allowing the fossil fuel industry to send representatives to COP because they had more representatives at COP this year than ever before. In Glasgow last year, there were more fossil fuel representatives than there were representatives of developing countries. And the number has increased by 25% since then. We had more fossil fuel lobbyists there than we had people from vulnerable nations, which is extremely unjust.

The UAE, who is hosting next year has 70 of their total number of delegates are working for the fossil fuel industry. So, the representation from the host country is like they’re in it. They have zero qualms about hiding their agenda. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens next year.

The reality is that the fossil fuel industry has so much power in all these closed-door meetings and so much power with all these governments that it really is going to take massive social transformation. That goes back to what I was saying about the role of young people and the role of people who say enough is enough. So many governments are beholden to the fossil fuel industry and the money. I think people see that, and we just cannot let up in our pressure to call that out and our responsibility to acknowledge that.

If we don’t drastically curtail and phase down and phase out, there’s no amount of reusable straw is going to fix what’s wrong. The lobby is so much about individual action, which obviously those are important, but not nearly enough. It’s important to do individual things because then we’re living in a consistent way with our values. Obviously, if we all cut down on single use plastics, that’s great, but that’s not going to change Wells Fargo and their power to do a pipeline through native land. These big corporations have got to be held to account. And the only way to do that is through political processes and other actions that are peaceful.

Where are we at with the Russia Ukraine war and Europe’s use of Russian fossil fuels?

Russia was at COP27, and they made some kind of remark about how now is not the time to complicate the energy picture or something like that. As a random person who was in the blue zone, I heard nothing about the Russia Ukraine situation. I know that the UK did come up with a pledge to reduce their emissions releases really significantly over the not even the next decade. That’s got some relationship with their reliance on Russian fuel, but I didn’t see anything specific to that. Granted, I wasn’t looking for it, so it’s possible that there was something there, I just didn’t know about it.

Can you talk a little about the adaptation versus the implementation commitments that were made?

The big difference is that adaptation really includes things like green energy, building a different kind of energy grid or helping farmers transition to different agricultural practices that are more climate friendly. The adaptation fund is really about things are already pretty bad, so here’s some resources to help adapt to that. I think of adaptation as putting the Hurricane Katrina victims up in a hotel.

Implementation is how we’re going to rebuild this community in a way that’s sustainable, take care of all the things we’ve lost, help people put their lives back together, and let them continue living the lives that they want to live in a way where they’re not in danger. We also want some money to help you pay for your home, pay for your food, pay for the stuffed animal that your little kid lost in a flood, and be able to rebuild your life in a way that you want. That doesn’t mean rebuild the exact same infrastructure that didn’t keep the floodwaters back in the first place. It means if this is where we want to live, this is where we want to be, and this is what we want to preserve about our lives, how do we do that in a way that’s sustainable and honors our local community and its needs.

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