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Written by Kylie-Anne Grube

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP) took place from December 2 – 13th 2019 under the Presidency of the Government of Chile, held with logistical support from the Government of Spain. This conference was held under the slogan #timeforaction and was intended to fully operationalize the Paris Climate Change Agreement and build ambition and momentum for action in 2020 and beyond. Specific actions were targeted towards the areas of finance, transparency, forests and agriculture, technology, capacity building, loss and damage, indigenous peoples, cities, oceans, and gender. 

Master of Climate Change student, Brooklyn Ruston, was among seven students selected by the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change (IC3) from the Faculty of Environment to represent the University of Waterloo at COP.

I sat down with Brooklyn to ask a few questions about her experience at COP. 

Can you share a little bit about yourself and how you found yourself working on climate change? 

Absolutely! My name is Brooklyn and I am in the Master of Climate Change program here at Waterloo. I did my undergrad in Wildlife Biology and Conservation in Guelph. I chose this area of study because I like being outside – rock climbing, hiking, anything outdoors really (it’s my sanity in this world) – and I love animals and so it seemed like a natural fit. Wildlife conservation was my professional goal for quite some time. However, once I began look into what specifically I wanted to do after my undergrad, I came to the realization that any conservation action I wanted to undertake was almost pointless until we start looking into the human systems that are the source of such precarity. And so I decided to study climate change. 

What kind of work are you ultimately hoping to do in this field? 

I’d like to work on the local scale on mitigation or adaptation strategies. I personally believe climate change is a global problem, but the only way to address it is through local actions. I love working in collaborative environments with people, being part of a community, understanding their needs, and helping to push them towards a sustainable future.  

What were you most interested in learning at COP? Did your interests evolve over the week? 

When I first got there I had this grand plan of going to events on every possible topic because, unlike some of the other delegates, I don’t have a particular research focus. Once I got there, I realized that it is virtually impossible to go to everything – it is crazy busy all the time! So I ended up honing in on talks relating to civil society actions and NGO’s. I also went to a lot of talks about how to incorporate Indigenous and local knowledge into climate action planning. Through this experience I realized that human systems and transformation is really where my interests lie. 

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Rushton

Was there anything you learned at COP that surprised you? 

Honestly, it was really disappointing for me to see firsthand how slow action is from a global perspective. I went to two negotiations and it was disheartening to witness that despite the United Nation’s focus on human rights and equity, there is still a really strong sense of power dynamics in the negotiation room. 

But on a positive note, a really wonderful thing I realized is that a lot of the countries that we view as extremely vulnerable are actually far more resilient than people in North America. Countries projected to go underwater, for instance, are actually taking a lot more action that we are. Small island nation states are going completely renewable. And the social connections in developing countries are amazing. They have such a wonderful sense of community and that is a huge source of resilience. 

Even I have gotten into the trap of the “we need to help them” narrative – in a paternalistic sense. And it is true that we need to help, especially in regards to adaptation, but the biggest thing we can do to help is  mitigating our own emissions. I think we need to be careful about the narratives we construct and the way in which we assign of labels of vulnerability because many of these places are actually a lot stronger than us in a lot of ways. 

What was this experience like for you emotionally? 

It was a whirlwind of emotions all the time. When you first get there it is super exciting, but also overwhelming. There are over 30,000 people all in one location. The emotional experience really depended on what event or talk you were at. Some of them were pretty depressing, especially the ones focused on the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. Those were really memorable. But I think overall I left feeling very inspired. At COP you realize how many people across the world are working on climate change. It makes you feel as though you are part of a global community and reminds you of the collectiveness of this work – which can sometimes feel isolating. 

It was also really inspirational to learn how much action is actually taking place on the ground. Things that happen on the civil society and community level that you might not see in the news or in the National Contributions to the UN. These things are not always reflected in the “official” news and it was heartwarming to see. 

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Rushton

Is there one moment that stood out to you from the entire experience? 

The first thing that pops into my mind was the entire day devoted to the youth. There were 5 speakers all under the age of 15 telling their stories about the actions they were taking in their home communities. That was awesome to see, because, not to bash Greta (She is doing great things), but it is important to see the faces of other youth and what they were doing in the world. Having youth at the conference created a sense of hope, but also a sense of uprising. 

Speaking of uprising, was there a sense of this before the protests began in the second week? 

I wasn’t surprised by the protests at all. The United Nations’ slogan for this COP was #timeforaction, but that’s not what was happening in the negotiation room. Their focus was mostly on Article 6, concerning carbon markets, and in my opinion it’s not designed to do anything productive. The narrative of #timeforaction was certainly fading throughout the week and you could sense the feelings of frustration and distrust that this was evoking in people. It’s quite disappointing that the protestors were kicked out because you need that kind of pressure on officials to get things done. 

Thank you so much Brooklyn for taking the time to share your experience with us! As a final note, if there is one message you can bring back to your UWaterloo community from COP, what would it be? 

Don’t feel like you’re alone – I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Sometimes the work we do on climate change can feel isolating and hopeless, but returning from COP, I want to remind everyone that there are a lot of people around the world working on this with us that are just as passionate about making change. You are not alone.

Source: UNFCC Photo Desk

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