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Northwestern delegates saw hope and concern at COP26

a picture showing a flooded area

Delegates from Northwestern University who attended the COP26 summit were inspired by the turnout but also alarmed that some groups, especially Indigenous and small island nations, were not as successful in shaping the final commitments in Glasgow last month.

Reynaldo Morales, a faculty fellow at Northwestern Buffett who was there to assess Indigenous participation, said he is concerned with the ascendance of a narrative that makes climate action look more like “an economic investment opportunity” rather than one based on rights. He also fears an increasing role for NGOs and other intermediaries may blur the voices of people who have the most to lose to a changing climate.

“Many non-recognized Indigenous peoples who experience biodiversity loss due to climate change will probably not be assisted directly if not intermediated by NGOs or if they do not offer any opportunities for investors,” Morales said.

Morales is also worried that he didn’t see Indigenous knowledge represented on expert panels at COP26.

“Science and its relationship with industry cannot be a neutral factor when development, infrastructure, extractive, manufacturing and transporting industries present threats to Indigenous peoples territorial, political, nature-based and human rights,” he said.

Diana Elhard, a doctoral candidate researching climate finance, said that COVID-19 widened the already large disparity in access to climate negotiations. “Many small states, particularly Small Island Developing States (SIDS), were under- or unrepresented at this COP because people feared bringing COVID back to their communities when the conference was over,” Elhard said.

“On the last day the calls from SIDS went unheeded and the commitments at Glasgow were not enough to guarantee a world limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, which is already a target that makes life for these states and communities difficult,” she said.

Elhard said that a source of hope was seeing how many different actors were at COP26.

“The work of Indigenous peoples, youth activists, environmental NGOs, and other non-state actors are all additional pieces of the puzzle that can both influence the UNFCCC proceedings and continue working outside of formal COP spaces,” Elhard said. “Actors at many different levels are engaged in influencing the COP process, but I also know that their energy will be aimed at change beyond COP26.”

Morales, on the other hand, saw a shift in the approach to including Indigenous voices.

Contrary to previous summits, “this time the rights-based approach does have a wider recognition, and there is language approved that reflect a new era in the consideration of Indigenous Peoples’ rights specifically,” Morales said.

Morales is also encouraged by the growing support for an end to deforestation. “This is an important advance particularly for Amazonian Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous peoples living within protected areas,” Morales said. He added that now the challenge would be to direct financial assistance to protectors of Indigenous forests.

The platform of Indigenous peoples was also well-represented, Morales said, with representatives from around the world with the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform.

“We had the Facilitative Working Group with the attendance of Indigenous leaders and members from all around the world. On top of that, we had the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change with a pavilion that offered a meeting place and a dedicated space for presentations and conference press,” he said.

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