“In order to carry a positive action, we must develop here a positive vision.”
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
“There are far, far better things ahead than anything we leave behind.”
Last year, days before the opening plenary of COP 26 I wrote a blog about why I was optimistic about the outcome of the Loss and Damage negotiations. Many people questioned my sanity. How could I be optimistic about a COP held in the middle of a global pandemic with unequal access to vaccines exacerbating inequalities? How could I feel positive about a COP taking place in a country in which floods and train strikes were wreaking havoc on travel? How could I believe that anything good could come from a COP in which many participants had hour-long commutes and even longer queues to get access to a venue with very little space to interact with one another? Well, wait for it because I’m gonna tell you why.
Optimism is not only good for the soul but also for the body
The first reason I chose to be optimistic about COP 26 is because it just feels better than being pessimistic.I started training my brain several years ago through meditation and a daily gratitude practice after I watched a very popular Ted Talk by happiness researcher (yes that’s a thing) Shawn Achor. Like the researcher that I am, I then did a deep dive into the literature on positive psychology, mindset and many other fascinating topics of inquiry.
As part of this journey – which is yet to end and I hope it never will - I delved into the work of psychologist Rick Hanson, which focuses, among other many things, on how we can actually change our neurobiology through practices like gratitude, mindfulness and meditation. One of the techniques Hanson recommends is called “taking in the good” which is literally basking in gratitude. Yes, you read that right: basking, folks. Doesn’t that sound nice? To take in the good you capture the feeling of being grateful and hold it in your body for a few minutes or longer if you can.
What I found when I started taking in the good is that I literally started to feel better; not just when I was actively being grateful but all the time. And who doesn’t want that? Let’s try it now and you’ll see what I mean. Focus on something you are grateful for and just hold that in your mind for as long as you can and feel the changes in your body. Can you hold that feeling of gratitude and think a negative thought? No, right? So being optimistic just feels better and for that reason I chose to expect the best rather than anticipate the worst outcome of COP 26. Practicing gratitude for what we have now and seeing abundance rather than lack also resonates with Indigenous values and culture of being grateful for nature and having reference for the Earth.
We create our realities
The second reason I chose to be optimistic about COP 26 is because I believe that we create our realities. We have a choice in every moment to focus on the future we want or a future we don’t want. Which future do you want to contemplate? And what’s more, notwithstanding that it feels better to focus on the positive, your expectations matter. Like really matter folks. That’s not some fanciful notion I picked up at a spiritual retreat (though I highly recommend those too) but is a fact, based on human biology.
If we focus on the good, we get more good
Coming back to neuroscience (yes we went there with Rick Hanson, remember? Try to stay with me) we each have a reticular activating system (RAS) which is a network of nerves which sets at the of our brain and filters information. And guess what? Your expectations help determine which information gets through and what doesn’t. Yup, it’s true. Did you ever play the car game when you were a kid? My family went on a lot of road trips when I was growing up and my brothers and I would sometimes play in the backseat in rare moments of solidarity. And do you remember you’d see a red convertible and then suddenly they were everywhere? Well, the RAS is the reason why. Tobias van Schneider explains in his blog:
In the same way, the RAS seeks information that validates your beliefs. It filters the world through the parameters you give it, and your beliefs shape those parameters . . . The RAS helps you see what you want to see and in doing so, influences your actions . . . If you care about positivity, for example, you will become more aware of and seek positivity.
So, if you expect good things, you’ll get more good things. Van Schneider argues that:
When you look at it this way, The Law of Attraction doesn’t seem so mystical. Focus on the bad things and you will invite negativity into your life. Focus on the good things and they will come to you, because your brain is seeking them out. It’s not magic, it’s your Reticular Activating System influencing the world you see around you.
Did you get that? The Law of Attraction isn’t mystical. It’s. Science. And it tells us that if we cultivate positive visions of the future and expect them to come to fruition, they will. Does that mean that we don’t need to take action? Of course there is still lots of work to do; global challenges to confront and address at all levels. And that’s why we do the work we do. But it does mean that in order to maximize the outcome of all that hard work we need to shift our individual and collective mindsets.
If I’m perfectly honest, what happened at COP 26 was so far beyond my most positive vision. I can’t even tell you. Did I expect the leader of a developed country to call for other developed countries to pay reparations for the climate debt they owe developing countries? Heck, no. Did I envision that five philanthropies would come together to commit finance to a Loss and Damage finance facility proposed by 134 developing countrie? Definitely, not. But, nevertheless, it happened and . . . My. Mind. Was. Blown.
Sure, the Loss and Damage facility didn’t get established at COP 26, but the momentum created in Glasgow has increased in magnitude ten-fold and more and makes the facility, or whatever it will eventually be called, a sure thing. So, while I didn’t anticipate everything that happened at COP 26 I still believed in focusing on the outcome I wanted rather than the outcome I didn’t want. And I’m doing the same for COP 27 but . . .
Why the laws of motion show us that we can expect even more ambition at COP 27
This year I’m even more optimistic about what we can expect as the last decisions are endorsed in the closing plenaries of COP 27 a little over two weeks from now. And let’s be honest folks, there are a lot of challenges around this COP too. But we can’t stop the momentum that COP 26 unleashed. I’m going to draw on Newton’s laws of motion to explain why we can and should expect an ambitious outcome of COP 27. Yes, that’s right folks I’m going back to school and you’re gonna come with me.
The law of inertia
Newton’s first law of motion states that a body at rest remains at rest and an object in motion stays in motion at a constant speed and in a straight line unless it is acted upon by an imbalanced force. Why is that important for Loss and Damage? Because we’re already in motion and we’re gonna stay that way. We’re moving in trajectory towards a collective vision of a world in which every human has the tools they need to not just address loss and damage but to thrive – yes thrive – amidst climate change and we’re going to keep moving towards that vision. But just wait, it gets better. Not only are we going to keep moving in a positive direction but we’re going to start speeding up to get there faster.
The law of force
Newton’s second law dictates that the extent to which an object accelerates depends on the mass of that object and the amount of force applied. Over the last year the size of the Loss and Damage community has expanded as has the momentum behind those calling for mobilizing finance for Loss and Damage. Scotland’s leadership has provided an example that other governments have followed and the five philanthropies that dedicated finance for Loss and Damage have been joined by more funders.
I remember a time when we had to beg journalists to cover Loss and Damage and now dozens of articles are released every day. We can’t keep up and believe me, we’ve tried. With all this momentum there is no way we can’t expect an ambitious outcome on Loss and Damage at COP 27 including a robust and fit for purpose Santiago Network alongside a permanent sub-agenda item on finance for addressing loss and damage, a process to establish the Loss and Damage finance facility (or the Loss and Damage Response Fund as AOSIS is proposing) if not establishing the facility itself together with progress towards cementing finance for Loss and Damage as a sub-goal under the new collective goal on climate finance and Loss and Damage as a key component of the Global Stocktake - among other things. And why not dream bigger? We need to mobilize trillions for Loss and Damage at the end of the day.
The law of action and reaction
Newton’s third law of motion states that when an object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first. Now this one is a little trickier to apply and at first glance this doesn’t appear to support the case for optimism. If we push doesn’t that mean there will be a reaction in the other direction to counter that push? Here’s how I interpret it.
For years our systems have been driven by the needs of high income or “developed” countries and been based on the culture, values and knowledge of the global North. It’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way. It’s time for us to shift towards leadership from the global South; to re-balance power. It’s time to transition away using terms like “donor” and seeing finance for Loss and Damage towards a paradigm which sees developed countries as debtors repaying the climate debt owed to lower income or “developing countries” and fulfilling their responsibilities.
In a recent article in the Guardian former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christian Figueres proposed that we need “radical collaboration” in order to create a world in which both nature and human societies are thriving. To do so, she argues - like so many others - that we need a paradigm shift. Very few people, however, have unpacked what this paradigm shift might require.
In my view we will only realize the transformation needed for that shift to occur by integrating the culture, values and knowledge of Indigenous peoples and local communities into both our daily lives and our global systems. Values that prioritize a connection to each other and to nature. Cultures which encourage humans to take responsibility as caretakers of one another and as stewards of the Earth. Indigenous peoples do not see nature as separate from themselves and the rest of humanity needs to do the same to turn this ship around. Finally, we must shift from a framework of coping with climate change to one of thriving; to societies and systems that foster well-being.
What does all this mean for Loss and Damage? Well, it means meeting the needs on the ground folks. The full scale of needs at all levels and in all parts of the world through a system that is driven by those needs. It means letting those needs drive our work and ensuring that the people on the ground are not just engaged in but are driving discussions on climate action. Can we do that? You betcha we can. We just have to believe it, then we’ll see it as psychologist Wayne Dyer famously said.
How we can collectively assure the most ambitious outcome of COP 27
So what does this mean for us as a community as COP 27 begins? Well, first it means that we must focus on the outcome we want, not what we don’t want. And we must be ambitious. Very, very ambitious. We don’t have to contemplate trade-offs and only demand one thing at a time - that’s not what communities on the frontlines need. Rather we should and must expect an ambitious package on Loss and Damage at COP 27 that if it doesn’t mobilize trillions, at least moves us in that direction. Too much you say? Too ambitious? Too bold? Just wait and see . . .
Erin Roberts is the founder of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. She strives each day to be a better human. She often fails but almost always learns from her mistakes.