By Erin Roberts
07 / 08 / 2023
An exhausted delegate sleeps in their seat as they wait for the closing plenary of COP 27 to start having worked through the night. 20th of November 2022. Image credit UNclimatechange/Kiara Worth, licensed under (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

“Life's most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I hit the wall slowly and then all at once. It happened in slow motion, unfolding over months and years. And then . . . BAM! In seconds everything changed. There was the before time and the after. And nothing would ever be the same. 

It happened on a typical Thursday morning in response to an innocuous question: what comes next? My body reacted in a visceral way. As if all my nerves were on fire. I felt myself become something else in that moment.  Like a caged animal reacting purely from instinct. It was a primal reaction. Fight or flight kicked in. First fight and then flight. A voice said: No more. And then: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this anymore. Over and over again. Like a rallying call or perhaps just a cry for help. This cannot be the way anymore it told me. I had no choice but to listen. 

Because in that moment I literally couldn’t contemplate what comes next.  I couldn’t live one more day in this space. With this pressure. Feeling this weight on my shoulders. Letting everyone down. And if not everyone, at least someone. Never doing enough. Never, ever doing enough. 

I work with an amazing team of people, phenomenal humans in every way. But we are a very small team doing very big work. The needs are immense and we are constantly fighting fires. Because while the work is  immense, the funding has been never stretched far enough to even begin meeting the needs. We have been perpetually underfunded and sometimes completely unfunded. Long spans of time between grants. Often cobbling together income streams through small projects to pay our bills. I can’t describe adequately in words the stress that comes with that. For all of us. But for me at the helm of this ship it has been too much at times. 

Not for a lack of trying though. We had been in perpetual fundraising mode since we established the Collaboration in the aftermath of COP 25 in Madrid. Three and a half years. It sounds like a small thing when you say it like that. Like a short span of time. But that’s over 1200 days of feeling like the world is on your collective shoulders. 

Every day I worried about the team. It made sleeping at night difficult. And yet, simultaneously, I put more pressure on them. I made it more challenging for them to take care of themselves in so many ways. Because I was always in pursuit of this holy grail of sustainable, adequate funding. When that comes then we can relax, I told them. In the rearview mirror I can see the unhealthiness of all that. The unfairness of it. It felt like a pressure cooker. And I suppose it was inevitable that it would blow up. 

In the aftermath of the discussion that Thursday morning that culminated in my breakdown, we decided to be gentle with ourselves. Take the summer to rest. We would work but we wouldn’t overload ourselves. We would take the time to get organized. Tackle the basic tasks that being in firefighter mode made difficult. The whoosh of relief was palpable. My body relaxed for the first time that day. And perhaps for the first time in those 1200 days if I’m really honest with myself. 

The next day I felt lighter. I still worked. I finished a blog and did a few other bits and bobs. But I stayed offline. For once I just focused on one thing at a time and that made everything easier. And quite frankly it made the work I did so much better. 

As the day progressed, I reflected on how lucky I was to be able to jump off the hamster wheel so easily. Just one decision and that’s it. We need to take a break so we do. We didn’t stop working but we decided to be easy with ourselves. To put what we needed first - or at least not last. Not everyone gets that choice. Most people don’t. In particular the unsung heroes on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Warriors who get up each and every day and fight for support for the most vulnerable people, communities and countries. Negotiators from vulnerable developing countries. 

For just over ten years now I’ve supported vulnerable developing countries in the climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Been in the trenches with these amazing people. Traversed the globe many times over with them as they advocated for those on the frontlines of climate change in their countries and regions. 

I began my career working on Loss and Damage. For many years also followed adaptation and for a few of those years, finance in the context of both adaptation and Loss and Damage. I spent so much time in Bonn that many people thought I lived there. It’s a lot to keep track of not to mention to engage deeply with and there are a lot of opportunity costs to doing so. 

In the early days, and until very recently, working on Loss and Damage was not for the faint of heart. It’s still a politically divisive issue but it was so much more so then. Some people would literally take a step back when I told them I work on Loss and Damage. As if they might catch something from being too close. 

It was very difficult to find funding to work in that space (and still is). Most of the negotiators I support, work with and know, were perpetually unfunded or at best, underfunded (and still are). A lot of my time and that of many advisors was unfunded (and still is). We were constantly fundraising to enable negotiators to attend meetings, have time to prepare and to fund the technical support provided by advisors (and still are).  

I wish I could say that things have changed despite the fact that there is a lot more funding for Loss and Damage these days. But they haven’t. Because while there is more funding available to work on Loss and Damage for the most part, the true heroes of the response to the climate crisis remain unsung and if not unsupported, at most, under supported. 

There are some funders who have filled the gap and I want to pay homage to them. There are a few dedicated people, true champions, who have headed the call and done what they could to address the gaps. They too are heroes But for the most part, negotiators from vulnerable developing countries do not have the support they need to advocate for those on the frontlines of climate change in their countries. We are trying to change that. A big part of that is helping people understand the lived reality of  negotiators from vulnerable developing countries. 

The Loss and Damage negotiators from vulnerable developing countries that I have worked with typically fall into two categories.  

The first is someone who works for their government, usually the ministry of environment. They are usually focused on national and sometimes sub-national climate policies. They often lead the development and implementation of national adaptation plans and broader climate (and often other) policies and plans. These policies and plans are informed by consultations with a broad spectrum of actors on the frontlines of climate change as well as those working to address its impacts. 

While the capacity and resources might vary slightly, the teams are often small and overwhelmed with national work. Following the global process is typically an additionality to national work. With very few if any resources or time to dedicate to it. There is never enough time and they are perpetually overwhelmed. They have both a depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding the needs on the ground and approaches to address them - from the local to national.  They bring that knowledge to the global climate regime under the UNFCCC which benefits greatly from their expertise. 

The second type of negotiator I’ve worked with is someone who does not work for but rather works with their government. Many of these individuals have also established and remain at the helm of civil society organisations. Organisations focused on making change on the ground from the local to the national level. Some of these individuals follow other global processes like the Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and they bring that knowledge into their work on Loss and Damage. 

Like their counterparts in the government, these individuals are also overwhelmed with immense workloads. They too are constantly in firefighter mode and consistently under funded. Rarely is their time to attend the UNFCCC negotiations funded. They too bring an immense body of knowledge and have a deep understanding of the needs on the ground and measures to address them. Like their counterparts in the government, these individuals spend significant time in the field speaking with households and communities on the frontlines of climate change. 

What all these negotiators have in common is an unparalleled work ethic and a drive to make change. No one understands better the needs of those on the frontlines of climate change in their countries. The complexity of approaches to address them. The intersectionalities of vulnerability of the most marginalized. No one knows better than someone whose very job is to develop national climate policies or lead work on the ground at the local to sub-national level. And no one is better equipped to bring those needs, those complexities, those challenges, to the global discussions on Loss and Damage. 

And no one is more responsible for the rise of Loss and Damage, for the ambitious outcome at COP 27 including but not limited to the Loss and Damage fund, than negotiators from vulnerable developing countries. Certainly, it took a village. But we don’t acknowledge enough the tireless work of negotiators from vulnerable developing countries. 

They are the ones who sat in negotiating rooms into the early hours of the morning and sometimes through the night - year in and year out - to progress an agenda with very few resources. Dedication and commitment over three decades which culminated in the text we can all hold in our hands today. The G77 and China stood together under the extraordinary leadership of Vicente (Vice) Paolo Yu at COP 25, COP 26 and COP 27 to build the foundations for the work we collectively do today. 

And conversely, few are as under-resourced as these unsung heroes. Many do not have funding to engage in the global process. Their travel, accommodation and subsistence (sometimes very little) is covered but not their time. They make time alongside other projects to do what they can. Their time at UNFCCC meetings is often unfunded. They sacrifice weeks of income in order to negotiate for their countries. 

And that has implications for their families back home and for their own personal well-being on all fronts. It means they have to work harder the rest of the year to be able to afford to take several weeks off a year. That means there is very little time also to prepare for the sessions and to engage intersessionally because they have to hussle. And it also puts their health on the line. A few years ago one of the negotiators I work with almost died because they had overworked so intensely for so many years. A few negotiators from vulnerable developing countries have lost their lives during UNFCCC sessions. 

A significant amount of the work that negotiators from and advisors to vulnerable developing country Parties and groups do is done pro bono. And often they cover their own travel. There is also not enough funding to do research, to develop briefs and support vulnerable developing country negotiators in their preparations for the COP. By contrast, developed country negotiators are often focused entirely on the global process and they often have teams of advisors to support them. That’s not to say that they don’t also work hard, because they certainly do. But they have the resources to prepare and to engage. This only exacerbates the power imbalance between global North and South. 

In summary, we as a community are not only not recognizing the vast contributions and commitment of vulnerable developing country negotiators, but we are also not equipping them. And if we want an ambitious outcome on Loss and Damage we all need to do a better job at supporting negotiators from vulnerable developing countries. To ensure they have the funded time. So here is my plea to you Dear Reader: 

• If you have the capacity to fund a vulnerable developing country negotiator or advisor please do so. If you know of someone who might, please reach out to them. You can get in touch directly with vulnerable groups and Parties but if you need any help we can certainly put you in touch with negotiators in need of support. 

• If you have funding to do research on Loss and Damage under the UNFCCC please reach out to negotiators from vulnerable developing countries first to find out what they need. Don’t be extractive about it. Ask them what you can do to support them and then do that. 

• When you develop a paper, brief or report you must also develop a one or two page summary of the highlights. Negotiators do not have time to read long papers and reports. In fact, nobody has time to read all of the papers out there. I once walked into the office of a civil servant in a developing country and at first I thought they weren’t there. Because I couldn’t see them beyond the mountain of reports and papers on their desk. So please summarize, ensure your work is fit for purpose and make good use of resources by building on and not duplicating the work of others. 

• It is also important for researchers to understand and respect the sensitivity and confidentiality of information provided in negotiation spaces. We must be mindful and respectful of the ethics of engaging with delegates to the UNFCCC. Please also be respectful when you reach out to negotiators and mindful of the fact that a lot of others are doing the same. If you reach out to a negotiator about something you wish to be considered in a discussion, please also think of asking what you can do to better support them. And please be respectful of their time as well. 

• If you’re planning a workshop for negotiators make sure it’s what they need before you start planning. Be very clear with both yourselves and with them about how the outcome will support the work that they do. Their time is valuable so make sure you make good use of it. And make sure you take the outcome somewhere. Again, don’t be extractive. 

And finally, please pass along this blog to everyone and anyone working on climate policy. It’s something we all need to be much more aware of and to take action to address. If we want more ambition at COP 28 we’re going to have to get a whole lot better at supporting the unsung heroes of the climate crisis. We look forward to working with you to do just that. 

We are going to take a break now as we continue our summer of being gentle with ourselves. Rest is a very important part of that and we are going to rest for a little while. I hope you’re getting the rest you need too. Because at the end of the day we need to take better care of ourselves and each other if we are going to make the big change in the world we envision doing to create the world we want.  

Erin Roberts is the founder and Global Lead of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. She’s taking it easy over the summer to recover from a very challenging last few years. She hopes that you’re taking the time to rest too as we’ve got a lot of work to do together to support those on the frontlines of Loss and Damage in the lead up to and at COP 28.