By Erin Roberts
12 / 12 / 2023
Image credit: Fadi Xd (Unsplash)

“I long for our light. Just as our hearts can break to learn how to beat, change ushers in the dances we need. Everything is a newborn gift, a new chance. Everything leads the way- through darkness, opening to light. Compassion, forgiveness and inner sight, usher us into the ever-twinkling starlight. Sparkle for me, for it is such a delight.”

Ulonda Faye (from Sutras of the Heart)

The other day something extraordinary happened in a most unexpected place. That unexpected place was a plenary hall inside the venue where the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) was being held in Dubai. An expansive venue, certainly. Impressive, yes but not spectacular. And yet the other day something spectacular happened there.

The president of COP 28, Dr. Sultan Al-Jaber, convened a high level meeting which he referred to as a Majlis. A Majlis is an Arabic word which literally means “sitting place” where community members gather to discuss issues, receive news, socialise or be entertained. Majlis is an expansive room which typically has carpets laid on the floor, pillows stacked against the walls with a stove or fire where hot beverages are prepared. The Majlis is typically run by elders or sheiks and one of its purposes is to provide a space to transfer knowledge and wisdom to young generations, another is to hear and resolve disputes.The Majlis is meant to be an inclusive space, though from research it does seem as women have their own separate Majlis so it’s not gender inclusive.

In the Majlis convened by the COP 28 presidency on December 10th ministers and heads of delegations were sat in a circle with the COP 28 presidency sat at the top of the circle. At the outset of the Majlis, the COP 28 president gave guidance on what was expected of those in the room. He said these kinds of settings - the Majlis - have enabled solutions to many complex issues in his country. He articulated a hope, a vision, that this setting would enable Parties to better understand one another and find solutions to bridge differences. He encouraged those present to speak heart to heart, person to person and expressed a hope that the Majlis would be a game changer. Whether it changes the game remains to be seen but certainly many people in the room opened their hearts and told their stories. Here I’ve captured some of those most compelling interventions to remind us of what was said when hearts were open as we reach a pinnacle in the negotiations.

The first two interventions, from the EU and Spain, were business as usual: just statements and reiterated positions. Perhaps a little more open than in a plenary context. But still statements. We needed to see this and that. Still heads talking to heads. To be fair, Parties are not accustomed to the directive: “Open your hearts.” So sensing they needed a little more prodding to do so,  the COP 28 presidency, this time represented by Adnan Amin, CEO of the COP 28 presidency said: “Please open up a bit”.

The next speaker, speaking for Colombia did just that following on the passionate intervention from Colombia in plenary the previous day. The representative of Colombia told those in the audience and those listening online of a challenge they are facing, a systemic barrier to change. Because Colombia, a major exporter of fossil fuels, which contribute a not-insignificant percentage of the country’s gross domestic product, is dedicated to a fossil free future for the good of the planet. The current administration is trying to decouple the country’s economy from fossil fuels but it hasn’t been an easy road. When Colombia’s president Gustavo Pedro declared his intention not to provide any new permits to explore fossil fuels, the country’s currency plummeted in value and creditors threatened to downgrade its credit rating. As they conveyed in the Majlis, Colombia wants so badly to transform but the economic and financial systems need to align with that vision. And as they articulated, the truth is that the solutions lie beyond the UNFCCC process. They lie in reforming the multilateral financial system and enabling the transformation in developing countries. The solutions must reward, not punish commitments to transform. They must enable change. We need a global new deal, a global transformation of the architecture which as Colombia said, is currently against us, not for us. We need the political will, they urged, and if limiting global average warming to below 1.5℃ is our common ground we need to engage with the realities of what that means, not just from a technical perspective, but also from a political perspective.

Colombia’s passionate intervention was followed by applause both within the room itself and in the overflow room and likely many heads were nodding amongst those watching online. I know mine was. And Colombia opened a door that others walked through. In their remarks China used the metaphor of achieving our shared goal on climate action as a race, not a sprint but a marathon. However, not everyone is starting from the same place. For as China reminded those listening, there are two groups of runners. The first group of runners is developed countries with historical responsibility and the second group are developing countries who are still trying to grow their economies. And certainly there is a spectrum of national circumstances amongst those two groups. But facts are facts. And the first group must help the second address climate change. Because it’s not that they don’t want to transform, but many developing countries are still trying to eradicating hunger and alleviate poverty. And as China illustrated, many people within those countries are going without basic things like shoes. We are a big family, China reminded those in the room, and we must help each other. That was a sentiment that continued to be articulated throughout the Majlis. We must take care of one another.

Germany acknowledged the usefulness of the setting and said: “We can only save humankind together.” The representative of Germany reminded those listening that climate change is the biggest security threat facing the planet and no country has the power or the resources to fight climate change alone. It is only possible to find answers together and to implement them together, Germany argued. They reminded those listening that it was Human Rights Day and they articulated a vision to see those in the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Zambia - among other developing countries - celebrating Human Rights Day in 2050 as a celebration of humankind, knowing that we were successful in limiting global average warming to below 1.5℃.

The solidarity and positive spirit continued along with the recognition that countries have different levels of responsibility and very different starting points. Japan reported they have seen with their own eyes the differences among Parties and said that unless we all work together to overcome these differences the Earth will be destroyed. Thus, Japan stressed that those who have the ability to do so must provide support to enable climate action in other countries. We must unite to implement the actions needed to limit global average warming to below 1.5℃ - they declared. However, uniting means that some countries must take the lead and provide the means of implementation for others to act, a point that came out strongly from Bolivia speaking for the Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDCs). Bolivia provided a reality check in the midst of the discussion. They argued that we don’t need additional solutions but rather to implement what has already been agreed to in the Convention and its Paris Agreement.  Bolivia recalled that while there are some Parties who have been pushing forward with collective action and international cooperation, there are others who have been pushing back on these endeavours. For example, they noted that many of the developed countries who have been saying they support a phase out of fossil fuels are continuing to explore and extract fossil fuels. So where does that leave us? They proposed there are two pathways. The first is carbon colonialism which will create more dependence on the global North from the global South and more indebtedness in developing countries, leaving less fiscal space for sustainable development and climate action. The second is climate justice which would see developed countries fulfil their commitments and obligations and would defend the “legitimate interests” of developing countries while protecting Mother Earth. This was a sobering intervention that made it clear that developed countries need to put their words into action and follow through with their commitments. Because not doing so has a significant cost.

Perhaps the most moving intervention of the day came from Bangladesh, who called for not just a transformation of the outcome of discussions on climate change but also for transformation of how we approach the issue. We need to look into our hearts and ask ourselves why we are not progressing here - they argued. Bangladesh encouraged everyone present to explore their hearts and ask themselves what they would do if they were the head of state or government of a country like Bangladesh or the Marshall Islands or Tuvalu or another developing country? Only when we have empathy and can put ourselves in another person’s shoes will we be able to find solutions to the climate crisis but empathy must be joined by solidarity and trust and the political will to cultivate all three - they argued. The Majlis, Bangladesh proposed, is where we can begin to build the trust we need to move forward.

Samoa told those listening that they have a similar kind of meeting to bring people together to discuss issues under the guidance of Elders called Talanoa. The representative of Samoa said that they would like nothing more than to go back home and report that they faced the leaders of the world and together we did something to ensure that their future exists. I don’t want to go back to my country and speak to the youth and the people from villages whose homes are being lost on a yearly basis - the representative of Samoa lamented. They appealed to all those in the room to do what is needed not just for their own countries, but for the world. Because as many of the political leaders in the room acknowledged, the world is quite literally in their hands.

In its intervention Norway reminded those in the room that they are meeting here not as leaders of individual countries but leaders of the world. We all share one planet and as such we need to limit warming to below 1.5℃ for the good of the planet - Norway stressed. Because, as they argued, how can we look our children and grandchildren in the eyes if we do not do everything we can to secure their future?

Ireland agreed with Colombia that we need a complete transformation of the global financial system, calling for a Global Green New Deal. We are on the path with the Bridgetown Initiative, the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris and the African Climate Summit in Nairobi but we need to do more, Ireland urged. An outcome is needed at this COP to enable an energy transition that is “right and fair”they stressed. We already know that a transition to clean energy will require 4 trillion USD a year. The representative of Ireland told those in the room that our security is enhanced when our neighbour’s security is in place too. That requires engaging with the on the ground realities in developing countries, they argued. They called on all countries to “unite, act and deliver” over the remaining days of COP 28. But while all countries are united, clearly some countries need to take more action and deliver more - and those are developed countries who bear much more historical responsibility for climate change.

Chile said that from what they have heard so far, we have a collective “guiding star” of limiting global average warming to below 1.5℃. For them, that means that all the pieces we are building and building on need to enable developing countries to build resilience to a 1.5℃ world: to adapt to that world and address loss and damage. The representative of Chile reminded those present that they are in charge and they know what they need to do.

Brazil brought in an element not yet covered in previous interventions: ethics. They stressed that the barriers to doing what needs to be done “are political and ethical in nature” and that in order to move forward we need to bring ethics and politics together with science. Unless we align those three things we will continue to diagnose the problem and never treat it, argued the representative from Brazil. All countries are being asked to step up but the means of implementation must be there in order to enable developing countries to act. Because as Brazil reminded those listening: “you can’t make an omelette without eggs”! We have the technical answers. We know how to limit global average warming to 1.5℃ Brazil argued - but we need the political will in order to implement them.

Marshall Islands told a story which helped illustrate the heart of the issue. The representative of the Marshall Islands said that one day they were walking down the street in the capital and saw a bumper sticker on a passing car which said: “To believe is to care, to care is to do”.  They argued that we are here because we believe and we care and now we need to do. The Marshall Islands ended their intervention by saying:

So that is why I am not going to say more on the issues because I think they are clear. It's a matter of believing. If you believe you care. If you care, you will do your part.

Common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities came up once again, this time from a developed country. France stressed that while climate change is affecting all countries, we have different starting points and circumstances. We must concentrate on how we can deliver at COP 28, the representative of France argued. And that will require moving from mobilising billions to trillions which will necessitate innovative sources of finance. They also recognized the need for reforming mulit-lateral development banks. In this intervention - and in many others - we heard acknowledgement of some of the many challenges to scaling up climate action, many of which are not covered in the current iteration of the text on the Global Stocktake which is envisioned to create a roadmap for the world we want.

The last speaker on the list was the Philippines. The representative of the Philippines said they speak from the heart and that was evident in the passionate way the words were articulated. The Philippines is a country with development ambitions yet one also plagued by climate change impacts which make it very difficult to ensure the security of its population. Climate change is fundamentally a global governance challenge, they argued. One of the fundamental challenges is that countries do not speak with nor look at each other. What was left unspoken is that they do not see each other nor understand each other as Bangladesh so eloquently articulated. The Philippines urged for more discussions like the Majlis, which are not antagonistic but people speaking from the heart. Discussions that enable countries to come together to find and implement solutions. In closing their remarks, the representative of the Philippines asked those listening:

If not now, when. Other important question: if not us, who?

Indeed, this is the moment. This is the moment where the world can get back on track. This is the moment when we can create the world we want.

There were many others who wanted to add to the conversation but time ultimately ran out for the Majlis. Had the discussions continued perhaps those in the room would have opened up even more. As it was, it was clear that there is a lot of work to do but also a lot of common ground. It is clear that we are working towards a “guiding star” of limiting global average warming to 1.5℃. We agree that everyone is doing their part but that countries have different start points and those that have developed (usually at the expense of others) have historical responsibilities and need to fulfil the obligations and commitments inscribed in the Convention and its Paris Agreement to enable climate action in developing countries. There is widespread agreement that the global financial architecture is not fit for purpose and needs to be transformed to enable economic and energy transformations.  

But where does that leave us today? Clearly those in the room do not take their responsibilities lightly - though it remains to be seen if those heartfelt words and articulate statements will translate into action. Because two days later those words spoken from the heart feel forgotten, remnants of the past. The outcome of the GST is now in the hands of ministers. But we need not sit by idly waiting. We must remind those ministers and heads of delegations of what was said in the Majlis. We need to remind them that we are a human family and we have the obligation to take care of one another.

To get to where we need to be to create the world we want, one in which all humans, species and ecosystems are thriving, countries need to speak to one another, to listen to one another and to see one another. And as Bangladesh urged, political leaders need to have empathy and understanding for each other, to put themselves in each other’s shoes. We need to cultivate trust and that will require many more conversations from the heart. So while the Majlis was a start, it is only that: the beginning. We must build on these discussions. Ministers must be encouraged to speak from the heart in these final hours - or perhaps days - of COP 28.  They must be encouraged, urged, to look inside their hearts and ask themselves what kind of world do I want to live in and what do I need to do to help get us there? Because right now the GST text is far from getting us there.

So I urge those with the most influence over the outcome - and we all know who you are - to open up your hearts a little bit more. Put yourself in the shoes of a head of state or government of a developing country highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, striving to develop, ensure the well-being of citizens while constantly bombarded by the impacts of climate change.  And then practise the art of being human. It’s the only way we’ll get to where we need to be at the end of COP 28 to create the kind of world we all want to live in.

Erin Roberts is the founder and global lead of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. She looks forward to a bold, ambitious outcome of COP 28 that takes a big step towards creating the world we want, including through the outcome of the Global Stocktake which includes a roadmap for getting back on track towards creating a world we all want to live in. She dedicates this blog to the memory of Saleemul Huq and urges us all to honour him at COP 28 by establishing a Fund that meets the needs of those households and communities on the frontlines of climate change, the people he spent his career advocating for.