The UN Climate Talks include a complicated balance of: country representatives who are there to negotiate on behalf of their nation state; corporate interests who are there to try and make sure they don’t go out of business; and badass non-governmental organisations and civil society representatives who are there to push for ambition, speak out on controversial issues, and generally get s*** done. In hindsight, I might be slightly biased…

All you need to know is that there are a variety of people running around here at the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) negotiations, and despite their differences, they all share one common experience: the emotional rollercoaster that is the UNFCCC.

It is easy to assume that our own personal experiences at these high-intensity, highly-technical, and highly chaotic events aren’t shared by those around us. Similarly, reporting on these events never seems to acknowledge this aspect of the negotiations. And yet, from what I have learnt and experienced, the spectrum of emotions felt here at the UNFCCC are shared by all.

In an effort to lay out some of the complicated emotional navigations that happen here, I will try to outline this rollercoaster ride from exhaustion all the way to empowerment!

Exhaustion

Whether you attend the UN Climate talks for one day, one week, or two – the exhaustion is inescapable. From the minute you arrive at the conference centre it’s a non-stop marathon to reach the finish line.

If you spend your time following the official negotiations your brain will will become saturated with complicated, technical and contradictory messages. If instead you attend side events, your brain will do its best to shut down as the 90 minute events fire information at you from all angles. If none of that floats your boat, you might spend your time engaging in working groups or mobilising like minded individuals. In that case you have to be ready for quick turnarounds and some arguably award-winning multitasking.

For the negotiators too it is clear that the strain of the event takes its toll – it is all too easy to spot a country delegate falling asleep at the table. Regardless of how you balance your time at the UNFCCC, the running from room to room, long days, and overactive brain functioning will leave you shattered. And trust me when I say that no amount of coffee will wake you up!

Confusion

One COP, two COP, three COP, four. It doesn’t matter how many UNFCCC events you attend there is always a consistent level of confusion that surrounds the experience. Finding meeting rooms often feels like navigating the Sahara Desert, and this certainly isn’t helped by continuous room changes, time changes and agenda delays. Something which the official delegates struggle with too.

Then, once you have finally given up on finding Atlantis you must then embark on an endless hunt for a plug socket. And if all that chaos wasn’t enough, you have no option but to tattoo all the thousands of acronym definitions onto your arm in order to keep up with the confusing discussions about AIM, ACE, APA, COI, SUVA etc. Working out how best to deal with the continuous confusion that is the UNFCCC is near impossible, the only reassurance is that even country representatives get it wrong!

Frustration

As you may have already worked out, trying to get country representatives to stay on topic, stop blabbering, and reach consensus can be very frustrating and often impossible. Countries spend time stalling as a tactic to shut down efficient discussion, or actively throw in controversial statements to distract or draw attention (all in the name of protecting their delicate egos). The layers of bureaucracy, diplomatic speak, and policy wonk make following and participating in these discussions exasperating. Paired with clashing event timetabling, chaotic organisation, and constant laptop death, frustration at the UNFCCC is alive and kicking.

Solidarity

Although this space can be challenging and emotionally draining – being surrounded by like minded people united to work towards climate change can be hugely up-lifting. Not only do countries form formal alliances, but civil society group together to push for common action.

During my time at the UNFCCC I saw solidarity in a variety of places. The gender discussions saw women grouping together to support and share experiences. The Talanoa discussions recognised global voices as individuals within a shared sense of community. And youth movements in particular, demonstrated the numerous ways we can support one another though shared identity, compassion, concern, and motivation. The various actions that took place over the week demonstrated just how powerful solidarity can be. In a fight against climate change, it is easy to feel alone and insignificant – but this space proved the value and strength in fighting together as one.

Empowerment

Above and beyond solidarity, there are moments where ‘empowered’ is the only way to describe how you feel. For those who are motivated and passionate about climate change, this space offers an unbelievable opportunity to make a real, tangible difference.

For me, the best example of this was the work I did within YOUNGO – the youth constituency at the UNFCCC. In a working group focused on conflicts of interest, I was given the opportunity to speak at a relevant official negotiator session on behalf of young people. Not only did I feel powerful solidarity with the group I was representing, but I felt empowered by them to volunteer to do something that was quite frankly terrifying – but in the end highly rewarding. Similarly, seeing the impact our actions had on the negotiations, and the strength and encouragement it gave me personally, proved how this space can encourage and facilitate empowerment.  

The UNFCCC is an insane emotional rollercoaster ride for sure.

Some days are better than others, and each day brings with it new surprises. For those who know the UNFCCC space, I’m sure you will agree that this experience might be one of the greatest tests of emotional endurance. Negotiators, business representatives and civil society alike – share this complex journey of emotional ups and downs, navigating our own personal emotions alongside global decision making on climate change.

Although I am more than ready to sleep for a week. It is definitely true that the highs outweigh the lows, and I would go back again in a heartbeat.

Author: Eilidh Robb