COP26 Coalition on mobilising for climate justice

COP26 has finally arrived in Glasgow. We speak to the COP26 Coalition, a fringe movement of over 200 civil societies, about mobilising to fight for climate justice during the conference and far beyond

Article by Eilidh Akilade | 01 Nov 2021
  • COP26 Coalition

Cities don’t usually get this hyped for conferences – for networking, free pens and hotel-pressed suits. But, as the banners lining Buchanan Street and the predicted travel disruptions remind us, COP26 (aka the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties) is not just any conference. This is a big deal, for Glasgow, the UK and the planet. It’s a breaking point for the climate crisis: there’s a sense that time is running out, that this is our last shot to save ourselves and the environment we’ve so violently exploited. The COP26 Coalition, a fringe group building a movement around the conference, knows this all too well: for them, the run up to COP looks like 12-hour workdays, international Zoom calls at 5am and – despite the exhaustion – genuine excitement.

The COP26 Coalition is a UK-based coalition of over 200 civil societies, mobilising around climate justice during the 13 days of COP26. Rather than green-washed promises of net zero (a target for the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere to be balanced), the Coalition wants governments to take responsibility for the climate crisis, and to take action to ensure climate justice is met. They’re not anti-COP, per se. As Tess Humble, the Coalition’s Mobilisation Officer puts it, they’re simply using the conference as “a point of leverage for long-term movement building.”

This particular COP is set to be one of the most inaccessible to date: from vaccines to travel visas, it’s proving difficult for representatives from the Global South to attend the conference. Moreover, Glaswegians themselves are seemingly being kept out of the loop. “What's the substance of this? What are these talks? What the hell does COP stand for? No Glaswegians are having that explained to them,” notes Humble. It’s true: COP has slipped into our daily vernacular and taken over the city, and yet, many of us are shocked to hear that the C doesn’t actually stand for climate. The Coalition, unsurprisingly, takes issue with all of this, and, as a result, they’re offering – and encouraging – an alternative. 

This alternative comes in the form of the COP26 Coalition’s Global Day of Action and People’s Summit. For accessibility and decentralising purposes, both are hybrid events, held in person and online. The Global Day of Action on 6 November will consist of mass mobilisations across the country and the globe. It’s a coming together of multiple groups – anti-racist, migrant, trade unions, youth-focused – all expressing in their own way what climate justice means to them. “If that's [through] poetry, or political speeches, or massive bands, or coming in national dress, or whatever – it needs to be colourful, it needs to be beautiful, because that's tapping back into our humanity and getting away from the system,” Humble explains.

The following days, 7-10 November, will consist of the People’s Summit, largely organised by Jana Ahlers, the COP26 Coalition’s Programme Coordinator. Jana explains that it’s a festival of sorts, made up of talks, workshops and performances, getting people together and connecting over climate justice. It’s set to be joyous and exciting, showing just how central the arts are to activism. However, aside from this, Humble adds: “The People’s Summit is going to be educational as hell.” Any and all elitism is stripped away: the climate justice movement is something you can be involved in and care about, regardless of prior knowledge. It’s a space for guilt-free learning – certain activist circles can be rife with snobbery – and the Coalition knows that true climate justice cannot accommodate such attitudes. 

This sense of openness is key to the very structure of the Coalition itself. It’s got the range, from Christian Aid to Wretched of the Earth. “There's a lot of diverse thinking within that, and some from very different ends of the spectrum,” says Humble. And yet, unity takes precedence over further divisions. “We’re hoping to create spaces, in more ways than just having a room; [it’s about] creating space for difficult conversations,” comments Ahlers.

Humble expands: “That will always be on a spectrum – you'll never be able to take it to what might be read by some ‘less radical’ groups as a ‘radical’ endpoint. But what we can do, and I think we have done quite well as a coalition, is to force through to the more radical end of the spectrum.” Oftentimes the ‘radical’ end of things is, quite simply, where justice lies. This justice is what the Coalition is looking to.

One group within the Coalition is ESA (East and Southeast Asian) Scotland. Kimi Jolly is the Lead Campaigns Officer for ESA Scotland. Jolly is also a Kelabit, an Indigenous tribe from the Highlands of Borneo. “I have chosen to be part of the Coalition because I demand that Indigenous and minoritised voices be at the forefront of climate action policies and conversations,” Jolly says. “Climate change interacts with and worsens existing inequalities in society that are often shaped by racism and colonialism. Climate action requires an intersectional approach that takes into account the most impacted communities. And we believe the best way to overcome the climate crisis is by empowering and listening to minoritised and Indigenous communities.”

The Coalition demands reparations and redistributions to Indigenous communities and the Global South. There’s little room for palatable chats around the climate crisis; rather, there’s a need to admit how we got here and what we’re going to do about it. As Humble explains, “The climate crisis is just the latest expression of a whole load of violence across a whole load of people and their lands around the world.” Jolly echoes this sentiment: “The violence and demise is hidden out of sight, in rural and remote parts of the world where minoritised and Indigenous peoples are not seen or heard and mostly forgotten.”

The Coalition recognises that voices representing populations who have been underserved by various climate movements have the answers and have been offering these answers for a long time. However, they’re careful to emphasise that they’re disinterested in, as Ahlers puts it, this “classic token discussion we’ve seen in recent years.” The Coalition is currently working closely with Glasgow’s Muslim community. “The Quran talks about the environment a lot, and the importance of the environment,” Humble notes. For example, Glasgow-based imam Hassan Rabbani has long discussed the climate crisis in his sermons. Now, he’s working with the Coalition to involve other imams around the city. “The Muslim world, from Bangladesh and all the way to Morocco, has been hit hard by climate change, so this is very real for a lot of diaspora communities,” explains Humble. “Again, it’s about tapping into those voices and how we connect [with them] because that work is already going on.”

At its core, the Coalition is based on relationships – between people, groups, cultures, and faiths. “We want these bonds,” says Humble. “We want these to be long lasting, meaningful bonds that exist in little centres across all the UK and across all the world, because that is what's going to keep the movement alive.” The Coalition’s hope is that you’ll go to the Global Day of Action, and then, perhaps, the next day you’ll attend an event at the People’s Summit and see a few familiar faces from the day before. They hope you’ll meet new people and have conversations that will stick with you, and that you will stay in touch and come together again – for climate justice, for anti-racism, for workers’ rights. “That's how trust is built,” says Humble.

COP26 is a moment – and one that needs to be seized upon. “It’s this first potential high after the pandemic,” notes Ahlers. Mobilising around a single event, it would be easy for the COP26 Coalition to shrink back and quiet down after the conference, once all has been said and done by those in power. But the Coalition is structured with these particular struggles in my mind. It’s not the Coalition itself, but the relationships fostered through its work that will hopefully sustain the movement. They’re already considering points of reflection: in the months after COP26, they aim to look at what worked, what didn’t, and what the future holds. “We’ve not done enough,” Humble says. “There’s a lot more that needs to be done.” 

The Coalition isn’t interested in making icons out of themselves: this is activism without the idol. Their focus is on building a long-term collective movement through local hubs around the world. The COP26 Coalition will dissolve – but the climate justice movement mustn’t. This is just the beginning.

The Global Day of Action takes place on 6 Nov; The People’s Summit takes place 7-10 Nov

Find out more about the COP26 Coalition by visiting