Marian Berry says attending COP27 in Egypt for a week in November changed her life.
The Nelson neurologist spent the first week of the United Nations climate summit as an observer.ooo
“It was transformative,” she says. “I will be, I am, a new and different person.”
Marian says one of the signs of change is that she has taken up a vegan diet, because meat production is one of the worst producers of greenhouse gases. She says the switch to a new way of eating is not easy.
“It’s a challenge, but I’ll get there,” she says.
COP27, held Nov. 6 to 20 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, was the annual summit convened by the United Nations where up to 200 countries attempt to reach consensus on how to confront the climate crisis. The event was attended by more than 35,000 people.
Marian knew about the problems of meat production before, but the experience of COP27 inspired her to act.
She had already been active in climate action through the groups Doctors and Nurses Planetary Health, and Canadian Association of Physician for the Environment, as well as with Interior Health, and she says COP27 deepened her commitment to that work.
“I am going to be looking at everything I do in my life in a new way, in a mindful way, what I’m consuming, what I’m thinking, my relationship to the earth, and I’m going to be spreading that perspective.”
The new commitment, she says, came not through her accustomed medical lens, and not from new technical information about climate change, but from a group of Indigenous women from various countries who presented workshops at the event.
“They were really advocating for women’s voices and for Mother Earth, for treating the earth not as something to extract from and to utilize, but actually to be a part of.”
Marian said she had been aware of such perspectives before, but on a surface level, and the presence and voices of the Indigenous women at the conference helped her understand more deeply.
“It really resonated with me. It was just very emotionally impactful.”
Gender diversity at COP27
Gideon Berry attended COP27 as a delegate from the group Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations. Gideon invited their mother Marian to accompany them.
A masters student in electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia, Gideon, 25, has an exhaustive array of technical and political concerns related to the climate emergency and COP27.
Gideon identifies as gender-diverse and uses they/them pronouns. They had heard that Egyptian police and state officials routinely detain and harass gender minorities.
“A lot of LGBTQ people had been told (by their families or institutions) that going to this convention, they should keep this under wraps and not be who they are,” they said.
But Gideon did not follow this advice.
“I wanted to be queer, because it is important for gender diverse people to be visible at these international events. But I did not know how safe I would be. I didn’t know if I would be putting my safety on the line, being openly queer or presenting as female or presenting as trans or whatever people would perceive me as.”
Gideon says if gender diverse people (or other marginalized people) can’t be who they are, they can’t meaningfully take part in conversations or negotiations at an event like COP27.
“At COP, if you talk about gender it means girls and women, not other aspects of gender.”
Neither Gideon nor Marian felt safe at the event because their accommodation, shared with Gideon’s partner Aria Finley, was an hour-long bus ride away from the event compound in a city where they could not speak the language. All three felt uneasy, Gideon because of their appearance – they sometimes wore a dress and make-up – and Marian and Aria because they are women.
Marian said the concept of safe space has never been part of the COP meetings.
“Where’s the voice of gender diversity at the table as a delegate?” she asks. “Next year, it’s going to be in Dubai, where you’re not allowed to express anything LGBTQ. I think that’s a big issue.”
Young people are ‘tokenized’
Because Marian was not a delegate at COP27 but an observer, she was restricted to the Green Zone, in which she attended dozens of workshops, panels, and presentations.
The venue was brand new, she said, much of it outdoors, with green grass, fountains, and art structures, a kind of bubble placed in the middle of an old city.
“Everything was artificial and beautiful,” she said, with people from all over the world, but not crowded.
She watched young entrepreneurs pitching new climate solutions and attended a session on green cities in which some Vancouver initiatives were featured. She heard presentations by business people that were, she thinks, a mix of “greenwashing” and legitimate solutions, and she went to sessions on the design of a circular economy in which you can live, work and shop close to home.
She attended a session on insurance where the speaker said more investors are insisting that companies reduce their emissions and their climate risk.
Marian heard a talk by Omnia El Omrani of Egypt, the first-ever official youth envoy to the conference who was actually involved in the climate negotiations. Omrani is a medical resident in Cairo, and therefore a professional colleague of Marian’s.
“She’s a voice that’s going to be listened to,” said Marian. “Very eloquent.”
As a delegate, Gideon was able to participate in the Blue Zone, in which it was possible to observe the negotiations between the countries, as well as attend panels and workshops. Gideon was a panelist in a forum for young academics sponsored by the UBC Sustainability Hub.
For the first time at a COP, there was a youth and child pavilion, with events happening all day, where Gideon spent much of their time. There were opportunities for youth to have Q&As with high-level speakers and to participate in panel discussions and educational sessions, Gideon said.
This year, the world’s foremost youth climate activist Greta Thunberg decided not to attend COP27, saying the event is little more than a forum for greenwashing by governments and businesses.
“Like Indigenous people, youth are very much tokenized with regards to COP,” they said. “We’re kind of praised: ‘Oh, we’re so thankful to you for pushing us for better action,’ but we are not given the space or power to actually get our voices heard and acted for.”
Loss and damages
At COP27, the 190 attending countries agreed that they would set up a loss and damages fund, into which the richer countries (the ones that have mostly contributed to the excess CO2 in the atmosphere) would pay for damages caused to poorer countries who are suffering the most but have contributed the least to CO2 emissions.
But so far there has been no decision on how the fund will be administered, who will contribute to it, who will receive funding, or how much. This has been left to future COPs.
Gideon and Marion both think the fact that the fund was even talked about is simultaneously encouraging and disappointing.
“It’s very important for trust between the global north and global south,” Gideon said. “However, it’s something that’s over-celebrated. We’re celebrating so much for something that’s the bare minimum.”
Marian said she heard speakers from African countries who have suffered environmental loss due to floods and drought, and who said funding should be given at a very local level so they can develop their own solutions.
What should have happened at COP27, Gideon said, was for the countries to agree to phase out fossil fuels, which has never happened over the course of 27 annual COPs. They said Canada’s refusal at COP27 to back a call for a phase-down of oil and gas production brought this into clearer focus.
Gideon’s main takeaway from the event and the negotiations between the countries’ meetings was a determination to keep an eye on the Canadian government and hold them to their commitments and promises. They said they are disappointed that Canada, in terms of emissions, tends to try shift the blame from itself to places like China and Saudi Arabia.
Gideon said the Canadian government is too focused on helping oil and gas workers and not on marginalized groups, and “it’s very focused on the development of green jobs and not on discontinuing fossil fuels.”
Marian’s COP27 conclusions are more personal than political, involving lifestyle changes that she wants to model for others.
“I feel really good about riding my bike instead of driving a car,” she says, “and I will continue to do that. But we have to do more. If there is one message, it’s that we have to do more.”