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Director Danielle Endres and Jessie Chaplain reflect on their time at COP28.

Danielle Endres and Jessie Chaplain traveled to Dubai in late November to attend the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCC) also known as COP28. Dr. Endres is the Director of the Environmental Humanities Program and Professor in the Department of Communication. Much of her research focuses on environmental rhetoric, social movement studies, and energy democracy. Jessie Chaplain is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. Her research focuses on climate justice advocacy at UNFCC COP conferences. Together, they just released an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune describing the rhetorical use of fossil fuel phase-down rather than phase-out, revealing the need for systemic change among our global leaders. They say “It is time to unequivocally declare the role of fossil fuels in climate change and call for a complete, equitable, fossil fuel phaseout.” 

Below are Jessie and Danielle’s written responses to my questions about their time at COP28.

Welcome back from COP28, the United Nations Climate Change Conference! What were some key takeaways from your experience there?

Jessie: The big focus this year was on just transition and fossil fuel phase-out. For me, it was interesting to see how much the language was watered down and some of the challenges activists faced in trying to host actions. I would say the big takeaway is we really need to push for a complete, equitable fossil fuel phase-out and stop the development of new fossil fuel projects as well as stop the subsidies that support fossil fuel companies. Transition away from fossil fuel, resource-extractive economies is not only vital, but it’s happening now, and we must continue to advocate for a just transition.

Danielle: For me, a big takeaway is the power of advocacy and movements for social change. Of course, a part of me came away from the COP28 discouraged about the lack of progress made. And yet, when I arrived back in the states and started talking to friends and colleagues about my experience, I always started with how inspired and hopeful I felt about the solutions and actions being proposed by the climate justice advocates who came together at the COP to keep pushing world leaders to do more. Since most of my research and engagement happens within the U.S., this is the only space where I can see and engage with transnational activism and advocacy, and the power that comes from coalitions pushing for global change. The just transition focus is an important example of the power of these movements. Several years ago, just transition was not as strongly on the negotiation agenda but because of transnational climate justice coalitions, it is now on the agenda in these negotiations. The decisions around just transition by the COP28 don’t go far enough, to be sure, but I think it is important to remember that it is a significant credit to climate justice advocates that just transition is even on the agenda.

I know both of you have been to a COP conference before. In what ways does COP28 differ from previous years? Were there any changes in the dynamics, themes, or outcomes that stood out to you?

Jessie: The biggest thing that stood out to me was the space layout. The conference venue was very expansive, which made for a lot of walking and difficulty in organizing your schedule. For example, at COP27, a lot of the pavilions—where different countries and organizations can highlight their approaches to and actions on climate change--were housed in this big open area, so you could walk around, meet people, and see what was going on at each one. At COP28, pavilions were more sectioned off, which impacted the relationship-building process. You couldn’t stumble upon events in the same way as had happened at COP27. Also, the amount of people nearly doubled from the last COP; there were close to 100,00 people in attendance virtually and in person. Long lines and limited spacing made it difficult to access the space and high-profile events, such as key negotiation items or opening and closing plenaries.

Danielle: What Jessie mentioned about space, layout, and number of people at the COP28 was also a significant difference from the COP25 in Madrid, Spain that I attended. I had a much harder time engaging with the COP28 because of these factors and even though one attendee can never cover everything that happens, I felt much more like I was missing out on key discussions, actions, and relationships even though this was my second COP conference. In addition, COP25 took place during the previous U.S. presidential administration, so it did feel very different to be at COP28 with a U.S. government that believes in climate change and is taking actions toward addressing climate change. While I did not always agree with the U.S.’s stance in COP28 negotiations, it was great to see the U.S. government being more involved than they had been in Madrid.

Given both of your backgrounds in communication, what sorts of things stood out to you in terms of the rhetorical strategies employed at COP28?

Jessie: My project focuses a lot on activist strategies, so we were interested in coalition building and coordination around just, equitable transition. A lot of actions focused on just transition, and it became a huge issue because of the Global Stocktake, which was designed to measure progress in meeting Paris Agreement targets. There was a real push to have the language of ‘phase out’ in the final decision texts, but a lot of watering down happened within the negotiations. ‘Unabated’ was added to phase out to signal the possibility of carbon capture and geoengineering, and ‘phase out’ became ‘phase down.’ It was interesting to see how vastly different ‘just transition’ was defined within activist actions versus within governmental party negotiations, and the co-opting of that term and other language choices to avoid a complete fossil fuel phaseout.

Danielle: I found it fascinating to follow the differences between the media coverage I was seeing in my regular news sources and what I was seeing happening at the COP. Given our interest in activist strategies, we attended a lot of actions focused on just transition, fossil fuel phase-out, and inequitable distribution of climate change harms. I would scour my usual media sources the next day to see what had been picked up from these activist voices. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, much of the discourse coming from activist coalitions was either left out or was significantly more simplified. This is an important lesson for communication scholars: there are all sorts of important messages that don’t make it to media coverage or don’t get documented unless we show up and experience them ourselves.

Jessie, you are currently pursuing your PhD at the University of Utah in the Department of Communication. Why have you chosen the UN Climate Change Conference to be your subject of study? What sorts of questions are you asking in your research? What have you learned from attending the COP conferences?

Jessie: I came to the COP as a site of study in a roundabout way. In my master’s program, I  studied some texts produced by Indigenous activists at the UN and then was presented with an opportunity to self-nominate for a badge from the International Environmental Communication Association at COP26. I put my name in, hoping I could get a better understanding of what COP was and why it mattered from an activist standpoint. Since then, I’ve been interested in how COP has become such an important space for climate justice organizing, despite the many limiting structures that make it difficult to get transformative policy outcomes. People from all around the world were coming to this space, building relationships, and supporting each other in coordinating action at COP but also crowdsourcing resources for projects back home. To me, there’s such a contradiction to COP in how it can be incredibly disappointing but also you can learn so much about climate change and climate justice as it impacts people all around the world. Many people I’ve talked to in the U.S. don’t seem to know the space and why it matters. My research project asks why is this space important for climate justice, but also what needs to be learned about this space to better support climate justice across all levels/scales.

From your perspective, were there any notable positive outcomes from COP28? Were there specific agreements, initiatives, or actions that you believe will have a significant impact on addressing the climate crisis?

Jessie: Probably the most positive outcome was the loss and damage fund and that many countries have already pledged finance to the fund. The loss and damage fund was a big issue at COP27. It demands climate reparations from countries that are the most responsible for climate change. Countries that have contributed the least have some of the worst impacts. The loss and damage fund mobilizes finance for slow and catastrophic events to ensure countries can respond and rebuild after disasters and their subsequent losses and damages. While the fund has many problems in that it still may rely on loans, there is some uncertainty about who will oversee the fund, and whether the fund will be housed within the World Bank temporarily or permanently, the fact that there is money being pledged is something positive and something to keep pushing for in the years to come.

What do you believe are the limitations of COP conferences when making decisions to adapt to the climate crisis?

Jessie: The biggest limitation is that COP conferences are party-driven processes, which means countries send negotiators to debate different agenda items. Civil society can observe and put on other events, but they cannot actively participate in negotiations. A lot of decisions reflect wealthier nations’ interests, so there are some major power imbalances in terms of what issues are negotiated and how breakdowns within the negotiations are resolved. The U.S. is a big source of resistance to climate justice solutions. COP processes are also consensus-based, which means it only takes one country to block a policy. Occasionally, decisions will be made without full consensus, but most of the time, there is a lot that has to be given up to get countries like the U.S. to agree. Additionally, the continued influence of industry leaders through party overflow badges, means there are a lot of conflicts of interest that are overlooked within the process. Party overflow badges are given out to fossil fuel representatives and other industry people, but there’s not a lot of transparency about who gets one of those badges and how. This year saw the most fossil fuel representatives, with over 2,000 on party overflow badges. So, one main limitation is the way economic interests and people continue to influence the process and the lack of transparency around their influence.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Jessie: COP is such an important space. A lot is happening that impacts what our world will look like going forward. It can be daunting and difficult to learn about the space, but I encourage people to follow pages who do work at COP and support where they can. While the space is super important, what we do beyond that space is equally important, and coordinating the two is of utmost importance to ensure climate justice across local, regional, national, and international levels.

Danielle: I agree with Jessie, and I would add that anyone who is interested in climate change policy should follow what happens at the COP. Of course, the irony of tens of thousands of people traveling to the COP via fossil-fuel modes of transportation to talk about how to reduce our use of fossil fuels cannot be ignored. Being at the COPs in person is not necessary for most folks, but knowing about the decisions being made at COPs is vital to addressing the global issue of climate change. Local and national-level scales of decision-making are important, but a global problem needs a global solution.

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Last Updated: 1/23/24