The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which has been taking place in Glasgow since October 31st and will end on November 12, has already offered many possibilities for reflecting about the ongoing transnational, multidisciplinary debate on climate change which unfolds through mass media and social platforms. The COP26 is the occasion for delegates of the 197 countries which signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to negotiate ways to contrast climate change in line with the objectives set in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and in the subsequent COPs.

The Conference organised by the UK government focuses on four strategic goals: implementing steady and effective mitigation measures, preparing societies to cope with the effects of climate change, mobilising finance and strengthening international collaboration. Despite the UK stated intentions of organising a transparent and inclusive Conference, the pandemic situation and the absence of the Chinese and Russian governments at the negotiating table have reduced the scope of the COP26.

Focusing on the discussions stemmed from the ongoing Conference’s works, I propose a (sketchy and preliminary) reading of the conference not only as a high-level diplomatic summit, but also as a discursive arena, a (phygital)[1] space in which the voices of diverse groups of citizens (politicians, diplomats, experts, activists) might be articulated and heard in the complex process of definition of a common strategy to address the phenomenon of climate change and to envisage measures to cope with it. Within this specific discursive arena, through the exchange of information and opinions and the formulation of claims, collective identities are constructed and affirmed; furthermore, opinion leaders/influencers gain visibility and contribute to the definition and strengthening of these collective identities, trying to influence public opinion.

With respect to previous COPs on climate change – e.g. the COP21, which took place in 2015 and whose major outcome was the adoption of the Paris Agreement, a binding international treaty which notably sets the long-term goal of limiting global temperature increase well below 2 Celsius degrees, aiming at 1.5 – the COP26 is quite unique. Although this is not the first COP which allows civil society actors to take part in some of the Conference’s activities, the public debate stemming from the technical/political discussions has never been so lively and diversified. The COP26 discursive arena involves prominent political leaders, scientists and activists with very different takes on the issue of climate change, on its implications and on the needed policies. Within this framework, some issues of global justice have emerged: for instance, a number of vulnerable countries called to adopt effective measures of climate finance, establishing liability and compensation for loss and damage; the foreign minister of Tuvalu chose to deliver his speech at the Conference while standing knee-deep in seawater to draw attention on the dangerous effects of climate change for the daily life of hundreds of thousands citizens living in island states, while the UK and Indian government have announced concrete aid initiatives for helping small island states. On November 6, more than 200,000 people took part in the Global day of action for Climate Justice, organised by the COP26 Coalition People Summit. Moreover, claims of (global) social justice and intergenerational justice have been formulated by several young activists who speak to transnational audiences, such as Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, Disha Ravi from India and Greta Thunberg from Sweden.

These three young women represent hundreds of young activists working in different contexts in groups like Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion, who have found innovative ways to address state leaders and UN representatives while reaching wide transnational audiences through traditional mass media as well as through social networks like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Youtube – a challenge which has been met by a number of green influencers belonging to different age groups. Taking advantage of the media attention towards COP26, Z-generation climate change activists have inspired and involved in the debate famous people, such as former US President Barack Obama, who was criticised via Twitter by Nakate for failing to deliver on promises concerning climate finance during his mandate, or world-famous documentarist Sir David Attenborough who, together with YouTube star Jack Harries, realised a number of videos for raising awareness about climate change and its negative impacts on wildlife and fragile ecosystems before addressing world leaders in Glasgow, or Hollywood star (and WFP ambassador) Idris Elba, who served as megaphone to Nakate’s pledges to include African voices and paying attention to the problem of food security within the climate change debates. The nexus between intersectional discrimination and climate change has been highlighted by several activists in Glasgow – notably, Leah Thomas – and it has been examined also by Xiye Bastida, who denounced that activists belonging to indigenous peoples (she belongs to the Otomi-Toltec indigenous people, based in Mexico) were denied the opportunity of going to Glasgow because of the long quarantine measures and high visa costs.

Some leaders of the youth climate change movement criticised state leaders and COP26’s organisers for the instrumental use of the climate change issue to divert national and international public opinion’s attention from their inability and lack of political will to address the issue effectively and systematically. While Thunberg said that the event “turned into a greenwash campaign”, other activists spoke of youth-washing, a deliberate strategy of governments and companies to use young activists as tokens to improve their public images, while young people’s requests keep being disregarded by the negotiators. Young activists’ claims to have been instrumentally included in the discussion without any meaningful possibility of actually influencing it seem to suggest that several forms of epistemic injustice, such as epistemic exploitation and epistemic appropriation, might characterise the COP26 discursive arena.

To conclude, another feature of the public debate about the COP26 that is worth noticing is that the spread of misinformation on the facts and figures of climate change, especially via social networks such as Facebook, is a worrisome phenomenon: it can undermine the public’s knowledge and acceptance of climate change as an urgent problem and therefore reduce the willingness of citizens to support and request brave policies. The diffusion of fake news and memes aimed at ridiculing advocates of proactive policies to contrast climate change while reinforcing negative stereotypes associated to their gender, age, nationality, level of education or disability can signal an attempt at silencing those vulnerable groups and individuals who will suffer more from the impact of climate change, turning the COP26 discursive arena and the discussions on climate change into a hypocritical “blah blah blah”.

[1] The term phygital refers to an integrated ecosystem where physical and digital are two forms of the same experience, where a single fluid transition allows continuous interaction between real and digital, human and machine. Similarly to the concept of onlife proposed by Luciano Floridi, the term aims at grasping the complexity of technology-enabled and technology-mediated interactions which characterises our present human condition.

Elisa is Senior Researcher at the EURAC Center for Advanced Studies, in Bolzano Bozen. Previously, she has been Research Fellow in Political Philosophy at Sant’Anna School for Advanced Studies (Pisa) from 2017 to 2022. She has also worked as a Research Fellow and Teaching Assistant in History of Political Thought at the Department of Social and Political Science of Bologna University. Her research interests include contemporary theories of justice, theories of global order, international ethics, foreign policy analysis, theories of public opinion and political epistemology.

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