Are we really listening and who are we listening to?
04 November, 2021
“Was I about to die? Probably not. Was my house and livelihood about to burn to the ground – definitely. And all I could do was stand back and watch this happen to all my friends nearby”.
Talking with Jo Dodds, from Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action, at COP26 it was impossible not to hear and feel the impact of the bushfires on her and her community, highlighting the mental health impact of the climate crisis, alongside all the other costs to both communities and the environment.
For many children and young people, they not only lost the security of their homes and surrounding communities, but some lost their sense of safety, as families which were pulled apart by the fallout from the ravaging bushfires of 2018.
For much of my third day at COP26 I strove to hear the voices of those that have been impacted to date – of those for whom the climate crisis is today and not tomorrow.
World leaders had taken much of the media attention for the first 2 days, and there were many promises and pledges of support and finance to work towards the target of 1.5 degrees (limiting the overall rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial era) and yet, many still spoke as if the climate crisis was something to be avoided, rather than a reality of people’s lived experience.
It took the prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, to call out that the cost of “failure to provide the critical finance, and that of loss and damage, …. is measured, my friends, in lives and livelihoods in our communities. This is immoral and it is unjust.”
But just as social media can create its own echo-chambers, COP26 also runs the risk of speaking inwards, talking itself, rather than the outside world. Walking within the pavilions of the Blue Zone, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Climate Crisis had been solved.
Are young voices being heard?
Nation after nation demonstrate how they are working towards net zero carbon economies, and how they are investing in technologies (some of which have yet to be developed or evidenced) to enable them to reach goals by 2050, and yet these are goals that will be handed over to the next generation to achieve.
And yet, how well is that next generation represented at the tables of negotiation? When we work with young people in our schools and community groups, we often ask them to set their own goals, to set SMART goals, and yet today we are lumbering them with the responsibility of managing the most impossible of goals.
As my day at COP26 evolved I migrated from work within the Resilience pavilion reflecting on how we might explore humanity’s reconnection with Nature, into spaces that became increasingly challenging, with a noticeable shift in language – more and more hearing the word “justice”.
I found myself being drawn to talks by youth activists who spoke of the need for representation and justice if we are to genuinely address the climate crisis. Many of the youth activists, some who may be elected through opportunities within the UNFCC and the ACE Coalition (Action for Climate Empowerment, enshrined in Article 12 of the Paris Agreement) felt their voices were simply not being heard, that they might be invited to a discussion, but seldom felt their views were being valued or acted upon.
But to tackle climate change we are asking communities to consider profound changes in their actions and thinking and yet are we providing the tools needed for the task? Later in the afternoon I heard about climate education and youth empowerment, but with a note that this was one of the few presentations in the whole of COP26 that focused specifically on education.
Infusing the climate into education and training
It was clear that many of the youth activists involved felt it was only through climate education that the next generation would be equipped to negotiate the environmental and climatic challenges that they were being forced to inherit.
They saw climate education not as something that needed to be an “add on” into the curriculum, a special module of learning, but rather a way of thinking and learning that infused all aspects of education – that climate education was a holistic education.
Thinking about the future generations of doctors and in particular, psychiatrists, then surely this is what is required within our own medical training. If we are to embrace initiatives such as the Greener NHS plan, then we need greener thinking and learning to inform its implementation and delivery at all levels.
Being informed by lived experience
As the day came to a close, I was once again reminded by youth activists of the need to be informed by lived experience.
Impromptu protests and actions, calling out the underrepresentation of communities and cultures, and listing those that had died on the frontline of the ecological and climate crisis, sprang up across many areas of the Blue Zone.
I was immediately reminded of how validation and understanding of lived experience has informed many of the more progressive changes in mental health care over recent years and enabled a culture of coproduction to become more of the norm, rather than the exception - as it should and could be with our understandings of the impact of the climate crisis, and our call to action.
The climate crisis is generating both direct and indirect impacts on mental health and this is represented in who we see within our services.
Many of those risking their lives to cross land and seas to access safety and security in the west are forced on their journeys of migration by the realities of the climate crisis, and yet, how many countries have been willing to explore funding for loss and damage?
To date only the Scottish government has been willing to put funding aside for victims of climate disaster through a Climate Justice Resilience Fund and many of the countries from the Global South, under-represented at CO26, are hoping this will inspire others to recognise the economic and financial injustice of the climate crisis today.
Finding global solutions
If we are to genuinely find global solutions to the climate crisis then we also need to recognise the injustice and inequalities that both drive and are perpetuated by the climate crisis.
We need to hear the voices of those that have been impacted to date, to validate their experiences and to address the inequalities brought about by loss and damage. We know that inequality is one of the primary causes of mental health need within our communities, and the global climate crisis is no exception.
Build back fairer, learn from lived experience, seek coproduced solutions and ensure all are heard and able to participate – this is not just what is needed for those within the COP26 bubble, but it is what is needed for all.