COP26:Time to address the gap between knowing and doing

Cop26 logo

When former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger set up an online meeting with Alok Sharma in May 2021, he stated: “no one knows what COP stands for”. Mr. Sharma may have been surprised, but I’m not sure it’s that surprising.

In that same month, a survey of young school students was conducted by Dr Verity Jones from the University of the West of England (adapted from one commissioned by Sky News & YouGov which only surveyed adults). Of those polled, less than 20% of young people understood the term “COP26” (for comparison only 20% of adults understood). The Sky News survey also reported good knowledge of things like renewable energy and carbon footprints, but also that a quarter of people in the UK are unwilling to change their carbon-emitting habits and almost 70% of respondents said they feel they are not personally affected by climate change.

school children holding up image of the SDG's
@ Verity Jones

I work at Pembrokeshire Coastal Forum, one of the CCAT partners, and our experience talking to Welsh coastal communities is that our conversations about climate action usually ends with “yes, but…” and – as Jerry Maguire realised – the number one need across the board is more money. We need to stop expecting people to carry on giving their free time and goodwill to drive local climate action as this will lead to burnout. People we talked to also described feelings of powerlessness, especially in influencing high-level policy, and this sense of inability to facilitate change can lead to disengagement and often ecological grief. Lack of input from citizens means that policies and decisions may not actually benefit these communities, who after COVID-19 are now just trying to survive.

Despite mixed feelings about the effectiveness of international conferences, the lead up to COP26 and its themes have still generated a huge movement energised by hope – and this time peoples’ voices are louder than ever. In Wales, we’re working with our partners including Climate Cymru and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Next Generation, we’re sharing resources with local schools to encourage more climate-focused classroom discussions, and in a few weeks, we are speaking at COP Cymru to share a climate action plan that a local coastal community developed in a series of workshops.

Cop26 poster

Going forward there needs to be funding for practical, time-bound solutions tailored to the capacity of a specific community, addressing issues of concern but also a sensitivity to local views and needs. This could be a dedicated (well paid) team doing active long-term engagement work between citizens and local authorities, giving people access to more land to grow their own food, or providing critical infrastructure like electric vehicle charging stations in rural areas. This is the key to closing the gap between knowing we should do something and being able to actually do it – and through COP26, governments once again have the chance to set the benchmark for action. The world is watching.

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