A Youth Leader’s Perspective From Glasgow COP26: Climate Change is Not the Future, it’s Here

Originally published on Um So Planeta in Portuguese. Link

Bernis Cunningham at an A4FC event at COP26

Act4Food Act4Change advocate Naina Qayyum sat for a conversation with youth leader from Nicaragua, Bernis Cunningham, who was in Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). Check out their conversation to find out more about Bernis and his work in the climate change and food systems space, and his impressions as a young activist at COP26.

Naina: Hola Bernis, where are you joining us from at the moment?

Bernis: I am in Glasgow attending the COP26. It’s insane. We have to do so many things. Can you believe I have three meetings at the same time!?

N: How has your stay in Glasgow been so far?

B: Scotland is my favourite country in Europe. People are so nice and open, and the food is amazing. Things are so green. Glasgow was a great place to choose for COP. I have tried vegan restaurants; it is very good. I do not label myself as vegan or vegetarian, but I try to eat sustainably.

N: We will talk more about COP26. Before that, please tell us about yourself and your current work.

B: I was born in Nicaragua, and I live in Managua. I studied law and I have a specialisation in environmental sustainable management from UC Berkeley. I work as the director of the Planting Change Foundation. It supports the growth of grassroots organisations in Latin America region. We focus on building water infrastructure, education, and food. We develop the capacity of youth and small farmers in rural areas. We teach them how to develop their crops in an organic way. We have a strong focus on education. For example, we grow food gardens in schools, so kids understand how the food process works. We work with over 3000 students, especially elementary students because they are the ones that assimilate better with new ideas. We are also developing technology, for example, in monitoring the climate, measuring rainfall and temperature and use the data in math classes.

N: What motivated you to study law, and how did you get into the climate change space?

B: When I studied law, my dream was to be a big-time lawyer with a suit and shoes and work in a big building. When I was in third year of law school, I got an internship in a huge law firm. When I was dressed in a suit and everything, I just hated it. It was so uncomfortable. So, I was very depressed about me choosing law and not liking to dress like that and to be in a building.

One time, we saw that the lake in my city was contaminated. We decided to clean it and organised a clean-up. I didn’t know that it would be a turning point in my life. But deciding to do the clean-up of the lake was the start of my environment career. Since that time, I have been working in environmental law and wear sneakers and T-shirts. In 2017, I was selected for YounGo youth constituency on the UN Anthropocene and participated in COP. Since then, I have been working on climate change and as an activist.

N: What do you see in the current situation in Nicaragua when it comes to the work you are doing around environment and organic agriculture and engaging children? Can you also reflect on the environmental laws in your country?

B: We have a great environmental legal framework [in Nicaragua], but we have weak enforcement. I would say we have enough environmental laws, but we need to strengthen the enforcement of the law. The biggest two problems of environment in Nicaragua are deforestation and water contamination, and obviously climate change. But I see the future with a lot of hope because this new generation is getting the message and is working. We do clean-ups with the kids and also collect data on how much plastic or aluminium there is so that kids are cleaning but they are also applying math skills. We do the same thing with climate and food. We just don’t try to make an action. We try to get data and use it in Spanish language and in the math classes.

N: What was coming to COP like this year of the COVID-19 pandemic? What’s been your main focus for the conference?

B: Usually when I come to COP, it’s a one-year planning. To come to this COP, it was tough because we didn’t have the money and all the agencies that usually pay for us, didn’t wanted to because it was too much uncertainty. Act4Food Act4Change played a key role in me being here because it helped me with some part of the funding. That way we could have a more inclusive COP. Because if we weren’t here and just the government and businesses were here, there wouldn’t be any accountability about the decisions. Because the decisions that are made in COP, they will influence climate change policy in history. Here they are deciding the future of billions of human beings in the world. It’s the biggest climate change policy event in the world. All the big names are here so this is the most important moment in history on climate change issue because here they are deciding the future of humanity.

We are pushing to include food justice and the food systems in the NDCs, the major policy process that was agreed in the Paris agreement. We are pushing hard the countries and the negotiators to do policy advocacy work with the parties that actually make the decision to include food justice and food systems in their NDCs, that are the heart of the Paris agreement.

N: Can you explain NDCs a bit for us?

B: NDCs mean nationally determined contributions. The NDCs are the commitments that countries made in the Paris agreement on policies to reduce emissions. The main discussion is emission reduction. I think we have the technology to do it and the money to do it but there is no political will to do it. Obviously, oil companies are protecting their interests and big industrialised countries depend on these oil companies in their economies. This is one reason they are protecting them. This is the fight between the activists and the environmental world and the companies and governments that make so much money that they have a lot of influence. All the big oil companies, aeroplane companies, and the meat industry are here [at the COP] doing advocacy work to protect their economic interest against the interest of whole society. Because if we don’t reduce emission in the speed we need, especially in the 2030 objective, it will be hard to do. Because some countries are talking about 2050 or 2040 and that’s too far away. This is what the IPCC says that if we continue to delay the time to prevent global warming to keep the 1.5-degree Celsius target, we will not get there. The big part of the negotiation is the global market-article 6-that talks about market solutions. These market solutions are very complex. They don’t even know what market solutions mean. I had a talk with the expert of the United Nations who works on market solutions and asked him what market solutions mean. He admitted that he really does not know what that means. People make up solutions, and when you make up solutions, something can sound very good, but it is bad in practice. For example, taxing gasoline. You send the check to the poor people because you increase the price of everything; the prices of food and transportation get higher. You are making it problematic for the poor people.

N: It seems that companies are more powerful than governments.

B: Definitely, companies are running governments in many countries. Especially during the previous US administration all the key positions in the environmental world were held by people related to oil companies. The same in my country and Latin America. Mining companies and oil companies make policy decisions with government. I really think, if we want to change, we have to change the way we do policy and advocacy work. Not just concentrate on governments because governments are just regulators. We have to concentrate on business and expose them and what they are doing and make them accountable. They are the ones contaminating, not the government. We always blame the government because it is the easy thing to do. The policy advocacy work we are doing since last year is not giving the results of reducing emission in the Paris agreement timeframe and to meet the 1.5-degree target.

Bernis Cunningham, left, speaking at an A4FC event along with other youth leaders at COP26 in Glasgow

N: What’s the experience been so far on the ground at COP26 in Glasgow? Was there anything that surprised you?

B: Well, it is really hard for observers (non-government) to observe the process and make accountability, for covid reason. This covid measures are joke (sorry to say) because at the [conference venue] entrance hundreds of people are together but when you get in, you cannot get into rooms because they cannot let people crowd. They only let the government representatives in and do not allow the observers. We are tested every day for covid. I do not see this as a strong reason to keep the observers out.

This COP26 is huge. The security is huge. All the important people, big companies, governments are here. I expected something like this because COP was cancelled in 2020 and so right now everybody is coming back here, so it is huge. We will see what happens at the end of the conference. There was a lot of blah blah. It is usually like that. They say beautiful words but in real world the policy decisions are not committed to the urgency of the climate crisis. The climate crisis is here, it is not into the future. In my country, the poor and vulnerable communities are paying the prices of the bad decisions. All the emissions come from the big, industrialised countries. This is my most important point, we cannot call this development. We cannot call these countries, developed countries. Because if they are destroying the world, that’s not development. This is a name we have to change. For example, in Canada, everything is so clean and beautiful, but the Canadian mining companies in Nicaragua are throwing the mining waste in the rivers, so it is green washing. In their own countries, they close these coal companies but then they open them in other countries with weaker authorities, economy, and legal framework. They send all the pollution to poor countries and keep producing the problems.

N: What are your impressions of conference of youth (COY) this year?

B: For the conference of youth, I was not there much. I read their policy document but what I hear from COY is that it was not very successful. Because basically they made 78-page policy document and no policy decision maker will read something that long. Policy documents must be brief. These events focus on presentation and talk about the work they do. That’s not what it is about. It should be about organising and actions. Planting trees and working in schools. They should use the energy of youth to build stuff, to work in campaign, and strengthen communication. That’s one of the things I like about Act4Food Act4Change (A4FC) is that we focus on doing actions. We have to go beyond conversation and start building stuff. I see for this in the future of A4FC, for example, A4FC can support youth agriculture in Nicaragua, strengthen youth capacity to produce organic agriculture and stop deforestation, educating them and I think that’s what’s going to make a difference and not just communication and policy. I think we need to invest directly in people. We need to do things that we can touch. I can walk to my projects right now and see all the plants we have planted. We can measure that. That’s what the climate movement should do. Beyond just speaking and speaking every year. Another thing we do in the environmental world is that we keep talking about the problem, but we need to talk about the solutions.

N: Talking about youth agency, what is it like to be a young person engaging in this process at COP in A4FC?

B: There are some great youth movements such as Food at COP, Climate Action Latin America, and Youngo that I see with future and doing real work. A4FC is one of them. When we get together, we do not talk about number and figures that everyone already knows. We talk about making actions, we have the pledge. We have people signing the pledge. In the near future, I think we have to go into the implementing the things that people are pledging for. A4FC should do more tangible work, like investing in schools and growing food. Can you imagine if I could say, we (A4FC) plant x number of trees or made x number of gardens? We have to make the pledge into tangible stuff that we can touch and show. We are working with people and solving problems.

N: What do you want COP26 to achieve this year?

B: The first thing is that there is an agreement of article 6 regarding carbon markets so that the Paris agreements will be implemented. The second one is that they agree on climate finance but with an agreement that is real and not one that will finance false solutions. Thirdly, loss and damage are super important. They agree to include loss and damage in the Paris agreement. There are things that are already lost and people who have already died. We need to figure out how we protect most poor and vulnerable communities in Latin America and Africa. To protect against all the things that are already destroyed. Climate change is not the future, climate change is the present. And the crisis is now.

N: Thank you, Bernis, and all the best for the rest of the conference.