CONVERSATION WITH DOMENICA JARAMILLO + JOSHUA TREGALE + KEVIN MTAI + LAVINIA LOVINO
Zara - All 4 of you were MOCK COP event organisers. Your reasons for organising the event are fairly well known so for the purposes of this discussion, I would like to focus on the how.
How long did it take the organisers to organise MOCK COP and how did you do it?
Domenica - It all started when climate activists in the UK found out that the conference was going to be postponed. As always, the climate youth movement had made it clear that every time our politicians failed us, we would do it on our own. So in August they started to campaign in a voluntary capacity, and suddenly but with hard work we became a dream team of 18 students that for months, 24/7, worked to make the conference possible.
The COP organiser had said the event was not going to be possible due to the global pandemic and once again we showed our global leaders and the world, that everything is possible, when you are full of passion and commitment.
We are the generation of change, and we will not accept any more excuses.
Josh - We properly started in September with some of the planning happening in August. The bulk of the work took three months and we organised it by collaborating on Slack and having Zoom calls. We made use of existing youth climate networks which are present all over the world to help spread the word and find volunteers and delegates.
Kevin - Each event coordinator was given a task to do like dealing with partnerships, speakers, delegate outreach, website design etc. and we also had 200 student volunteers from more than 50 countries.
We were also fortunate enough to have the support of adult staff members from the educational charity Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK).
Zara - It seems to me that MOCK COP set a precedent for climate activism and marked the beginning of a re-negotiation, with young people redefining their image and their cultural significance within the climate narrative.
You have shown a willingness to do the heavy lifting and to play gracefully with ideas. You are not the leaders of tomorrow, you are in fact the leaders of today, and you might be the only leaders we have because you’re the only subsection of our society, that I can think of, who have consistently spoken to the urgency and the scale of the climate crisis.
Would you agree with that assessment?
Domenica - Since the youth movement started we grew older and stronger, we changed mindsets, built alliances, flipped agendas and won elections and nobody will stop us.
The whole world is talking about the climate crisis, but adults and politicians are not doing enough. So we are taking justice in to our hands and they would do well to listen to us. They should watch what we do and hopefully they can copy our homework.
I am pretty sure that change is just around the corner, and we are the change. We are the proof of the importance of gender equality, with young women playing a significant role.
Zara - What was the most substantial outcome of MOCK COP?
Kevin - That would be the MOCK COP 26 Treaty which covers five themes: Climate Justice, Climate Education, Green Jobs, Climate Health and the NDCs.
Through legal assistance from Client Earth, delegates will be working with Client Earth to make this treaty legal whereby different countries and national governments could adopt it into law.
Zara - How did the MOCK COP 26 Treaty come together? What did that process involve and how has that experience informed your climate activism?
Josh - Our wonderful delegates imputed policy ideas and suggestions which they could then upvote. The most popular policies were then selected to be discussed and for amendments to be added.
This initially happened on Slack and afterwards we had timezone caucuses where delegates, grouped by timezones, discussed these policies in a Zoom call. The policies and amendments were then voted on and those which passed were included in the Mock COP26 Treaty.
The experience of meeting with climate activists from around the world was truly inspiring and has made me realise how global this movement is. It has been great to witness the diversity of voices and to hear of the great work people are doing in their countries.
Zara - Mock COP was run entirely online, resulting in just c14 tonnes of CO2 emissions, compared to c40,000 tonnes from previous COPs. Can a traditionally formatted COP be run virtually and are you of the opinion that it should be?
Lavinia - A traditionally formatted COP can definitely be run virtually, and there are some situations, such as the one we experienced this year, when it should be run virtually, as it was the only way in which negotiations and discussions about the climate crisis could have taken place; the key point is that it should never be postponed, as we don't have time to delay climate action anymore.
We do understand that in ordinary situations it is preferable for it to take place at the United Nations headquarters, mainly for reasons of form, but in order for it to be less polluting and also, in some cases, more inclusive, it would be a great idea for it to be run virtually.
Zara - Let’s talk about how social media has shaped your activism. Where would the Gen Z climate movement be without, youtube, slack and whatsapp?
Kevin - As you know, use of social media has grown to become an integral part of Gen Z in everyday life. And it has helped to shape activism by mere diffusion of more information around the world. It also helped us plan and organise MOCK COP by bringing more people and organisations around the world together through the use of Slack and Zoom.
If it wasn’t for social media it would have been difficult especially for the Gen Z climate movement to pass information around the world especially during this period of Covid-19.
Zara - Let’s talk specifically about slack and decision making. It seems to me that consensus is a lot easier to reach on slack because it doesn’t inspire and accommodate politics, hubris, and ego in the way that a grand meeting room in a slick part of town might. On slack, the format requires you to be precise and measured because it can facilitate so many participants. Also, on slack, you’re not your profile, like you are on Linkedin or in person, you’re one of many people contributing to a discussion which I imagine speeds things along.
Would you agree with that impression?
Josh - I do feel that decisions can be made quicker in the online space because it forces people to be concise. In our case being online meant we had people working across timezones so the process could keep going 24 hours a day. It did feel like we were all part of a team and it did not have a competitive feel that some in person meetings have.
Zara - Do you think there is enough understanding and appreciation about the full extent of Gen Z’s contributions to the climate cause amongst older generations?
If not, do you attribute that to a breakdown in communication or is it because lines of communication were never drawn in the first place as you’re congregating around different technologies and perhaps more significantly, interpreting ‘climate action’ in different ways?
Kevin - No, we have not seen world leaders especially at climate conferences give Gen Z a chance to participate in the policy making process especially at COP. Instead they chase them away knowing full well that young people are the leaders of today and tomorrow. And also Gen Z are the ones who have been on the streets striking and holding demonstrations urging our leaders to listen to science and take climate change seriously.
Zara - Let's talk about climate youth coalitions. Some of these coalitions comprise of hundreds of thousands of active members. It sounds like a very powerful community to be a part of. A community whose power isn’t rooted in wealth and pedigree but rather a shared purpose and a formidable digital and physical presence.
As the climate youth movement continues to expand and gain influence, I find myself wondering if this presence will allow you to be wholly independent of mainstream media and the institutions that currently define the climate narrative.
By that I mean 10 years from now are you still going to need them to share the mic with you or are you going to be in a position to bypass them completely as you consolidate your power base and become independent of the environmental status quo altogether?
Domenica - We are more than them, those who want privilege and money for a small part of the population.
We are working for a sustainable and equitable system for everyone. We are young leaders and most of us are still in university or high school. I personally graduated from University as an agriculture engineer this month. But between us there are all kinds of future professionals with a different mindset.
We trust the science and not our leaders and the media. We don't need them, and I am sure that if we have been able to accomplish so much in 2 years, in 10 years we won't need any of them.
Josh - I really don’t know. The media is a hugely important tool for talking about the climate crisis because it is the easiest way to connect with those who are not active in pursuing climate solutions. It is important to engage everyone and be exclusive so for a long time to come I believe the mainstream media is very important to engage with.
Kevin - Yes, even 10 years from now, they can share the mic because we are fighting a common enemy – polluters and climate change. Thus we need to be helping and holding each others hands especially for the benefit of upcoming activists.
Lavinia - We are definitely going to have our own mic, we already do right now, and obviously the power that the youth holds will be recognised even more. It is necessary though to also have someone or something else to confront with, in order to keep things going.
We already have our platforms, our narrative, the world is already starting to realise. Is this narrative going to be heard far more in 10 years, becoming the defining narrative regarding the climate crisis? Definitely.
But is this going to be the only narrative being heard? Most certainly not, and this is one of the things that will keep us fighting and going, even though we'll have already achieved a lot.
Zara - To what extent are digital communities and youth culture redefining what power looks like in a post COVID world? And to what extent, are climate activists relying solely on their digital communities for information and inspiration?
Josh - Climate activists have adapted well to online action and the huge online communities that exist have shown a power in numbers. The international unity to tackle the climate crisis has brought thousands of people together. Online communities are key to climate activism and do provide the majority of interactions, information and inspiration, especially at the moment where gatherings are not possible. The online world allows news to travel very quickly and allows for a rapid coordinated response.
Zara - I want to circle back to something that Domenica said on our initial call about the media, that you essentially don’t trust their ability to report on the climate crisis in an informed way, without prejudice.
Do all of you feel the same way?
Lavinia - The media is certainly a tricky place, especially when we talk about the climate crisis. It can give space that's necessary to people that are well informed, and upload very well-made content, but on the other hand it can also give relevance to fake and biased information, and this can lead to a lot of problems.
I wouldn't necessarily agree totally with that affirmation, but I do agree on the fact that you cannot rely solely on the media for your knowledge about the climate crisis, because you can get tricked. The most efficient thing is to find a balance between "completely bad" and "completely good", without being naive, just realistic.
Zara - Do you feel pressure to keep cool in your interviews for fear that any emotion on your part will be weaponized against you?
Lavinia - This is for sure a really huge problem, I would say young leaders experience today.
You feel the pressure of a world that is waiting for you to make even the smallest mistake in order to screw up your entire "career", generation or what so ever. It is really challenging, especially when you already have all the insecurities of this world and are facing this type of pressure on your own, to always make sure you're professional and put together, and that you don't commit any mistakes in what you're saying or doing because you will be pictured as a fool, but it also depends on the person I would say.
I, for example, am a really anxious and insecure person, and I do experience this pressure quite heavily, but then I am able to act cool during interviews, while basically panicking in my head. But some people are mainly calm and at ease, so I do think it also depends on the type of person you are.
Zara - What I found really liberating in my research and interviews with Gen Z over the course of 2020 was that for the most part, you’re not fussed about being misunderstood.
Do the four of you ever worry about public opinion and how the media frames your efforts?
Domenica - We all started in a voluntary capacity, and that is what makes us different. None of us are seeking out money or media coverage.
We are all screaming to the world that the injustice must stop, that this is an ecocide, our loved ones are dying because of the climate crisis and the corruption of our governments. And silence makes us accomplices.
We are fighting for a better and sustainable future for everyone. No matter what the media and politicians say, we won't stop.
Zara - What does climate justice mean to you and do you find that definitions vary dramatically across the Global North and South?
Josh - For me climate justice is about recognising the damaging human impact climate change has on people, particularly the world's most vulnerable and those who have contributed the least to cause the issue. By recognising that most of the source of the climate breakdown is with the Global North we need to take responsibility for that and take steps to support the people and countries most affected to rapidly remedy the problem.
Zara - Let’s talk about eco-anxiety. How has it affected you?
Kevin - The climate crisis has affected my mental health and my family's physical health. When floods destroyed my grandmother's home and vegetable garden, it led to my relatives developing fever and malaria.
Zara - I would like to conclude our discussion with a conversation about vulnerability. In all my calls with youth ambassadors, activists, and entrepreneurs, I have been struck by how thoughtful, compassionate, and empowered you are, but your vulnerability is equally apparent.
This level of commitment takes physical and mental courage and it’s been wonderful to watch but it’s also clear that you are making sacrifices to be here. To varying degrees, you are all vulnerable to your environment, and this comes with financial implications. There are also health costs associated, some of you are deviating from cultural norms to pursue your activism and in some instances, your lives have been threatened. So, you’re incurring a debt from the get-go and you are committing yourselves to paying certain costs in order to make a start. And yet there is an added layer to all of this that makes me even more nervous for you and that’s the exploitation element.
In the course of your activism and careers, you will come across wolves in sheep’s clothing, people who because they lack imagination and talent will want to align themselves with your efforts in order to ride your coattails. Last summer, for instance, I found myself in a compromising work situation with someone who professed to be very powerful and wanted to empower me by giving me my start. These last few weeks, I find myself talking about and reflecting on the unprofessional and more morally reprehensible circumstances of that experience because I worry that being a young activist or climate start up makes you especially vulnerable and attractive to unsavoury characters.
Unfortunately, this is an added strain that you are all going to have to contend with at some point in your lives - How to deal with people who claim to want to help but end up exploiting and/ or disrespecting you in the process?
This is a conversation that I have been having with other young women and wonder if Gen Z has an advantage here that we don’t. Do you think that the reach and influence of the digital communities that you are a part of will intimidate such people and act as insurance against exploitative and generally bad behaviour?
Lavinia - This is a recurring reality that we find ourselves experiencing in our lives as well. I would say it's not limited just to activism. When you are a generally hardworking, determined, thoughtful person, people tend to rely on you, waiting for you to do all the work, and this is a really stressful situation as we are people that want to get things done, and will get them done, despite what it could cost.
This is often really exhausting and also mentally draining as you are also really prone to critics: the more you work on something the more you inevitably care about this, and when someone criticises heavily and in a really mean way after all the effort, the time and the sweat you invested to achieve something, those words inevitably harm you a lot.
Vulnerability is, therefore, a really complicated thing. It can make you feel so low, but it also gives you that thing that differs you from other people trying to do the same thing that you're doing, and therefore I think it is something that has to be preserved and enhanced.
Without vulnerability young people wouldn't be as powerful as they are right now, vulnerability has made us passionate, dedicated, to do what we do because we know that it's right. We want to do this, and our vulnerability has somehow brought us to do what so many people attempted to in the past, in a different way. It has led us to succeed in our goals, or at least in a part of them; and we still have a long way to go.
Once you acknowledge this I think everything else will be easier. Situations like the one you described earlier will be easier to face. You are going to be looking for the bright side, for the things you can learn from that experience. You will learn how to not bring yourself down, to fight back, and I think this is indeed the best way you could face something like this.
Kevin - Yes people might take such actions because we see how activists have had to deal with serious problems whereby some organisations or individuals take advantage of our sweat and hard work for the benefit of their organisations or themselves.
Josh - The online communities present with climate activism does provide a feeling of safety in numbers. With there being so many people in a space any exploitative behaviour is much more likely to be noticed, even if we don't notice it ourselves!
There are often really solid accountability measures and systems in place to ensure these issues are dealt with. I think this acts as a deterrent for this sort of behaviour although it does not entirely protect us from it. The communities also act as a support network so if people need to chat or find help there are loads of people happy to do so.
Domenica - We follow science, not governments or investors, we don't accept anything if we are not sure. If there is something that we don't know, there are scientists and schools supporting us, but I am sure that we are not creating anything new, everyone knows the truth.
The only ones that doesn't accept the uncomfortable truth are the old ones, those who grew up with barely any education and social media and are just following what the leaders and church says, but for us, our religion is justice and love. We defend the sacred earth. Self and collective love will save the earth.
I have personally lost people that I know in this struggle, and when my heart is broken, I am angry, and the injustice gives me more passion and commitment to save our future.
I have lived through situations where our leaders and adults are fighting amongst themselves, some of them to defend our future, some of them searching for personal and economic growth, and us younger people are grouping together giving each other love and hope.
We know that the 2 degree mark is not enough and everything that they are doing is not enough. We know that they understand us but their ego gets in their way. We will not accept living with the consequences of their actions, and as Greta said some years ago, change is coming whether you like it or not.