Cuifen’s reflections on attending COP

Cuifen is a founding member of Singapore Youth for Climate Action. She attended her first COP in 2015.

2015 was the first time I got to attend COP (commonly used acronym for UN Climate Change Conferences). Before that, I had been following news of Singapore youths attending COP.

2015 was different, as for the first time, I had a “reason” to be there. Together with some friends, I did a one-month youth perception survey on climate change. It was part of my role as a “policy delegate” attending ASEAN Power Shift 2015. Some 200 youth responded, including a 10 year old even called me to say that she spent time filling up the form as she really wanted her voice on climate matters heard. Some Singapore residents who were definitely not in the youth category also responded, hoping that their voice could be carried across to people who were making decisions on our collective future. The survey got me wondering. I was already very active in community / environmental matters, and felt that I understood ground sentiment. Yet, the survey responses still touched me. I felt a strong wish to understand what our country leaders are negotiating for when they seek to come to an agreement on our common future. Do they negotiate for business as usual? Do they seek to shift towards a more sustainable system, and if so, how do they plan to make it happen?

I was reading up on ways on how to get myself to attend COP as an Observer. The ability to do so with others came up when Lastrina suggested we could look to create a network of individuals who want to connect, facilitate and work on climate action. Together with Melissa Choong who came on board, we got our UN Visa passes (thanks to Avelife Foundation), booked our air tickets and accomodation, and made plans to attend COP21 as a trio. Just before we boarded the plane to Paris, we launched the Singapore Youth for Climate Action Facebook page.

COP at Paris is probably the best introduction one can hope for at a UN Climate Change Conference. Everything was well planned, facilities were great. The negotiations were said to be facilitated by the best people in diplomacy. We met many awesome people.

Still, despite going in with insights from friends who were former negotiators or actively attending COP year-on-year, attending COP21 was a huge blur for me. There were a million and one things happening – at the same time. Although I wanted to know what our country leaders negotiated for, I couldn’t quite follow the process, and felt frustrated when they seemed to argue over a single line for hours or days. It didn’t help that the negotiations could be quite dry, a lot of technical text and very structured.

I was very thankful that we got to meet both our negotiator representatives, and also the Environmental Minister Masagos. The negotiators had to squeeze time out from their very busy schedule. So did the Minister of course. In the breakfast meeting we had with the Minister, we realised that there were so many other Singaporeans at COP. At both meetings, the challenge we had is what would be the right way to do engagement with the negotiators and Minister? Obviously, by the time COP comes around, the country’s position is already fixed, and they are all very busy. Even as we intended to engage them over the course of the year, right here in Singapore, the question of what makes in-person meeting with the negotiators and Minister a meaningful and valuable use of time for both sides loom large.

My other biggest take-away from the COP21 experience was that you never know who you might get to meet. Like the tribal leader who leads 300 villages in a mountaineous area. Or a small holder farmer who holds the key to climate action that is good for environment and people. The moment I realised that farmers were representing themselves for the first time at COP.

One of the people I remember best is a random person I got to meet on a shuttle bus to COP. He mentioned how he was from a small island nation off France. The sea level rise problem is so real to them – during high tide, they have to stay on the second floor of the building. They have to wait for the tide to go out before they can continue with life as they know it. This person shared how during the World War II, people on this island state had to run away. They went to Britain. After the war, they got to return to their homeland. Sea level rise will cause them to have to leave the island nation again. Except this time, they won’t be able to return. What do they stand to lose when that happens? They don’t just lose land, they lose their homes, their history, their heritage, their culture, their language, their identity. They become forever migrants, refugees, for a man-made disaster not of their doing. This story so inspired me that I decided to start a series of 2-min videos called #peopleofCOP21.

While I have also attended COP22, and am now preparing to dive into COP23, COP22 brought a different set of experiences and insights for me. At COP21, I chose to focus on topics close to my heart – farmers and indigenous people, youth and environmental groups. At COP22, I had the opportunity to present on climate adaptation efforts, which aligned with what I do in my day job. The question of what would be the best use of time when one has the opportunity to be at COP lingered.

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