Attending the U.N. COP27 climate summit as a college student

Exposing the reality for youth activists stuck in the ‘Green Zone’

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I’ll keep it a buck with you: the United Nations Climate Change Conference is not about Gen Z.

One might think the leading global climate summit, known as the Conference of Parties, or colloquially as COP, would be all about the youth who are slated to most intimately deal with the consequences of the climate crisis. But it’s not. I know because I was there.

In November 2022, I traveled to Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to attend the 27th iteration of the U.N. Climate Change Conference. I was part of a delegation of college-aged Jewish youth: half American and half Israeli. Our mission was to represent Jewish youth and young adults on the global climate stage. After all, Jewish people have a rich agricultural tradition, and Jewish religious law forbids the arbitrary destruction of natural resources. Plus, the theological concept of tikkun olam, Hebrew for “repairing of the world,” is often associated with environmental justice.

It’s been about five months since COP27, and COP28 will begin in about seven months. Groups are beginning to plan their trips to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where the 28th conference will be hosted. Especially now, during Earth Month, institutions are reminded to mobilize for the climate, and COP28 conveniently promises both a University Task Force and an International Youth Climate Delegate Program. The students in these college-aged cohorts will prepare to learn, advocate, vocalize their perspectives and maximize their climate impacts.

I did the same. Attending the U.N. climate talks would be the ultimate opportunity for me to make a difference.

But as I approached the conference’s ‘Green Zone’ in the Sinai desert last November, I quickly learned that these ambitions were the result of a mirage.

To explain my disillusionment, I first need to clarify what type of delegate I was at COP27.

The problem with the Green Zone

All the action at COP happens in the Blue Zone: U.N.-managed space where the international climate negotiations take place. And only the attendees credited by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat can enter it.

There was a (rather tokenizing) Children and Youth Pavillion in the Blue Zone, only available to the select youth who had managed to get their hands on Blue Zone badges. My peers and I had not made the cut as we were not affiliated with an accredited government official or a specific accredited organization.

We only had access to the Green Zone, the public area managed by the Egyptian Government. The U.S. Department of State website said the Green Zone would be “a walking distance from the Blue Zone,” but in my experience, this was not true. When I said goodbye to the prospect of entering the Blue Zone, I had to take a fifteen-minute bus ride to the Green Zone. The atmosphere at the Green Zone was entirely different.

It looked like Coachella. There’s no other way to put it.

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Considering the cost of my flight from California to the Middle East, I had dropped around the same amount of money on the Green Zone as I could have spent to attend the Indio festival. Except there was no Bad Bunny in Sharm El-Sheikh.

Massive art installations towered beside temporary structures in a desert oasis and the Green Zone boasted immersive activities, food vendors and a Coca-Cola sponsorship. (Coca-Cola, by the way, was named the world’s leading polluter of plastics the year prior to COP 27). This all was unsettling. I had journeyed across the world in hopes of taking part in global youth action. Instead, I was sidelined at a wasteful, flashy entertainment zone — a distraction.

There were many — too many — photo ops. Instagram-worthy backdrops were located in every direction, never out of sight, never too far away to hop in front of while in a hurry. In one memorable instance, a businessman approached my cohort and asked us to take a photo of him in front of a “#COP27″ sign. He then thanked us for helping him “prove that [he] was there.” Many businesspeople took similar photos in front of the same sign.

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It did not take long for me to understand the truth of my surroundings. Because of my status as a paltry youth activist, I was stuck on the front porch, the checkpoint for corporate delegates to collect their content for greenwashed social media posts before heading to the Blue Zone. I was trapped in the designated PlayPlace for members of the public, a bus ride away from the world leaders and their negotiation meetings in the Blue Zone.

A poisonous presence

Then, there were the airplanes. At all hours of the day, planes flew directly overhead the Green Zone. Several of these were private jets carrying government officials. I felt guilty about my own contribution to aircraft carbon dioxide emissions. Was this conference worth all the harmful air travel? (Hint: my conclusion to that question is not so sanguine).

At COP26 in Glasgow, thousands of protesters swarmed the streets near the conference in a series of youth-led marches. This is what I had anticipated being part of at COP27. I wanted to be a voice in a sea of angry youth. But when I got to Egypt, I was informed that participating in these sorts of protests could get me into serious trouble with the Egyptian government. After such stunning youth organizing in Glasgow, placing the following two conferences in authoritarian countries where freedoms of assembly are heavily restricted feels intentional.

This reality further provoked my guilty conscience. I had come all this way to participate in a hoax. I could not protest. I could not agitate the people in charge. All I could do was gawk at the smoke and mirrors of it all.

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As if the irony couldn’t be more in-your-face, the water dispensers stationed throughout the conference were clearly labeled as Nestlé Pure Life, a product of BlueTriton Brands (formerly Nestlé). The same BlueTriton Brands received a cease-and-desist letter from California state officials in 2021 for its excessive diversion of water from forests in the San Bernardino area during worsening water shortages. The company also extracts up to 288 gallons of groundwater per minute in Michigan (and at one point registered to raise that capacity to 400 gallons per minute), all while Flint still deals with the fallout from its lead-poisoned water crisis.

I vividly remember one of my peers in the cohort — a college student from Michigan — seeing one of these water dispensers and remarking, “They’re poisoning my state,” a solemn statement, a moment of defeat. From this point forward, it was clear to me that the Green Zone was a place that welcomed greenwashing.

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Great expectations

I share all this because I believe in transparency. Whenever I tell someone that I attended COP27, I’m told something along the lines of: “That must have been the opportunity of a lifetime.” And each time, I robotically respond, “It was.” But I am done being dishonest. The U.N. Climate Change Conference was a sham.

I am extraordinarily grateful to Adamah and its Jewish Youth Climate Movement, the organization responsible for sending me to the conference. Likewise, I am indebted to Alon Tal, an Israeli environmental politician who helped arrange the delegation. They did everything in their power to provide an empowering and meaningful experience on the ground despite the disappointing circumstances that were out of their control. Since I returned home, the Adamah team continues to provide countless follow-up resources and closely support my climate activism.

But I caution any college-aged student or youth planning to attend COP28 in Dubai: lower your expectations. Governments fail us. This includes the United Nations.

I want to end on an optimistic note. I want to write some mushy sentiment about the bright horizon ahead. While I can’t quite deliver that, here’s what I can say: While it may be difficult to apply pressure on the ground in Dubai, we have the power to mobilize beforehand. We can impact what our representatives plan to say and do during negotiations before they journey across the world. And we need to act fast; we only have seven months to spare.