The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What was COP26? A slog, a spectacle — and, for one youthful delegation, an opportunity.

A woman walks past a COP26 sign covered with plants in Glasgow, Scotland. (Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)

GLASGOW, Scotland — An asteroid would focus the mind better. An alien invasion might summon total cooperation. A deadly pandemic is messier, but at least we have clear protocols: diagnose, vaccinate, herd our way to normalcy.

Climate change, and its zillion little doomsdays? For this existential crisis, we have . . . a conference.

COP26, the 26th climate conference held by the United Nations, happened here along the River Clyde these past two weeks in a maze of buckling plywood, cheap blue carpeting and corridors of tarp that thwapped in the stiff Scottish winds, like a M.A.S.H. unit on the cliffs of Cape Wrath. Every day at dawn, thousands of attendees swabbed their nostrils so they could gain entry to the Scottish Event Campus, where they piled into arenas and plenaries and hubs to talk and talk and talk about how we are slowly boiling ourselves alive, and how we should really stop doing that.

A white Toyota Prius, slinking around Glasgow with a climate clock on its roof, plotted COP26 on a possible timeline: 7 years, 254 days, 8 hours, 9 minutes, 48 seconds left — to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, or face more brutal consequences.

Alok Sharma, the president of COP26, called the conference “our last, best hope to keep 1.5 in reach.”

Greta Thunberg, one of the world’s most famous climate activists, called it “a failure” and a “PR event.”

COP26 was somewhere in between. With climate change, humanity is both the villain and the hero, and thus the human contrivances of this conference — the panels, the politics, the pressers and protests and prepared remarks — are both inspiring and depressing.

It’s easy to drift through it and despair, or ridicule it from the outside.

It helps to focus on one person who’s just trying to do his best.

“In previous days I was the Rottweiler.”

Juan Carlos Monterrey Gomez of Panama. Black suit, black shoes. Day 12 of the conference.

“But now advisers said it was time for a more conciliatory tone.”

Monterrey is organized, passionate and 29 years old — young for the lead negotiator of a nation (America’s top negotiator, John F. Kerry, turns 78 next month). Monterrey and Panama occupy what passes for moral high ground inside the conference; the country of just over 4 million identifies as one of only three nations on the planet to be carbon negative. Monterrey is an insider — and was namechecked by Barack Obama during his Glasgow speech Nov. 8but his goals align with the protesters outside the barriers of COP26. He and they are desperate to persuade bigger nations to slash their emissions faster and to support vulnerable nations that disproportionately suffer climate effects.

Delegates from China and India proposed a last-minute edit on Nov. 13 to a contentious provision about transitioning away from coal, angering other countries. (Video: The Washington Post)

In the final 48 hours of COP26, the young Panama negotiator pinballed between meetings and hugged his way through the main corridor, exuding a mood that clashed with the drudgery of the conference and the dread of this epoch.

“There’s a sense of optimism,” Monterrey said, headed for coffee Thursday morning, but would optimism be enough?

Panama. Mighty isthmus. Joiner of continents and oceans.

Monterrey’s father ranched cattle. Droughts were routine. Growing seasons were not. “I grew up through climate change impacts,” Monterrey says, “but I had no idea what it was.”

He was born in 1992, the same year as the formation of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the treaty that creates the yearly COP that is the negotiating process by which we hope to save civilization.

Monterrey began to learn English from a Peace Corps volunteer who lived with his family. At Internet cafes, he searched for opportunities in the United States, found a college-prep program in small-town Missouri and traded the sound of Panamanian cows for American ones. At Tulane University, in New Orleans, he studied economics and international development, learning how poverty can be explained by fiscal policy and math. After he moved home to Panama, a cousin mentioned a job opening in the Ministry of Environment. Monterrey spoke English and had a passport, so the government wanted him as a climate negotiator, he says.

“And I’m like, ‘Wow, great,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘I don’t know what that means, but sounds great.’ ”

He studied dire climate change reports, which forecast catastrophe, and wondered why everyone was so calm. Over the next few years, he jumped into international negotiations, headstrong and at first naive, but fascinated by the micro ways to wrangle a macro problem.

Monterrey “has the capacity to look at the issue from the perspective of a young person with an activist’s mind-set and a negotiator who can sit at the table and pursue pragmatic solutions — and that’s an all-too-rare combination,” says Obama’s former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, who knows Monterrey through the Obama Foundation’s scholars program.

At 23, Monterrey attended the triumphant COP21 in Paris. In 2018, just before he left government, he helped start a leadership academy to train young Panamanians on the science and politics of climate change.

“Government will only move as fast as civil society wants it to move,” Monterrey says. “And I learned that from the inside. So my dream is for protest to be happening every day, pressure to be happening every day, so that we can pressure the politicians and speed up the work inside. That was sort of the Machiavellian plan that we had in mind: We, who were inside government — we’re going to train the people that are going to cause this trouble.”

At the start of COP26, the Panamanian government declared that “youth must be at the center of climate decision-making.” Monterrey in the lead “has raised the profile and ambition of the issue for Panama,” Rhodes says. The country claims to have the youngest delegation in the history of U.N. climate conferences. “Panamanian kindergarten,” jokes Monterrey.

Could these young delegates disrupt COP26? Maybe. First, you’d have to believe that a conference is a place where meaningful disruption is possible.

COP26. Pop-up bureaucracy. Frantic slog. Squasher of ambition and optimism. If the scientific data doesn't floor you, then the torpor might: the repetitive ideas, the numbing speeches, the old men. The largest delegation at the conference is not India's or China's or that of the United States; it is the stealth consortium of fossil fuel lobbyists who like the world the way it is.

In a large pavilion, which has the vibe of a trade show at a Midwest Hilton Garden Inn, adults sat on the floor in a “co-creative reflection and dialogue space” with a circle of notecards that read: FEAR. ANGER. EMPTINESS. GRIEF. Next door was the sleek showcase of the Russian Federation, whose president didn’t bother to attend but whose nuclear energy company served cappuccinos. Rolls-Royce hosted a junket for its electric jet engines under a rotating, illuminated Earth the size of a water tower. The foreign minister of Tuvalu, the island nation a smidge above sea level, beamed in from a rostrum submerged in the Pacific Ocean to talk about the concept of underwater sovereignty. Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, lumbered past life-size dioramas called “The Cryosphere” and “The Methane Moment” and ducked into the U.S. delegation cubby, which was taped with a paper American flag that had only 15 stars.

“We are drowning in promises,” Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate said. “Only immediate and drastic action will pull us back from the abyss.”

“The fact is we are moving too slowly,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said, “and climate change is moving too fast.”

“You can’t negotiate with science,” said a tearful Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland. Instead, the countries would have to negotiate with each other.

For a negotiator, COP26 demands aggression and finesse, patience and urgency. It’s a poker game, a schmoozefest, a knife fight over technicalities and punctuation. There are endless meetings about such things as carbon-offset mechanisms and particular subsections of the Paris agreement.

For an activist, COP26 can be an opportunity for mockery, to dismiss the proceedings as “blah blah blah,” as Thunberg did this month. But during the second week of the conference, youth activists organized inside the conference center, debriefing every day at 5 p.m., and brainstormed about how to get a message through the system. As an informal coalition without the status of a nation-state, they needed a delegation to be their messenger during an official meeting. Karime Mojica, a 23-year-old environmental scientist working with Panama, brought the activists and their idea to Monterrey.

Empowered by his own government to represent his small country, Monterrey saw a chance to multiple its constituency and amplify a broader message: Panama would use its time during a Thursday afternoon plenary session to speak for all young people. It was a perfect match of nation and activism, negotiation and disruption.

As he rushed to another meeting, Monterrey told the activists: “Be bold.”

“This is way too long.”

"I feel like there are adjectives we can remove."

“We’re not talking to biologists. We’re talking to citizens.”

Two hours until the plenary session. A small group of activists and Panamanian delegates negotiated among themselves about what to say. A draft of the speech was on everyone’s laptops and phones, in a shared Google document, which blazed with a rainbow of edits, comments and jumping cursors. An American activist named Alex Haraus had fired off a video to his 463,000 followers on TikTok, telling them Panama was going to speak on their behalf, and young strangers around the world were co-signing the speech at a rate of one per second. The youth coalition’s WhatsApp group was a cascade of ideas and questions.

“I want to make the speech passionate, but I also want to be direct,” said Panama’s deputy lead negotiator, Mari Helena Castillo Mariscal, 25, who would be delivering it. She would have three minutes to thread the needle between honoring the outrage of her generation and holding the attention of world leaders who might tune her out.

By 2:52 p.m., after timing it to the second, Castillo’s speech was ready to go. It had over 3,600 signatures — from Spain to Latvia, Trinidad and Tobago to the Cherokee Nation. At a moment like this, COP26 didn’t feel like folly. It felt like an old order being challenged, on the inside, by a new one.

“Everyone has this climate anxiety,” said Jes Vesconte, 25, a Berlin artist who collaborated on the speech. “But to be able to connect and do something like this — it’s soul-filling.”

By 3:30, official delegates were seated in a large plenary hall. Castillo sat in Panama’s spot, in a casual green sweater and orange knitted hat. Speaker after speaker repeated the need for the world to be more ambitious. Delegates gave mild congratulations and polite thanks to organizers and participants.

Panama was called upon last, and dispensed with the pleasantries.

“You say your actions are ‘ambitious,’ but your ambitions keep us on track to a fatal 2.4 degrees of warming,” Castillo said, taking direct aim at state and corporate leaders. “We look to you as global leaders, yet your actions are failing us.”

She spoke of an intersectional, borderless movement of young people with “growing power to hold you accountable.” As she read from the Google Doc, admonishing leaders to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, her fellow activists updated the part of the text about the co-signatories. By the time Castillo got to the words “On behalf of,” the next words were “over 11,500 youth from more than 129 nations.”

Maybe the largest delegation at COP26 wasn’t the fossil fuel industry. Maybe, if only for three minutes, it was young people.

The session disbanded, and Castillo fell into hugs with her team. Her phone popped with “omg omg” texts. Outside the hall, at the frenzied nexus of activity, Monterrey found Castillo.

“Estoy súper orgullosa de ti,” he said to her. “I am super proud of you.”

The conversation immediately turned to next steps: How could young people build off Panama’s move? Was there a way to turn this moment into tangible change, or would it be just another speech at another COP?

Somewhere outside, a doomsday clock kept ticking — but so did the number of signatures on the youth statement, past 21,000 in the hours afterward.

COP26 would conclude, two days later, with a written agreement — the consensus of the conference — and Monterrey would be angered by its weak language, after big emitters drowned out the cries of young people and developing nations. The world would remain on track to overshoot 1.5 degrees of warming. So he began to draft his closing message, to summon reinforcements.

“I want to make a call to the youth of the world: The most effective way to change a system is to get in the system,” Monterrey wrote in black pen in his notebook, urging young people to join diplomacy, politics and climate activism.

“We need more of you.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Juan Carlos Monterrey Gomez helped start a climate leadership academy after he left the Panamanian government. It was just before he left. This article has been corrected.