Voices from around the world on what’s at stake at COP26

Tens of thousands of diplomats, researchers, protesters and presidents are scheduled to descend on Glasgow, Scotland, next week for a critical United Nations climate summit. Next to the Olympics, COP26, as it is known, will be one of the largest international gatherings since the start of the pandemic. The overarching goal: to get countries to commit to more ambitious, detailed plans to cut their planet-warming emissions and collectively slow climate change.

That lofty aim can sometimes seem abstract, and protracted negotiations in a conference center can seem far removed from the realities of climate change. The Washington Post spoke to people around the world — including youth activists, scientists, government leaders and people whose livelihoods are under threat — to hear in their own words why the outcome of COP26 matters and what is at stake if countries fail to act.

Nisreen Elsaim

Khartoum, Sudan

Elsaim, 26, is a member of the U.N. secretary general’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change and a negotiator on behalf of African nations.

The whole world stopped during the pandemic. Unfortunately, the only thing that did not stop was climate change.

Sudan had its worst floods in 100 years in August 2020. Every place in the world was in a lockdown. But in Sudan, we were forced to not be in lockdown because our houses were underwater.

Sudan is very much a climate-sensitive country. Although we have the Nile, we still irrigate most of our lands from the rain. Any small change in the weather and the seasons actually changes the whole system. And this can create a catastrophe.

Our conflicts are increasing in number due to the climatic impacts of droughts and migration. After the separation of South Sudan, a third of the country is a desert right now, and desertification is moving very fast.

There is an urgency now, because the previous generation already wasted a lot of time. So now, we have to work doubly fast to overcome what was wasted. Twenty-five or 26 years of negotiating something — that is too much, to be honest.

A lot of young people are joining the climate action movement. This is unique and something we should be proud of. It’s the topic of almost every person in my generation. These young people will be the policymakers and decision-makers and world leaders in five to 10 years.

I’m sure that even with the previous generations, when they started, they were very much optimistic about everything, and then the system changed them.

So I hope this time, we change the system, instead of the system changing us.

Lotay Tshering

Thimphu, Bhutan

Tshering, 52, is prime minister of a carbon-negative country that is also suffering from melting glaciers and other climate-induced impacts.

I don’t know how to mince my words. So I’ll be very frank.

The summers are getting hotter and hotter. The winters are getting warmer and warmer. I’m talking to you from the capital, Thimphu. In the past four years, I do not remember seeing snowfall in this valley.

When I was brought up in this same place, I used to throw snowballs with my friends. The first day of snow each year, they would declare a government holiday. The traffic would be jammed. Schools would be closed. For the past three years, while I have been in office, I did not have to declare a government holiday. No more snow falls. We have to drive up the mountain to let our children see snow.

[What can I do as a teenager to stop climate change?]

Months back, we lost 10 lives to a mudslide. All family members. The whole hillside came down and buried them. With climate change, the floods and landslides are not only occurring during rainy season. Dry mud is also coming down. Climate change is happening deep down, underneath the earth where we stand.

Despite limited resources, we have done our part very well. Unfortunately, we are in the disproportionately affected group. Our adaptive capacity is very poor.

One lesson that we all must take from the pandemic is the interdependence of every human being on this planet. Pandemics do not follow geographical boundaries. We are all together. Countries that can afford it are sharing their resources with the countries who cannot. They have realized that until everyone is safe, they alone cannot be safe. The same principle can be applied to climate change.

We are not meeting at COP26 to sort out our differences. We are meeting to set a common agenda. As responsible human beings, we must live up to what we have agreed upon. There is no single individual or country’s dream on climate change. It has to be a collective dream.

Edgar Jiménez Caipa

Mollendo, Peru

Jiménez Caipa, 63, is vice president of the Federation of Artisanal Fishermen of the Arequipa Region of southern Peru.

I’ve been a fisherman for 40 years. I’m happy doing this. I miss the sea when I’m not out there. Out at sea, there are never any problems. There’s never any noise — only the sound of the wind. I never get bored, because this is my life.

But in the past few years, everything is always changing. The winds are always changing. You can’t work with a sea like that. We go out in small boats, as artisanal fishermen, and the risk is always high. Before, we would go out 30, 40 miles off the coast to fish. Today, the fish are no longer by the shore. They’re further out. We’re going 150, 200 miles out, because the winds and the currents are causing the fish to move away from the coast.

Everything is more dangerous, more expensive. We’ve had to adapt. Our boats were too small, so we’ve had to buy bigger boats to stay safe. And there’s always a risk that you don’t catch fish. It’s an adventure we head out on. There’s no way to know what we’re going to find.

We feed the town, but the government has done very little to help us. They have never cared. And when the fish move further away and they become scarcer, the product becomes more expensive, and that’s harmful to the community.

The fault lies with the big countries, the big, developed countries. They have not cared for many years and have already done damage to the system. They’re not paying attention to what they’re leaving behind. You see these movies where there is no water and no oil — I’m sure we’ll get to that at some point. If you destroy the plants, if you contaminate the sea, what life is there? What’s waiting for those after us?

James Hansen

New York

Hansen, 80, is a NASA and Columbia University climate scientist, known for his global warming projections and his 1988 warning: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

When I testified in the late 1980s, I got a lot of blowback. There was an article in Science magazine titled “Hansen vs. the World on the Greenhouse Threat.” Even scientists were not willing to say that the climate was beginning to change because of these added greenhouse gases.

But by 1992, there was the [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] agreement that we needed to avoid dangerous human interference with the climate system.

I foolishly thought it was going to work.

The fundamental requirements are not being addressed at these COP meetings. They go to these meetings, and they say these good things about the progress that we are making. But when I make the graph to look at emissions, they’re going up, not down. There’s a huge gap now between 1.5 degrees [which U.N. scientists have deemed the best-case scenario for warming beyond preindustrial levels] and the real world.

Things are already happening. You see the increased frequency of extreme events. And it is very much on schedule. The frequency of unusually hot summers, for example, is following right along the line that was expected. But those are not the biggest threats.

When you have a system with a delayed response and amplifying feedbacks, there’s a danger you can lose control. We will start the process of ice sheet disintegration in Antarctica, which we won’t be able to stop. And we will end up with sea level rise of several meters and lose our coastal cities. When you combine that with the fact that the low latitudes are becoming impossible places to live in, then you have the potential for the existential threat where the planet becomes ungovernable.

We need to get on a different path soon. And we won’t get on that path without a price on carbon.

The fundamental requirement is to provide the incentives that will lead us to carbon-free energy. That means you have to make the price of fossil fuels honest. It has to include the cost to society.

I’ve been pushing a carbon fee and dividend [a system in which governments tax emissions and distribute the revenue to citizens]. But frankly, getting 200 nations around the table to come to the agreement is probably not a practical way to do it.

The fact is that the U.S. and China could do it. They could put a border duty on products from countries that do not have an equivalent carbon fee, and that would encourage other countries to have their own carbon fee.

Maybe President Biden will go to Glasgow and announce he is imposing a carbon fee. That would be super. Then the COP would actually be a meaningful COP. But without that? It’s just window dressing.

Ingrid Marie Vincent Andersen


Andersen, 38, is head of Decarbonization Targets and Lifecycle Assessments at Danish shipping company A.P. Moller - Maersk.

I’m old enough to remember when the winters were colder and we had less rain, less storms. But I think everybody notices this. Denmark is not the hardest-hit country by climate change. There are places in the world that face far worse.

We are a heavy-emitting industry. Shipping emits roughly 3 percent of all global CO2 emissions. This corresponds to a country the size of Germany. We need to take responsibility for that. We also transport 90 percent of all goods around the world. So you have to put things in perspective. But of course, being such a heavy emitter, we need to take action, and we need to take action now.

Shipping is traditionally a conservative industry, but I see a lot of change, to increase the level of ambition. I’ve been in this business for 10, 15 years as a naval architect. And I’ve never seen so much movement.

I think ferries and smaller ships, they might be electrified, just like cars are today. Other vessels, it might be useful to fit with sails. For our company, we have very big container ships, and they travel very, very long distances across the oceans, like half the way around the globe, on one tank. We rely on fuels that are very dense in energy.

That’s where Maersk is showing some leadership. We ordered eight methanol fuel vessels. There isn’t any fuel to put in them yet. So now we need to ramp up the supply of this carbon-neutral fuel that we will be running those vessels on. We need to show the world it is possible, because otherwise there’s going to be a lot hesitancy and a lot of ship owners will be sitting on their hands, waiting. And then, by the time the solutions are there, it is too late. We really only have this decade to get going.

Jose Luis Zelaya

College Station, Tex.

Zelaya, 34, migrated to the United States from Honduras after his hometown was struck in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch, the deadliest Atlantic storm in modern history. He earned his PhD and now runs an education consulting firm that serves children whose second language is English.

I remember these creeks being flooded little by little by little. At first, it’s kind of like: “Oh, wow, the river is really strong.” Until, all of a sudden, you start seeing bodies in the same river. Human bodies.

It was not just about not having food or not having water. It was about not having a place to live, not having a place to breathe.

I could survive absolute levels of poverty, and I could survive living in one of the most dangerous places on Earth. But I could not survive the hurricane. I could not survive the aftermath of the destruction of Hurricane Mitch, and that is what caused me to migrate from Honduras.

I rode “the beast.” I got on top of the train. I saw people fall off. I remember people on the train screaming, little girls screaming, being taken from their mothers. Like, I mean, horrible stuff to be able to make it to the land of opportunity. Walking through the desert, not having water, drinking your urine.

The hope to be able to get here must be very intense, to beat the desperation. There’s a lot of pain, but there’s also a lot of hope that life can be different.

With climate change, we will continue to see masses of people wanting to migrate because of desperation. That will continue to lead to the dehumanization of people, because whenever people make it to the border or whenever people make it to ask for political asylum or refugee status, all of a sudden we begin to dehumanize them, or we begin to criminalize them, without really addressing the root of the problem.

There needs to be strong solutions from nations that carry a strong responsibility. The ones that are forcing this migration need to invest in part of the problem that has been created by them.

It would be really beautiful if they would look at people who are displaced as an opportunity to invest, to give them an opportunity.

Climate migrants are not a problem. We are part of the solution. The solution cannot be found without us because we understand the pain. We must not only be invited to the table. We must lead the conversations.

Hope Flanagan


Flanagan, 64, is an elder with the Seneca Nation’s Turtle Clan, a storyteller and a teacher at Dream of Wild Health, an intertribal nonprofit and community farm.

My whole life, since I was young, people would send me out in the woods to look for plants. Every single plant is considered to have its gift of food, medicine, utility. And every green one gives the gift of breath.

In our old stories, the plants are our elders. They know how to live. Our job was supposed to be to watch our elders and learn from them how to live respectfully in this paradise.

But what happened is, people tend to get what we call windigo sickness. It’s greed. The windigo is this really terrifying cannibal spirit that as it gets bigger, it wants more, it wants more. It gets so hungry, it eats its own lips. And that’s like us humans today.

Wherever I go to look for plants, I get to see what’s going on out in the woods, or what’s going on with the land. And drastic things are happening already.

A lot of the plants I would normally see weren’t even able to come up this year because there was too much drought and it was too hot. I went out to gather birch bark — the birch trees have eight different climate-related illnesses. So they’re not able to give their bark. The berries that were the first berries — the strawberries, the Juneberries, the blueberries — they all dried up. They were not able to even give any fruit at all. The diversity is going down fast.

I don’t think the average human has any idea how bad it is right now. I know I’m just sounding like a real prophet of doom and gloom. But, you know, you’ve got to admit what’s really going on before you can really look at solutions.

Now we have a chance to show what our intent is — if our intent is to heal, to promote life, to speak for the insects, the animals, the plants, to speak for them, to do the best we can.

I would tell our leaders: You’ve got to remember that we’re all interconnected. It’s truly a web. And each time we lose a connection, we lose a plant, we lose the insect, we lose an animal, we’re jeopardizing all life on this earth, especially our own.

Steven Bews

Shapinsay, Scotland

Bews, 37, is a home builder and volunteer director at Shapinsay Renewables, a nonprofit operating a 900-kilowatt wind turbine that supplies electricity to this island’s 320 residents and the greater grid.

The wind turbine has been positive overall. It’s opened up a different way of living on the island. Before, everybody was very self-reliant. Whereas now we use the proceeds to hire a well-being officer, for the youth and elderly. The development trust invested in two electric vehicles, and there is a subsidized passenger launch that operates when the main ferry is tied up.

It has been a blessing. But everybody acknowledges the frustration that the turbine can’t reduce our electricity bills. It can’t give us free power, if you like. Because that’s not the way things are set up.

Our electric bills are up. This is the crux of the whole thing. We are generating wind power, sending it to the grid. The grid dictates where the power goes. The grid dictates the cost of exporting and the cost to the end user.

One of the good things about the climate summit being in Scotland is they are going to see that you can integrate wind turbines, tidal turbines, with electric vehicle charging networks and — though it is early days — that you can bring the green hydrogen fuel into that mix in communities that are quite isolated. [Tidal energy machines offshore from the island are producing green hydrogen in a pilot program.]

We’re doing it here first, but I think other places are going to come around, once a global audience comes to Glasgow and learns more about it. Hopefully they will see it’s not so exotic, maybe.

There’s always good spin at the start, to attract investment and attention. People’s expectations need to be realistic. Yes, we have a wind turbine. But no, you’re not getting free power. Yes, we are generating some hydrogen. No, it’s not running the ferry. It’s being used very tentatively. It’s about proving a technology. It’s not quite there yet.

The grid is geared toward constant generation. Your good old nuclear power station is churning out power 24/7, steady as you like. But if you want to use renewable energy — wind or tide or solar — there’s peaks and troughs in the power you generate. You need to be able to store the energy, when it’s sunny or windy or when there’s a strong tide, and then release it to your customer when they need it.

We’re a living laboratory, they call us.

Litokne Kabua

Ebeye, Marshall Islands

Kabua, 18, is one of 16 youths who formally petitioned the United Nations in 2019 for immediate, binding action to slow climate change.

If I were to describe my home, it’s a very peaceful place. We are very peaceful people. When you wake up in the morning, you see the ocean. It’s like a paradise.

Though we see the sea level rising every day, and we see the sun is getting hotter, and we see that the seasons for our harvest are changing, even though we see that everything is challenging, we tend to believe God is always there for us.

One time when the community was flooded, my backyard was destroyed. Everything we had in our garden was just gone. It went with the water. It’s very strange and very disappointing, like something that you’ve had and then someone comes and takes it from you.

I hope there will be progress at the COP26 meeting. I’m also skeptical. The world leaders, they are not doing what they’re supposed to do as leaders. They’re putting people’s lives at stake. They make promises and in the end, they break them. In my culture, if you were to make a promise, it is a very big thing.

We are on the front line, and they are on, I might say, the sideline of the climate crisis. They tend not to understand, because they don’t see it every day.

The climate crisis, it will shape my life. It changes everything. My future will be full of challenges. It makes me want to try to spread awareness around the world, because I think that is the only thing I can do. I do not have power like the world leaders do. Unlike them, I just have my story.

And my story is, I believe, my strongest weapon.

Andy Reisinger

Porirua, New Zealand

Reisinger, 54, is principal climate change scientist in the New Zealand Ministry for Environment and vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s climate change mitigation working group. He is known for translating IPCC reports into haiku.

“Tramping” is the New Zealand word for going hiking, mountaineering, climbing. We have some very iconic glaciers on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand, and they have retreated massively. They are no longer the same, and I feel quite a deep personal sense of loss, because these glaciers will not come back in our lifetime, in many lifetimes.

My main area of research, for the past decade or so, is the study of the sources of greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and sheep.

There is a lot of very sophisticated science that goes into understanding how the climate is changing. But it’s not rocket science to realize what we’re doing — that it is us doing the climate changing, and that it is us imperiled by the consequences.

So I was just quite taken by the potential to condense complex issues that are often expressed in quite convoluted language — how to move beyond that and expose ourselves to the very simple truth and facts that are sometimes buried in the summary documents. And I thought haiku might speak to people who would never otherwise pick up an IPCC report and actually read it, because it is very challenging to read. It’s not easily digested by a layperson.

For me, the other component is that it is a grueling, often quite demoralizing, rage-inducing process to work in this space. You’re spending hours, days, months, years of your life trying to scrutinize the evidence, to put it into technical reports, to write scientific papers, to give talks. And quite often you feel impotent against all the powerful barriers to action that we see all around us. So, writing haiku provides a degree of consolation. It’s a way to step back and find some solace.

I haven’t written a haiku to describe my feeling going into COP26 in Glasgow. I have been positively surprised by the increased ambition and pledges. But it’s always easier for governments to pledge targets that speak to an eventual transformation. It’s much harder to make policies that apply to tomorrow.

About this story

The photo illustrations were captured remotely by Sam Cannon over Zoom, FaceTime and WhatsApp, with the help of all 10 people portrayed and, in some cases, their family members and colleagues. Taking inspiration from precious photos damaged by natural disaster, the resulting images were then printed and rephotographed in Cannon’s studio. The narratives have been slightly edited for length and clarity. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Project editing by Marisa Bellack. Copy editing by Dorine Bethea. Design and development by Andrew Braford.

Brady Dennis is a Pulitzer Prize-winning national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health. He previously spent years covering the nation’s economy.
Sarah Kaplan is a climate reporter covering humanity's response to a warming world. She previously reported on Earth science and the universe.
William Booth is The Washington Post’s London bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Jerusalem, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Miami.
Samantha Schmidt is The Washington Post's Bogotá bureau chief, covering the Andes region of South America.