After COP Conversations: Dr. Valerie Luzadis

People circle around round, white tables on a green floor beneath an illuminate globe which represents the Earth.

"The action zone and globe at COP26 at the Hydro, Glasgow." (Alan Harvey/UK Government via Flickr)

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In the aftermath of the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26), I sat down with social-ecological systems and ecological economics researcher Dr. Valerie Luzadis, who attended the summit virtually.

Dr. Luzadis is a professor in the Environmental Studies department at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), and is the founder of Heart Forward Science, a program created to advance sustainable scientific outcomes with the whole-person approach. She also serves on the Planet Forward Advisory Council, and is Chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Council for Science and the Environment (GCSE)

A huge thanks to Dr. Luzadis for taking the time to chat with me. It was great to get an inside look at what went on at the conference and from such an interesting perspective. As an educator at a school like ESF, Dr. Luzadis has a unique point of view on these issues (I would guess that most representatives at COP don’t work with youth activists in their day jobs). I hope the solutions and behavior changes recommended by Dr. Luzadis will be widely heard and implemented. 

Podcast Transcription:

Lily John  0:00  
My name is Lily John and I’m a Planet Forward Correspondent at SUNY-ESF. I recently sat down with ESF professor Dr. Valerie Luzadis to discuss her experience at this year’s UN Climate Summit. Was this your first time attending a cop conference?

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  0:18  
It was this was my first one. Yes.

Lily John  0:21  
Okay, and how did it compare to your expectations?

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  0:25  
Well, I didn’t have many going in, I wasn’t really sure exactly what to expect. Of course, I know about this work, since it’s critical to sustainability. But this was also the first time that the Global Council for Science and the Environment had a delegation. So it was very interesting to work with a group of people from other institutions around the world to come together, and, you know, have a common platform for observing and connecting with one another. So it was a really, overall great experience, and so many ways. I was full time observing the second week, when all the negotiations were happening. And I found that I got very invested along the way, well, following certain threads of language and discussions. And as is typical with negotiations, and with consensus approaches, which is what’s used for the COP meetings, things are a little stronger, earlier, and usually get softened language wise by the end, and that happened, and there’s kind of an emotional ride with that, then it’s like, Oh, I really wanted to see this. happen that way. And, and so almost disappointment at moments of that. It really took me a couple of days after the meeting ended to say, Okay, remember what this is. It’s consensus. It’s global-level discussions. We have no formal enforcement mechanisms, and then really look at what happened at the meeting. And when I did that, I can say, I think progress was certainly made. And it’s not enough.

Lily John  2:04  
Yeah, that seems like the consensus. But, the language was softening just in order to reach a compromise, like that was the only way to get people to agree to what was being proposed?

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  2:17  
Yes, and it’s an interesting process that they use, because it’s not formal agreement. It’s just agreeing to not block it, right. So at the very end, that’s how the consensus is reached. And so there’s this process where they have these informal stocktaking sessions, and I found those very interesting was where the countries would be able to say, here’s what we want. And here’s what we think should be happening. And by the end, it became “We are not happy with this, this, this, and this, AND we are not going to block this.”

Lily John  2:52  
I imagine it’s quite complicated to be managing all of these different pieces of input and beginning with what each party won’t agree with. From that perspective, it’s kind of impressive that anything got done. What did the representation outside of government look like? And what was the role of these groups?

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  3:11  
Well, the the formal parties and government deal parties are all through the UN. And so it’s not a formal representation in terms of the consensus building, that’s only the governments themselves. And so the observers and our NGOs, businesses, civil… civil society groups that meet outside of this are there to share their thoughts about how to move things ahead. There’s a whole set of technical advisors who are also there. How do we do what we need to get done?

Lily John  3:43  
It’s great that there was so much representation of different groups there. So this year, what were the primary themes of COP?

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  3:51  
The primary themes continued, of course, to be on mitigation, and then adaptation. There was also a big discussion on what they called loss and damage. And that’s because there are already losses and damages related to climate change. And it’s happening in large part to countries and to peoples who are 1. not causing this problem, and 2. don’t have the resources to be able to respond to it. There was also a very big focus on climate finance. And then the final thing was creating what was called “The Paris Rulebook.” And this was really rules that are needed to implement what was agreed to in Paris. So the goals of this particular COP 26, included, trying to secure global net zero by mid century, and keeping to 1.5 degrees within reach of possibility, because right now, we were set toward a greater than two degrees increase global warming before this meeting, and so a lot of the conversation was about what do we need to change what has to be added? How can we get to keeping us to that 1.5 degree limit. There were adaptation conversations around protecting communities and habitats. And then this finance issue was big because the agreements that were made, and Paris didn’t come through, I heard at one point that only 20% of what was promised came through. And so there was a lot of attention to that lack of follow through, and the need for what they’re talking about, it’s $100 billion a year mobilized toward helping to deal with climate change. And there were certain countries, developing countries, who really wanted to say developed countries should be paying this. There are 20 countries that produce 80% of the the greenhouse gases. And the two biggest contributors, of course, are the US and China. And so I think this is one of the issues is who’s paying this money in? So when you talk about this climate finance, it’s not just countries, but it’s also private financing.

Lily John  6:00  
Is that private companies? Are they part o f the question?

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  6:04  
This would come from companies who have created some sort of… you might think about it the… so the language that we ended up with at this point was that we would agree to phase out “unabated coal” and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, but “unabated coal” suggests that we need to abate coal. So there are companies that have the technology and ability to be able to do that. And so they become part of the financing activity.

Lily John  6:32  
Is there a discussion around the big polluter companies making financial contributions?

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  6:38  
This is one of the things that I do know is that within the Nationally Developed Contributions, each country is looking at how they manage the polluters. And so the polluter pays, of course, is one of those techniques that are used.

Lily John  6:53  
Why do you think that these regulations haven’t been effective?

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  6:57  
Coal and fossil fuels have never been called out in one of the climate agreements, and so it wasn’t in the Paris Agreement. So the fact that this was going to come into play and get put into language in the document was a really big deal. And the beginning, it was to phase out coal, and to phase out subsidies to fossil fuels. And it changed to to phase out unabated coal and inefficient subsidies to fossil fuels. And those situations, it’s at the country level, or even sometimes sub-national level where these things are regulated. And so that’s the question, it’s kind of moving, it gets moved into different scales, where we have a global problem, but now we have to figure out how and at which scales do we need to do which things in order to have a global impact and changing it?

Lily John  7:52  
Yeah, those systems seem like they’re very well established. And the systems needed to reverse that action and to work together to end burning coal, or whatever else needs to be done. It seems like those systems haven’t really been established because of the lack of agreement.

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  8:11  
Yeah, so this is probably one of the most interesting things about this COP for me was was exactly this bigger picture around systems. The youth voice was strong at this COP. And there was not one voice. We also heard Indigenous youth speak so clearly, and passionately. And one of the most astounding things I heard was this group, essentially saying, “Why are we looking to you who created this problem to fix it? Because there’s no incentive for that.” And so what I started to see was a very clear voice set of voices in this process, and a very clear set of voices saying this process is not going to do it. And we need to be doing something else. And the youth voice collectively, and the Indigenous voices collectively, I believe, are likely to lead us otherwise,

Lily John  9:04  
Was there much youth or Indigenous involvement in previous COP conferences?

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  9:10  
There was more this time, from my understanding, than most. Youth voice in particular was written into this COP in terms of following on with a regular set of activities with the youth groups and Indigenous groups as well. The thing that really strikes me I saw on the major panels throughout this, both youth and Indigenous people, the Indigenous voice one of one of the the messages loud and clear is that Indigenous people have knowledge that can help us to resolve these issues, to mitigate and to adapt with climate change. And I did not see any Indigenous people invited to share substantive ideas about that. All I heard were Indigenous people invited to say, our voices need to be heard. They were also saying we have knowledge that can help. We had science everywhere, on every panel all the time, but not Indigenous knowledge with it. And I don’t understand that there’s a relegation of these voices. And that’s hugely problematic.

Lily John  10:13  
I recently heard a piece on NPR about a group of young Indigenous women who had travelled from New Zealand and Alaska to speak at COP. But their time was cut short and almost eliminated. So it seems like only the first step is being taken with inviting them to be there.

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  10:31  
I would say that’s right. And not only inviting, but inviting into a process that clearly they weren’t part of designing, and in which their approaches and their relationship with time and relationship were not respected. Again, that’s hugely problematic. There was a very, very big sense of frustration. And that was really palpable. And not just in the protests, it was palpable in the rooms, it was palpable from different governments, and especially the smaller countries and the small island developing nations. And so it’s a really interesting question of what kind of activity through civil society can take place or will take place that will help us to address this problem. At the same time, we’ve got this formal process, and there was progress made.

Lily John  11:19  
Overall, would you say you’re leaning toward more towards optimism, or more towards being disappointed by the lack of results?

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  11:28  
I am, by nature, an optimistic person. And I put my energy and my attention on the positive and on the vision of the future that I want to see. I can say, some progress was made. And it was not enough. I like to see the activity of working by consensus, because so much of our world is a violent world. And to see where countries can come together and work by consensus, that’s very important. It’s a non-violent approach to getting us to a non-violent, equitable, sustainable world. And at the same time, it’s not enough for Modi to come out and say 2070 for India to be net zero. That’s too late. The ideas on the radar, that’s good. So is that better than not being on the radar? Maybe?

Lily John  12:17  
Yeah, I was curious about India’s announcement, because that was one of the first things I heard out of COP. And I thought it was super exciting. And the landmark dramatic change that we were looking for, but now reading about the reactions and act thinking about where 2070 is… and also it seems like the social justice and the human issues have not really been acknowledged there. So it’s more of something for shock value is kind of how it seems from the outside.

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  12:49  
Well, the truth is that politics are at play in this setting. There was a US-China Agreement that came out. And that’s actually got a lot to do with why we have the language of unabated coal and inefficient subsidies of fossil fuels, is because of the US-China Agreement. Is this a good thing? It is because as one of the biggest emitters, China, did not send their leader to this meeting. And so to have an agreement come out during this time was really important.

Lily John  13:20  
Given everything we’ve discussed, what do you see as being the most effective step in implementing the necessary systemic change?

Dr. Valerie Luzadis  13:29  
I think that one of the things we do is that when we teach only about the intellectual mind, and the analytical aspects of things, and we don’t necessarily teach about heart, and love, and imagination, and intuition, these other parts of us super important. And that’s actually what’s going to weave into that with our intellect, that I think will help us to hold that vision and figure out how to get there. It’s the whole person approach, we need to bring all of ourselves to all that we do for a long time now, we’ve been asked just to bring this part of us just our heads. And that’s not enough, we can see it. And we certainly don’t teach the skills of how to understand intuitive knowledge, where there are skills affiliated with that, that we could learn. It’s different than analytical knowledge. It’s just as important. And so understanding and using these things in tandem, is actually the the education of the future, I believe, but we need to build that skill set and we need to build the community system that’ll allow us to do that.

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climate action, cop26, GCSE<, global, Indigenous Knowledge, Policy, science, SUNY-ESF, youth

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