Welcome to COP27. Thank You for Not Protesting

Fisher had expected to see more instigation inside the conference this year. Anger at the COP process has been mounting with each year of inaction, she says, and she assumed that choosing Egypt as a host might inspire some people to register with a plan to disrupt the proceedings. That could still be the case, especially if the talks appear to be headed toward a disappointing conclusion. “The whole world will be watching whatever happens in Egypt,” she says. “My money is still on something happening there.”

So far, that hasn’t happened. Each morning, small NGO-affiliated groups have gathered near the conference entrance, chanting slogans about issues that are core to the negotiations, such as climate reparations, or pushing back on the COP process and membership, which includes more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists. Most of the actions have attracted a few dozen protesters and roughly an equal number journalists. They appear on a tidy schedule, each graciously yielding a shaded patch of the conference area for the next.

“Those aren’t protests. Those are meetings,” said a young attendee from Palestine, who did not wish to be named before she arrived safely home, as she pulled out her phone to record two men, one dressed as a T-rex and the other as a skeleton. The dinosaur was set to receive an award called “Fossil of the Day,” given to the COP participant deemed most hypocritical by Climate Action Network, a watchdog group. The citation, read over the Jurassic Park theme song, described a failure to uphold basic human rights and the ability to protest on climate issues. The recipient, in absentia: Egypt. The crowd gasped. “I hope I’m still allowed here tomorrow,” the skeleton said. The next day, the prize again went to Egypt.

Briefly on Saturday, the traditional day for large protests outside COP meetings, NGOs held a sanctioned march inside the venue that they called a “symbolic” action, highlighting the inability for protesters to gather outside. Activists have otherwise spurned Egypt’s dedicated protest zone. A visit to the area, which involved a lengthy shuttle ride from the area where delegates are meeting, followed by a lengthy search for the site with the help of bewildered security guards, found a barren scene. A staff member, lounging in the shade cast by a shipping container with a coffee bar inside, said he hadn’t seen any protesters there.

Instead, those protests have been happening elsewhere in the world. In the lead-up to COP, activist groups like Just Stop Oil began a campaign of throwing food at (glass-covered) artwork. And during the conference, dozens of protesters in the UK and Europe have been arrested for blocking roads. Fisher expects those actions to continue escalating. Because how could they not, as the impacts of climate change only get worse? But perhaps not at COP, she says, pointing out that COP28 will be hosted in Dubai, another place where it is not possible to protest without permission.

Perhaps that’s a better way of galvanizing politicians to act on climate changes anyway, she adds, noting that nation-states, not international meetings, are increasingly seen as the crucibles of climate action. “It used to be that if you cared about climate, you needed to go to climate negotiations to get your voice heard,” Fisher says. “That isn’t true anymore.” That’s one reason Johns chose to interrupt the American president, in particular, at COP. “We must mobilize in our own countries,” he says.

In the meantime, Yábar continues her work trying to amplify the voices of people missing from the conference. There have been moments that inspire optimism, she says, like when the Kenyan delegation stopped by and didn’t just give the young people a speech, but joined them in small groups and listened to their concerns. And she is happy, as a third-timer, to be a guide for the newbies at a notoriously overwhelming event. But the tension is still simmering. People in the youth groups were murmuring about an action of some kind, and she and her friends started making protest signs, using materials provided by UNESCO. They had not decided how to use them yet. But, she adds, they had been given free rein to say whatever they wanted.

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