In Their Own Words
On the ground at COP26
Kate Altemus Cullen and other researchers at the Water Pavilion at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. Photo courtesy of Kate Altemus Cullen.
Deep in the maze of bustling event pavilions, we gathered as a dozen young climate scholar-activists to discuss the key questions: What will realizing intergenerational climate justice look like? What is it understood to mean across a global multiplicity of lived experiences and perspectives? How must we, as wings of the generation tasked with delivering a climate-safe future before we reach age sixty, effectuate that vision? It was informal and impromptu, but also one of the most essential and sustaining dialogues that I had the opportunity to take part in at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow last fall.
The two previous UN Climate Change Conferences that I participated in were hectic and weighty, but COP26 was something beyond. The Glasgow summit was the pandemic COP, a year-delayed, vaccinated and masked. The weight of collectively living through—of surviving—nearly two years of a global pandemic was material, and the atmosphere was tense with the injustice of the differing tolls the pandemic has taken across the world. It was also, I would argue, the COP where the clearest cognitive dissonance emerged between two truthful narratives: the official narrative that incremental progress and consensus building are something to celebrate, and the more critical narrative that our current system of global climate governance—abounding with unfulfilled promises—is struggling to deliver an urgent and just global transformation.
Attending with the University of California delegation, my primary purpose in Glasgow was to serve as a research partner to the Water Pavilion, the first explicitly water-focused venue at a COP. I coordinated a team of fifty student rapporteurs who joined from across the world via the livestream to document the 120 events and dialogues that occurred during the two-week conference.
With colleagues, I’m now in the throes of coding and analyzing this rich textual data set of notes and transcripts to elucidate the ways in which the agenda-setting of water policy is shifting to incorporate climate policy. This work offers a key starting point for my dissertation research, which aims to understand and characterize the processes in which water scarcity—deepened by climate change—compounds inequality and poverty, and to envision solutions and governance structures that catalyze adaptation in a just and community-driven way.
The value of attending a COP, and generally of convening a global summit focused specifically on the climate crisis, is to engage in these impromptu, difficult dialogues that map the vast range in worldviews, urgent needs, and understandings of the synergies and tradeoffs that we’re navigating in our (in)actions. In Glasgow, I saw anew the ways in which climate justice is imperative for water justice, which in turn is imperative for climate justice. Engaged in this research and collective thinking at COP, I felt the most alive—the most myself as a water and climate scholar-activist. I’m incredibly grateful to have found a home here in the interdisciplinary Energy and Resources Group that provides me with the tools and community of care to engage in this critical research and contribute to global action on the climate crisis.
Kate Altemus Cullen is a doctoral student in the Energy and Resources Group and a National Science Foundation Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems Fellow. Her work examines the role of climate change in exacerbating water stress in the Andes mountains and community-driven and just adaptation solutions. Cullen currently leads a joint UC Berkeley and University of Oxford research group exploring the meaning of equity and justice in net zero pathways. Previously, she served on the secretariat team for the UN Race to Zero consultations, and was a glacier tour guide in Antarctica, a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Chile, and an outreach assistant for the Union of Concerned Scientists.