A scene from the COP climate change conference in Egypt. Kiara Worth

For years I’ve thought that the annual COP (Conference of Parties) meetings to discuss the climate crisis were a contradiction, as they have a giant carbon footprint, including emissions from private jet-setting fossil fuel CEOs.

Emissions are still going up, and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned we are “on a highway to climate hell.”

Melinda Tuhus

Now, with COP 27 happening in the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt — a police state — I have even more reasons to be disgusted. Read on for my proposal for a low-carbon, environmental justice-focused COP.

A recent analysis shows that taking a long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than the average person in dozens of countries around the world produces in a whole year. There are 35,000 COP 27 “delegates,” whatever that means, the vast majority of whom flew there. What can 35,000 people discuss and decide on? Very little, as past COPS have shown.

The group Global Witness found that 636 fossil-fuel lobbyists are among those attending COP 27. That’s more than the combined number of delegates from the 10 countries most impacted by the climate crisis and more than even in past years.

And Egypt being a police state, there are many fewer activists attending than in previous years. Many couldn’t get visas, and the dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has banned many Egyptians from attending.

Why is Egypt even hosting this thing? The COP rotates among the continents and it’s Africa’s turn. Africans contribute a few percent total to the greenhouse gases that have been released into the atmosphere, but already suffer some of the worst impacts, like the severe flooding that occurred last month in Nigeria. Things will only get much worse for them.

Egypt says it wants to use its high profile to push for loss and damage for the most impacted countries, including in Africa, but Egypt itself is aiming to become a regional gas exporting hub. That certainly qualifies it to host a climate summit? Not that other countries haven’t also been ramping up fossil production while claiming to be hip to the climate crisis.

Egypt is holding thousands of political prisoners, probably the most famous being Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a British-Egyptian pro-democracy activist. He’s been imprisoned for nine years and on hunger strike for more than 200 days. He announced he would renounce even water once COP 27 started, and his family just received word that he has had “medical intervention” (probably force-feeding).

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist, announced that she wouldn’t attend the conference in part out of concern for human rights abuses in Egypt.

The New York Times notes that the conference will feature “biodegradable drinking straws and recycling bins, beach strolls and electric shuttles.” Activists will need those shuttles to get from their hotels to the official “protest area” in the desert, miles from the site of the COP meetings, and they can only protest if they register in advance. But but but — this protest area in the desert will be “very chic,” according to one Egyptian official, complete with cafes and restaurants. You can’t make this stuff up.

So, how could world leaders and advocates for a safe climate — and NOT representatives of the companies causing the crisis — have meaningful discussions and make real, impactful decisions to reverse the trajectory we are on?

Civil society groups that go to the COPs to demonstrate for real action can do so effectively on their own continents. (Organizers in New Haven just held a Climathon to discuss problems and solutions on a local level — nitty, gritty work that’s not as glamorous as jet-setting to an international venue, but critical just the same.) Since Covid, other groups have held conferences, including global conferences with thousands of people, online. There are emissions connected to this kind of endeavor, but they pale in comparison to in-person gatherings. Virtual conferences would also allow more people at the forefront of the crisis — who tend to be poorer — to contribute their valuable perspectives and experience to the discussions.

For those who don’t have internet access, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to provide that than to send them to Egypt or any other far-flung place where they can enjoy a “chic” environment while the planet burns.

Melinda Tuhus lives in Hamden.