Conquering the COP

What’s it like to present your research at a UN climate conference? Leeds Masters graduate Phellecitus Montana reflects on her experience at COP22 in Marrakech

After completing my Masters in Environment and Development at the University of Leeds, my interest in climate change burgeoned. So, when my research project on how climate change impacts affect youth in South Africa was selected for presentation at COP22, I was ecstatic. Attending one of these conferences was something I had written down as a short-term goal and now I was invited to present my work at an official side event. After a week of browsing through images of Marrakech on Pinterest, it was all in sight: the warm colours, the distinctive Moroccan décor and, of course, the billboards advertising COP22.

Despite many uncertainties about what to expect, I established three key aims that were central in my reflective process: (1) learn something new and thought-provoking each day; (2) make a new connection/friend each day, and (3) think about who you met or what you learned and how that can help in harnessing where you want to be in the future.

It proved to be a useful strategy. As a first time COP attendee, the experience was overwhelming at times. Part of getting “plugged into the zone” was realizing how much I know, how much I don’t know and how much I could know. The very first COP (it stands for “Conference of the Parties”) took place in 1995, and getting to grips with the language and history is almost impossible. Still, we all have to start somewhere and I look forward to comparing my first COP experience to my twentieth. #Ambitious!

Who am I here?

There was so much going on during week one of the conference, you could truly get lost in it all. As well as my personal aims it was also helpful to identify a particular topic to follow, understand and explore. I was particularly interested in loss and damage, the focus of my Masters dissertation, and I attended a vast range of meetings and side events related to this.

The side event I was presenting at was hosted by the Worldwide Universities Network and I was on the agenda alongside experts on loss and damage. It was a daunting prospect. After meeting with some of my fellow panellists a few hours before our event I felt excited but nervous and utterly astounded to be there. Remaining cool, calm and confident was tough. I’m grateful to those who helped me through my little emotional rollercoaster.

The highlight of my experience was sharing the results from my study on how young people are affected by climate change; bringing the voices of the young people I interviewed from the informal settlements I visited to this UN conference and ultimately being asked questions about my study and future prospects in this field. It was certainly a day I will never forget.

The Paris Agreement and the politics of action

The much-lauded Paris Agreement came into force on the 4 November 2016. On this day I was at the Conference of Youth, COY12, which sought to engage youth from Morocco and around the world in contributing to solutions for tackling climate change. I had the opportunity to meet many young people, some expressing that it was their first time hearing about climate change. This reminded me that there are still many challenges in raising awareness, particularly amongst young people at local level.

At COP22, talk of “action” was central in the negotiations. I observed a negotiation on loss and damage, which brought to light the slow and complex process of ensuring inclusivity, fairness and consideration of all countries in finding solutions that could be mutually agreed upon. This really got me thinking about the pace of action, the practicalities of acting swiftly and overcoming many unaddressed challenges, particularly with contrasting views from the Global North and South.

To achieve this, everyone needs to take responsibility, whether it’s through educating local youth, negotiating and implementing policies or simply being conscious of our consumption and impacts on the earth. Global climate action is everyone’s business.

 My continuing journey


Photo (left to right): Phellecitus Montana, Harriet Thew, Paul Hudson and Dr Susie Sallu in the studio at BBC Radio Leeds

My journey from Marrakech and back to Leeds was filled with highs and some lows: I struggled to remain confident at times and had doubts about how I would get through the entire conference and my presentation. Sometimes we struggle to see the potential in ourselves that others have seen ages ago and for that I am immensely grateful to my supervisors, Dr Susannah Sallu, Harriet Thew and Dr Gina Ziervogel, for seeing potential in me.

As someone who has been privileged to attend good schools from the success of grandmother’s household tavern in Mamelodi (the township in which I was born), I would like to use that to seek ways of living a life of impact through the things I am most passionate about. My story is still being written and I look forward to a life filled with many more great memories that reflect my passion for youth development, resilience and capacity building for marginalized communities and climate justice. I am optimistic about my intent to engage in further research and opportunities related to climate change in the African continent and beyond.

On my return to Leeds, Harriet and I, along with Dr Sallu, were interviewed for Paul Hudson’s Weather Show on BBC Radio Leeds, which was another great experience and another first for me. Subsequently, Harriet and I, along with another Leeds researcher, Pip Roddis, who also attended COP22, got to tell school students at a workshop here at the University about what we had been doing at the COP and encouraged them to write messages to the conference, which we were able to pass on. When I spoke to the students, I asked, “Who here has big dreams?” and told them about mine. I hope it inspired some of them to know that we can achieve our goals and to be ambitious in their thinking.

Phellecitus Montana, 1 December 2016

Main image: Phellecitus Montana on the panel for the COP22 side event on loss and damage (photo: Worldwide Universities Network)