COP 26 and Why Multilateralism is so Important

I grew up in California with wildfires being a very real fear. My sisters and I would sleep with our shoes on and our packed bags at the ready when fire season came around each year. When I moved to England and saw worsening flash floods I understood that climate change was a global problem, so when I started hearing about international cooperation on solutions, I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I thought it was a given.

I was 12 years old when COP21[1] took place, and I recall it shaking my small world in rural Southeast England. For the first time, I remember discussing in class about what our government was doing to face the climate crisis. I wrote my first letter to my MP. It was also the year I went to my first climate protest.

In honour of the upcoming COP26 meeting in November, I reflected on this moment when my small world became a whole lot bigger. At the time, while I did not know a single term of the Paris Agreement, I knew that it was important, and that the climate crisis seemed to be a priority for the government and countries all over the globe.


Often, these COPs are viewed as the culmination of environmental action. However, for most people, myself included, although these conferences may seem important, they did not appear to be something I could influence. So, I decided to find out why there is always so much excitement around COP, and why multilateralism, the epitome of international cooperation, is so important.


When it comes to the climate, multilateralism is vital. No single country can face this obstacle alone and succeed. As the MP David Lammy said, ‘Multilateralism is back, and climate is the multilateral challenge of the moment’.[2]It stands to reason that global governance is necessary when faced with a problem that affects the whole world. The targets that are set, and being held accountable to them, affects people like me and you. Although these international frameworks can seem incomprehensible, distant, or irrelevant to the majority of the population, they have great local impact on individuals.

Climate change and its impacts know no borders. To deal with this, we must globally share knowledge and be transparent with data, transcending politics. As the world - for individuals, for markets, for industries - becomes increasingly globalised, the tragedy of the commons worsens.[3] In a society with no international cooperation, no country would want to bear responsibility for climate change because, by dealing with it, all countries benefit, yet only one pays. We can see this dilemma being played out everywhere: drilling in Antarctica, abusing the oceans and atmosphere, and the race to space domination. Ownership can often equate to protection, or at least preservation as a result of self-interest. Areas that are beyond ownership are at risk, and play a major role in the climate crisis. So, if no individual country is willing to take the fall for these commons, many countries must protect them in collaboration. Here, the power of multilateralism is unveiled.

Multilateralism in climate action is finally important because of colonisation and international dynamics that are to blame for climate injustices. Some of the countries most affected by global warming - extreme heat, flooding, droughts - are also the ones that were subjected to brutal British imperialism, such as India and Kenya,[4] and were forced into a destructive form of capitalism. To solve the climate crisis, international cooperation must be paired with equity. Multilateralism can and should be used as a tool to decolonise, compensate and repair.


So far, this blog has been a strong advocate for multilateralism. However, international cooperation thus far has been far from perfect. International cooperation to solve climate change relies on big emitters to engage, as seen by the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, which undermined multilateralism. Power imbalances between countries may result in some Parties having more of a say than others, or able to act for their own self-interest rather than the common good. Also, the structure of multilateral agreements can be very slow. Imagine every single country in the world trying to reach a consensus democratically, as it is at COP. Not only is it a slow decision process, but multilateralism is such that there needs to be a balance between ambition and participation. If the terms are too harsh, countries do not join, reducing the effectiveness of the agreement, however, if the terms are not sufficiently ambitious, the solution is less strong.


When I first began to think about multilateralism, I thought its effects would be all good or all bad in our fight against climate change, but it’s more complicated than that. Global climate cooperation consists of international and domestic politics, power imbalances, transboundary environmental issues, and every single person on the planet, whether they realise it or not. To view the agreements as only for a certain, elite group of people obscures the fact that they affect all of us and the environment every day. We, and our planet, are all affected by the complicated multilateral agreements that knit our world together: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the energy we use are all balanced on multilateralism.


[1] The Conference Of the Parties (COP) is the highest decision making body in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate (UNFCCC). [2] David Lammy, Foreign Policy is Climate Policy: New Modes of Multilateralism & the Call for a More Equitable and Just World (December 2020), https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/foreign-policy-climate-policy-new-modes-multilateralism-call-more-equitable-and-just-world [3] The tragedy of the commons is when individuals (i.e. an individual county) act according to their self-interest rather than the common good whilst sharing resources or in a shared space. [4] Iberdrola, Countries Most Affected by Climate Change, (2021), https://www.iberdrola.com/environment/top-countries-most-affected-by-climate-change

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Teach the Future is a youth-led campaign to urgently repurpose the entire education system around the climate emergency and ecological crisis.
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