Country flags lined up at COP28 in Dubai

Photo: Courtesy of COP28

What the U.N. Climate Talks Can Teach Us About Local Action

By Emily Ringer, Director of Policy



13 Feb 2024

Dubai in the United Arab Emirates may be thousands of miles from polar bears hunting on the sea ice, but the conversations unfolding there last December are intimately tied to the fate of this Arctic ecosystem. The 28th gathering of the U.N. Climate Talks (COP28) brought together world leaders from nearly 200 countries as well as community and young leaders, Indigenous Peoples, scientists, industry representatives, corporations, and nonprofits. 

Polar Bears International is an accredited observer organization to the U.N. Climate body. This year we were proud to support Elise Joshi, a young leader from the United States, in her attendance of COP28. In this Q&A, Elise shares her experience and gives recommendations for how all of us can engage in meaningful climate action.  

Q: Let’s begin with a little about you. Tell me about yourself and about your relationship to the climate community? 

My name is Elise Joshi. I am 21 years old, and I am a recent college graduate in Environment Economics and Policy. I run an organization called Gen-Z for Change which is a digital organizing group that uses tools, code, creators, and coalitions to drive young people to take action online that makes an impact on the ground. 

Climate is one of our main priorities, and it is one of my personal priorities. My interest in social justice work has always come from a climate lens. Growing up in the Bay Area, I’m used to wildfire season being an expectation. I’ve always had school days off because of 300+ Air Quality Index ratings (the very unhealthy to hazardous range). I went from experiencing climate impacts to learning about the scientific, social, and economic dimensions of climate change in college. I knew my life’s work had to be around organizing for a more sustainable and just future. 

Elise Joshi at COP28 2023

Photo: Elise Joshi

Elise Joshi at COP28.

Q: As part of your work, you attended the U.N. Climate Talks this year. Why was that important to you? 

Since the beginning of learning about climate change, I’ve heard about the Paris Agreement, and I’ve watched youth activists at the U.N. Climate Talks champion the issues that matter in their communities. 2023 was my most engaged year for climate organizing on a national scale, and I wanted to be part of seeing the global coordination for how we address this challenge. I was really interested to meet people from around the world and to see how U.S. negotiators responded to another big wave of involvement and pressure from young people. 

Q: When we last spoke, you mentioned you had meetings with members of the U.S. negotiating team and senators. What were those conversations like? 

Along with a group of really inspiring young people, I was able to have good conversations with high-up U.S. negotiators, multiple times. They expressed a lot of enthusiasm for meeting with young people. At the same time, they seemed to underestimate our knowledge and spent a lot of time over-explaining policies to us. We caught them by surprise multiple times by responding with educated and data-backed knowledge. 

I got the impression that they assumed our demands were very general. In actuality, we know which sectors are hard to abate. We know fossil fuels need to stick around, for now, for steel and cement. That’s why we need to talk about how to initiate a fast phase out in the easy-to-abate sectors, to give time for the harder-to-abate industries. Young people are not just screaming the language. We have a sophisticated understanding of how this phase out works, and I’m glad we could demonstrate that to negotiators. 

Q: And, of course, there are far more people than government representatives and negotiators at these talks. Did you meet any people or groups who were particularly inspiring? 

I went into COP knowing that I have such a small perspective and knowing that everyone there would have rich knowledge built on their own experience. So I went in as a sponge, and I met passionate people from all over the world with all types of knowledge—from inspiring youth activists from the Philippines and Uganda to informative nuclear engineers to scientists and climate justice organizers. 

There is value in having spaces for the global community to meet, talk to each other, collaborate, figure out what our needs are. As someone from the global north, this exchange is especially important because it is our responsibility to pressure our countries to remain accountable for funding a just renewable energy transition for the global south. There is power and importance in a global conversation, and I was grateful to meet people from around the world at COP and learn about their priorities. 

Elise Joshi at COP28

Photo: Elise Joshi

Elise Joshi speaks with Alex Padilla, U.S. Senator from California, at COP28.

Q: How would you describe the mood amongst observers to COP28 when the negotiations ended? Were there any wins? Where did things fall short?

The negotiations run for two weeks but everything boils down to the last three days—the text changes a lot during this time. The final agreement called for a tripling of new investments in renewable energy and the “transitioning away” from fossil fuels. On the one hand, this was the first time a COP agreement explicitly mentioned a move away from fossil fuels. On the other hand, many observers in my circles felt a lot of disappointment that the agreement fell short of calling for a full “phase out” of fossil fuels—which is what the science tells us is really necessary. 

Where I might differ from the people who were really disappointed at the end of COP is that I am less disappointed that the language is not perfect, and I am more disappointed that these written commitments do not necessarily mean we are going to meet these crucial goals. What countries have done, and what they will do, will not ultimately be determined by COP. There’s no global enforcement body to make sure they hold to their commitments. That enforcement, perhaps fortunately for us, lies closer to home. 

Q: Now that you are home and have had a few weeks to reflect on the experience, what are your key takeaways? How should we be thinking about this moment for climate action? 

The final decision at the U.N. Climate Talks is a good temperature check to see where your country is really willing to stand when it comes to international coordination, but it is just that … a temp check. We need to focus very hard on ensuring our leaders' actions match their words and spend less energy, time, and money making sure their words are perfect. 

There is a lot of good that can come out of COP. I celebrate the commitments many countries made—tripling renewable energy capacity, doubling the annual average rate of energy efficiency, emphasizing the need to reduce methane emissions. I really hope countries meet these commitments. 

But above all, it’s comforting to know that I can genuinely tell people that you do not need to go to the U.N. to make a difference. You really don’t. That’s not a lie, I saw it for myself. You can make the most impact by getting involved in your regional politics and policy. That’s where you’ll feel the impact being made because you’re advocating for your community. I find a lot of hope from that. 

When I got back from COP, I texted my friends who are involved in organizing in the East Bay and got involved in a local campaign for 2024. I want to feel more grounded in the work, and I came out of COP knowing that this is, truly, the most effective way to make a difference. 

Youth Leaders at COP28

Photo: Elise Joshi

Youth Leaders at COP28.

Q: People all over the world are eager to influence climate policy and get involved in climate solutions. As a young U.S. leader, what do you recommend? How would you like to see people engage with this important work? 

I made a starter kit document just for this! I would recommend that you go on a walk around your community. Use every sense that you have to notice the environment around you. Where does pollution feel worse? What are the demographics of those areas? What trees are you seeing, and do they support the local ecosystems? What natural disasters are in your area and is your community prepared for them? 

Thinking about everything you experience around you, in the most immediate way, and then asking that one-level deeper question of “why is it that way?” is a very good first step. Somewhere in there, you’re going to get frustrated. Lean into it. Figure out who is working on that issue and how you can get involved. Figure out who is making decisions about those issues and avenues for advocating for change. What happens in the real world is not going to be determined by a piece of paper signed at the U.N. Climate Talks. What happens in the real world will be determined by people—like you and me—in their home countries fighting like heck for more just and sustainable communities.