Since arriving back in the US on Thursday, I’ve now had a couple days to process the COP28 decision and my experience there. I’ve been trying to hold space for contradictory ideas about the Conference simultaneously in my mind.

Monitoring the media and engaging in my conversations with peers, the negotiated outcome of this COP starts to look like a Rorschach test, where the perception of success or failure says as much about a person as the text itself can. My conversations with CVF fellows all identified the operationalization of the L&D fund as a key indicator of success of this agreement. Others mentioned the GGA text, with some asserting that the final text was disappointingly weak on financing and equity (with too little emphasis on “common but differentiated responsibilities”), yet others celebrated the successful adoption after so many years of being sidelined. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel language dominated in more mainstream media and amongst my peers, again with quite bifurcated views on that outcome as either mealy-mouthed, weak or as a historic reckoning and “beginning of the end” of fossil fuels.

I have yet to fully internalize my personal emotions about the negotiated outcome, but my experience at COP was also a vivid reminder that while the negotiated outcome may draw most of our attention, there are two additional aspects through which we ought to judge the success of each COP. The annual act of multilateralism and the convening of the global network of people who descend on each COP are, in my opinion, important to celebrate as wins, despite the flaws of any negotiated text.

As I walked around COP, I found myself reflecting on how the diversity of the world represented at the conference, concentrated in one geographic space, exposes deep tensions between competing political systems (democracies, autocracies), incompatible ontologies (Do you nature as something we have dominion over, something we must be stewards of, or something we are in reciprocal relationship with?), and different economic realities and visions for the future. Obviously, there are huge disparities in power and in who is truly represented in the diplomatic negotiations:

  • Who’s allowed to sit at the table as parties, and who gets relegated to guerilla lobbying in the halls.
  • Which countries have multiple negotiators tracking every issue and which have one person tracking multiple workstreams.
  • Who can pay for a flight to Dubai (or pay for dozens of lobbyists to go) and who is stuck in their home country.

And yet despite all that, the Conference is annual attempt to bring the representatives of nearly all of world’s peoples together to address a common problem. This means countries engaged in hot and conflict, in great power competition, who otherwise might deny each other diplomatic recognition, and those offering a fiery rebuke of their peer nations’ ideologies all sit in the same space, follow common bureaucratic procedures, and agree to do something. Even when that something is weak, the act of coming together in negotiation is worth celebrating, preserving, protecting. Peace and cooperation, no matter how imperfect, are precious and fragile commodities necessary for global change.

COP also creates this annual locus of attention and activity that brings tens of thousands of people together from across the world and from across so many different approaches to the act of global transformation in response to climate change. The volume and quality of relationships formed, knowledge transferred, and empathy fostered (between activists, youth, businesses, government actors, nonprofits, IO workers, and so many others) within two weeks is truly remarkable, and I feel privileged and grateful to have made the connections I did this prior week and have been folded into networks of social and economic transformation that I didn’t even know existed before coming to COP. It will be through these connections that “niche innovations” proliferate across geographies and expand out of their niches to drive systems change.

So was this COP outcome a success? I don’t know.

I think the answer hinges upon 1) our ability to preserve the process of multilateralism year after year, 2) the preservation and diversification of our networks of connections made at each COP, and 3) the ability to synthesize all of that together to interpret whatever diplomatic outcome may arise with the highest urgency and greatest ambition. After all, language—even flowery, complex, diplomatic—is still just a tool to facilitate cooperative action. In that context, I see the words of the text as a whisper in the global conversation. But in every whisper lies the seeds of a roar. Each whisper is an idea made real, with the hope of being echoed and amplified, a nascent opportunity to reinforce or reshape human action. So the success or failure of the text depends on how we individually and collectively use it in our countries and our communities.

– Dylan Moore