Climate change is an unprecedented challenge and a public health emergency. It is harming our health – including our lung health – now. To learn more about the international climate conversation and what individuals can do to be a part of the climate solutions needed, we spoke with American Lung Association Climate Activist Advisor and Coordinator of Food Policy at Zero Hour, Lana Weidgenant, who shared some of her reflections on her experience attending the 2021 United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference, more commonly referred to as COP26, held in Glasgow late last year.

For nearly three decades the UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits – called COPs – which stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’. Last year was the 26th annual summit – giving it the name COP26, and leaders from around the world came together with the goal of updating their country’s action plans to try to keep the warming of our climate to a liveable level. The outcome of COP26 is complicated. Many countries pledged to update their climate action plans to be even more bold, but more action is needed to prevent the worst climate impacts.

Q: What are some of the key takeaways you have from COP26?

“This process (of international climate negotiations) wasn’t built to move quickly in the way we need it to, but it is still important. That said, it isn’t the ‘end all-be all,’ we need to build other mechanisms outside of this process which are led by the people they should be. There is so much power in youth movements and frontline movements. There were more young people at this COP than ever before. They are increasingly present at the COP and they bring hope and say what needs to be said.”

Q: Why is it so important that we take immediate action on topics like phasing out fossils fuels and limiting air pollution?

“Because fossil fuels and air pollution are already impacting people today, and they will impact the younger generations even more. The more we delay, the worse it gets, and the more we deny environmental justice, the worse it gets. Fossil fuel pollution is contributing to the climate crisis and air pollution, and this is getting worse every single year. We need to minimize these impacts and work on mitigation. Limiting fossil fuels should be the first step.”

Q: Do you view environmental justice as being a key component of the discussions being had? What about the health impacts of climate change?

“It needs to be. Environmental justice is becoming more of a key component of these international conversations, for example there was a larger focus in COP26 on indigenous communities are being impacted. But it isn’t enough. Environmental justice needs to be a part of the discussions and outcomes. Similarly, I wouldn’t say the health impacts of climate change – and particularly the health disparities faced by underserved communities – were explicitly prioritized as part of the overall discussion. There were side events put on by civil society that focused on health, but health needs to be a much bigger part of the conversation.”

Q: What inspires you to continue your activism after attending the conference? What was the most impactful thing you heard?

“The most inspiring things I heard were outside of the main conference venue actually – I was engaging with ‘Fridays for the Future’ activists all around the world, and there are so many amazing young activists who were standing up for the world that we need and the action we need to happen. Young people were strongly present at COP26 – even if they weren’t in the negotiation rooms due to limited tickets, they showed up. They made themselves seen and heard around the venue to ensure they got their messages out. Knowing that each of these young activists are going back to their own countries and continuing this work gives me the most hope.”

Q: What are some simple steps people can take to address climate change?

“Individually – I have several recommendations.

  • The first is to take more environmentally friendly transportation, this is one of the most impactful steps. Instead of taking an airplane or driving, take the train or bus or walk, if possible. Of course, everyone has different circumstances, so this isn’t always feasible.
  • Another thing you can do is try to avoid supporting ‘fast fashion.’ Choose second-hand clothing, try thrifting or fixing what you already have, instead of buying new to follow every clothing trend.
  • You can also eat more climate-friendly food. Try buying local and seasonal food and eating less meat – which has a bigger water and energy footprint. Plant-based foods are more eco-friendly.”

“On a more systemic level, you can get more involved in advocacy - on a local, national, or even international level. If you are a young person and you would like to get involved in future COPs, you can visit Youngo (Children and Youth constituency to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). If you’re in the U.S., look up your local representatives and let them know that climate change is important to you and ask for them to support bold action immediately. For example, you can take a moment to sign the American Lung Association’s petition calling on U.S. leaders to act on climate change here. You can also use the American Lung Association’s Healthy Air Activist Toolkit to help organize others to get more involved in advocacy actions.”

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