A young woman walking outside COP28 past a row of trees and international flags

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The importance of empathy for climate action

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Joud Almanie brings a distinctive perspective to discussion of the climate crisis. An understanding and empathy for different nation’s stances may be what the urgent need for action demands.

Joud is from Saudi Arabia and was educated in the US and UK. She’s a passionate climate justice advocate who believes developed countries have an obligation to finance a fossil fuel free future. Having attended COP28 as one of the University’s student observers, she found her understanding of both Eastern and Western viewpoints, and developed and developing nations’ interests, significantly impacted on her experience.

Photo of a young woman walking outside at COP28 past a row of trees and flagpoles.
Joud Almanie at COP 28.

“I’m one of those people whose current quality of life would not be the same if it weren’t for fossil fuels,” says Joud. “I would not have received education or have been a student at Edinburgh or have received free healthcare, in the way that I have as a Saudi citizen, if it weren’t for fossil fuels.

“That is tough to admit as a Sustainable Development student, whose country is particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis, and as someone wanting to fight for the rest of her life for climate justice…”

Reflecting on COP28, the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Dubai in December 2023, Joud is honest and self-aware about any privilege in her upbringing and conscious of the responsibility that comes with it.

“I’ve lived abroad most of my life, but I would go home every summer to Saudi, so I know a part of the world that most of my peers in the West don’t understand quite as well,” Joud says.

“I also understand the West in a way that most Saudis don’t understand so well. I’m able to merge both of those worlds, and that’s why I’ve learned to think very critically and not just point fingers. That’s one of the things COP did – it reminded me why this is what I need to be doing in my day-to-day life. I need to bring my own, fresh perspective to the climate crisis conversation because to have an understanding of both sides of the world is a perspective, I think, not many people have.”

Formative experiences

Aged just 19, the second-year MA Sustainable Development student, who is following a pathway in politics and international relations, recalls several formative experiences that shaped and focused her current convictions.

She was at elementary school in Tunisia during the Arab Spring in 2010, an experience she credits for her later interest in politics, history, and empire; and a desire to understand why certain groups suffer more than others and how mediation and reparation might redress past injustice.

Then, in 2017, she was at school in Texas when Hurricane Harvey made landfall causing catastrophic flooding and more than 100 deaths.

“I think that’s when I first started understanding the potential impact when thinking of the climate crisis,” says Joud.

“While people weren’t tying the hurricane to the climate crisis, I remember wondering if it was related somehow. The more I looked into it, seeing how many people in my community were affected, with houses flooded and unable to go to school for weeks, I began to appreciate this was in a developed part of the world where we were able to adapt and recover. I imagined what would be happening in developing countries who don’t have the resources to come back from that sort of thing.”

Nuance

There was high demand from students keen to represent the University at COP28. Joud’s application was successful and she joined a diverse, 12-strong delegation of climate scientists and experts, that included both academics and student representatives.

Photo of a young woman with long dark hair posing in front of a backdrop of the United Nations and COP28 branding.
Joud Almanie representing the University at COP28.

“The main word I would use to describe COP28 is nuance,” Joud explains.

“Going into the conference, I was not very optimistic. I had been following people whose opinions aligned with mine, who had gone to COP previously and said they felt deflated when they saw the outcome. I was very wary of greenwashing and all the marketing messaging I expected to be happening.

“Having been able to speak to some of the delegates representing their nations felt a lot different than just pointing fingers at home, watching the news, hearing other climate activists talk about this country or that country not doing enough. When you have this person-to-person connection and you’re able to speak to the delegates, you realise they’re real people with their own reasons for what they do.”

Joud believes it’s time nations listen to each other and, rather than calling out as blocking any reluctance to commit, really understand the concerns that drive their position – such as geopolitical vulnerability, a reduction of their global power, simply securing the best life for their citizens, or compensating for the lingering effects of colonial rule and imbalance between nations’ historical contribution to climate change.

Appreciating these different motivations and perspectives has enabled Joud to be more empathetic: “I realised the world is so much more nuanced than I had considered. I noticed just how important the humanities, empathy, and an understanding of people are in this conversation.

“My professors and tutors emphasise critical thinking as arguably one of the most important skills to acquire in life and I found myself applying this as I noted differences in perspectives, and the language used, between developing economies by UN standards versus the US, EU, and other developed nations. It showcased the geopolitical divides that complicate and delay climate action. It was just eye opening – you seriously need to think critically about everything; nothing is black and white.”

Fortunately, Joud says, there are signs of change and understanding that she hadn’t seen before: “A Colombian delegate expressed empathy for Saudi Arabia, noting that we often call Saudi out for block tactics and asking what the response from the world was to the fact that they need to transition an entire economy that is currently dependent on fossil fuels.”

Outcome

The theme of nuance is echoed in Joud’s assessment of COP28 overall – she sees good and bad in the outcome, progress, and stagnation: “The words fossil fuels have made it into a COP outcome for the first time and future COPs will only force deviation from dirty energy. Real change is finally taking place, but there are still many loopholes on unproven technologies like carbon capture so those who are invested in fossil fuels, whatever their reasons may be, will try to use that as reasoning for their continued use of fossil fuels and to justify it.

“While the text calls for transition, it is not funded or fair and there isn’t enough finance to aid developing countries with decarbonisation. Greater expectations should be placed on rich fossil fuels producers to phase out first. 

“The results of this meeting would have been unheard of two years ago, so major progress has been made, and even oil and gas producers aren’t blind to the fact that a fossil fuel world is the direction we’re heading in. However, the text is quite weak on adaptation and more financial support is needed to help those most vulnerable to climate breakdown.

“Wealthier nations, who essentially created the crisis, are refusing to pay their climate debt. This explains the lack of trust in the process from the developing world. Finance is key and a fossil fuel phase out means wealthy countries need to find creative ways to fund it.”

Photo of a young woman with dark hair sitting at a laptop and watching a man speaking on screen.
Joud Almanie participating at COP28.

Youth and minority voices

One reason for optimism Joud found at COP28 was the inclusion of youth and minority voices that haven’t always been prominent in the debate: “I can wholeheartedly say that nothing has impacted me as profoundly as listening to youth climate activists and indigenous peoples share their views, and I was glad to see them more represented than they have ever been at a COP.

“I was at a youth climate forum about climate impacts on health and human security where I got to hear a lot of the youth speak. One activist said that whatever we do, we just need to do it well. I think that’s a big thing for people working in sustainability. They feel like they’ve got the whole world on their shoulders and so many aspects to look into and fix. That was one of my stresses. I felt I had to know the science; I had to understand the policy; I had to understand the people. But, you can pick one thing and just focus on it and do your best. We all have a role towards making this happen. Whatever it is that you’re doing or working on, just focus on that and do it well.”

Emotions

Summing up her experience overall, Joud describes mixed emotions: “I’m terrified and overwhelmed, yet hopeful.

“I was humbled to be surrounded by leading scientists and organizations that work every day to realise our common goal, irrespective of exclusive negotiations or any shortcomings in high level meetings.

“It’s a huge privilege for us to speak on this crisis and sit in rooms and negotiate, as climate change goes on and those in the global south get hit by its consequences and fight for their lives before those in the global north experience its effects to as large an extent. We are not heroes for our work or passionate about the subject of sustainability. This is not a passion – it’s people’s lives at stake and urgency is the only way to go about it.

“My future and upcoming generations’ futures depend on the action taken today.”

Image credits: Joud Almanie