Amalie Wilkinson, Munk One alumnus, speaks to a colleague at COP28 in December, 2023. Amalie is pictured wearing an official COP28 lanyard.
Climate change, energy & environment, Global governance, Munk One

Queering COP28? Critical Reflections from a Munk One Alum

Last December, Munk One alum Amalie Wilkinson attended COP28, the largest climate conference in the world. While COPs are known as the meeting point for global environmental governance, Amalie returned with a more critical outlook. Between speaking at events and protesting in restricted rally areas, Amalie witnessed the sheer number of oil delegates in attendance and the persistent lack of diverse perspectives in decision making. 

With many world leaders treating this as an annual networking event, Amalie fought to keep urgency on the table.

Attending COP28 as a Queer Youth Delegate

Amalie’s work in the environmental movement is expansive. They have been a vocal activist around the university’s campus, as a key organiser in last year’s climate strike and a researcher for Climate Justice UofT. In the past three years, they have been involved in international organising with the global campaign Stop Ecocide, where they have led the global youth network, Youth For Ecocide Law, and founded the Toronto-based branch of the Stop Ecocide campaign. It’s no surprise that they were chosen to be one of the youth delegates at COP28 this past December.

Youth delegates attend these climate conferences to have their issues heard and to put pressure on the global decision-makers in attendance. In Amalie’s words, youth delegates are often the ones who “let leaders know that this movement is happening, and that it’s time to get on board.”

However, Amalie saw their presence at COP28 as part of a greater push for the inclusion of queer and gender diverse perspectives in United Nations conferences. COP28 was held in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where homosexuality and gender-nonconformance is currently criminalised. Though COP grounds are designated as safe spaces at these times, it can still be dangerous for queer and trans people to attend. As someone who can pass as gender conforming, Amalie’s presence was significant in making LGTBQ+ perspectives heard. 

In Amalie’s eyes, diverse and radically new perspectives are essential in discussions at these climate conferences, as solutions that exist outside the current system and outside of the United Nations itself are directly needed. 

Munk One and Environmental Organizing

Amalie started their journey into the environmental movement in first year, when they were part of the Munk One program, exploring their passion for human rights in social issues. 

Amalie joined a research team with Munk One Professor Donald Kingsbury, whose research is focused in lithium extraction as a source of environmental work. Through this research, Amalie was introduced to the complexity of environmental issues, and the various intersections between social and environmental justice. With environmental solutions never being black and white, it became clear that centering the voices of communities most impacted was essential. This has become a motivating force in Amalie’s work with the climate movement, where it is vital that impacted communities are centred in decision-making.

Amalie also worked as a teaching assistant for another Munk One professor, Teresa Kramarz, and spent a summer doing research with a broader lithium research team. Going forward, Amalie has been accepted into a number of law schools to study environmental law. Based on these experiences, Amalie is seeking to explore how to make radical and effective change through legal processes in Canada.

For Munk Ones looking to get involved in environmental and social justice work, Amalie explained that it’s a very individual process: “You have to find a solution and a group you really believe in.” But ultimately, the important thing is to start. “I would suggest: jump.” 

Beyond just being involved, Amalie has perfected the art in doing good environmental work. They are known as a self-starter and a motivator, as a driven researcher and supportive team member. But Amalie emphasised that this all starts with asking questions.

“If you don’t understand disparity or justice issues, acknowledge that you don’t understand, and don’t be embarrassed about that. You will learn so much more from asking rather than pretending you already know.”   

Climate Justice Organizing at COP28

At the Conference of Youth prior to COP28, Amalie ran an event with other organisers from Stop Ecocide, and networked more widely with other activists to spread the word about ecocide law. At COP28 itself, Amalie spoke at a number of different panels, while also aiding in a supportive role for members of the Stop Ecocide campaign. In between events, Amalie would meet up with allies individually, expanding their network and discussing what collaborations could be reached after COP28 concluded.

Outside their official capacity as a Stop Ecocide delegate, Amalie attended a number of rallies around the Expo 2020 conference venue. One rally in particular, organised on behalf of members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, sought to bring light to the hypocrisy of COP28. Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation communities have been affected by multiple spills in the Canadian tar sands, and a recent spill had gone unreported by nearby oil companies, leading to extensive and severe impacts on the surrounding community. 

Activists brought attention to this pattern of climate injustice, highlighting the inevitable destruction of trust such events cause. Amalie explained that the oil industry’s impact on the environment goes beyond climate change, as this reckless behaviour is often disregarded and Indigenous rights are repeatedly disrespected. Following the numerous rallies held, the most visible action-sanctioned space was closed for maintenance, leaving Amalie to conclude that “perhaps it had been a bit too visible.”

Activists and Oil Delegates: “Anger on the Ground”

One of the most shocking events to come out of COP28 was a quote from the President of the conference, Sultan Al Jaber, wherein he stated there is “no science” to show that phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to keep warming below 1.5C. 

“After that quote came out, you could feel this deep sense of anger on the ground,” Amalie explained. “It was brought up in events; we rallied; I called it out in my speeches. But at the end of the day, it didn’t feel like that anger was getting through.” 

Perhaps a factor blocking activist influence was the sheer number of oil and gas executives permitted to attend COP28. With a record 2,456 lobbyists in attendance, representatives of the oil and gas industry outnumbered almost every other delegation at the conference. Amalie noted that this imbalance was clear on the ground, and especially when considering the establishment of multiple oil and gas pavilions at COP28, such as the pavilion of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). 

“A climate conference should not be a spotlight for these industries,” Amalie said. “No countries are on track to meet their 2025 goals, and it feels like these conferences are just a huge form of greenwashing… It could be described as a hub for inaction.”

Moving Forward: Climate Action and Concrete Change

When asked what COP28 means for moving forward in the environmental movement, Amalie laughed. “I’m trying to figure that out.”

“I do have faith in people, and in initiatives, and action from the ground up. Everyone has a place in this movement,” they explained.

Amalie emphasised that while action can come from any realm of the environmental movement, activists need to target the areas where they have power to create change. “My contribution, specifically, will be on the ground,” they explained. “I have a renewed perspective on pushing the Canadian government to make concrete changes. We can’t expect other countries to do anything if the Global North isn’t committed to clear and tangible action.”

Amalie will continue fighting for climate justice within Canada, bringing forward their experiences in environmental activism, queer rights organising, and academia to push for better climate policy and practice. As they stated, environmental work needs to be approached from a multitude of spaces. Find a group and a cause you believe in, and start working towards the solution.