Everyday Inequalities at COP26: The Slow Violence of Negotiating Loss and Damage at the UNFCCC

From the Series: Negotiating the Crisis: Critical Perspectives on Climate Governance

Photo by Robert vanWaarden.

“I will not negotiate past 7 p.m. It will take us two hours to get home. I want to ensure we get enough rest, at least during the first week.”

Negotiations had only just begun when a delegate from an African country shared his concerns with a room of around 70 negotiators. Some sighed; others shifted in their seats. The frustration in the room was palpable. There is a limited amount of time for discussion at the climate change negotiations and it had been particularly difficult this year—a year later than originally planned given the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on travel. The overarching narrative outside of the room focused on the crisis nature of climate change; the urgency of the problem; the necessity for rapid action.

The issues that this group of delegates were there to discuss that day—during the more “technical” and ostensibly less “political” first week of climate change negotiations—were among the most thorny and contentious at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in November 2021. The session was listed on the program as covering the rather bureaucratic-sounding topic, “the Report of the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (for 2020 and 2021).” But what this group of individuals were talking about are the sorts of institutions and resources (if any) that should be in place to help countries at the frontline of climate change address the mounting losses and damages associated with the negative effects of a warming planet. This includes the loss of lives, homes, health and even homelands. Some of these losses and damages are sudden and spectacular. Others unfold more slowly. They are all grouped together under the rubric of “Loss and Damage” in the UNFCCC space.

We suggest that the delegate’s demand for rest—in that venue, with that audience—was a critical act against the oftentimes disempowering practices of the COP process. Rob Nixon (2011), in his work on environmentalism, uses the term “slow violence” to depict “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” We identify some of the ways in which forms of slow violence are enacted, experienced and embodied within the COP process by exploring some of the everyday inequalities that we’ve observed during our political ethnographic work at COPs over the last five years. We suggest that at the heart of the UN climate negotiations are significant structural barriers to meaningful participation that disadvantage the world’s poorest countries.

Delegation size matters for participation, however, delegations from the Global South tend to be smaller compared to delegations from the Global North. For example, an analysis made by Carbonbrief showed that the US averaged 86 delegates across all COPs whereas Jamaica averaged 6 delegates.

Consequently, delegates from poorer countries often have to cover multiple negotiating streams and topics at once. At COP26 one delegate from a small island developing state complained that many of the topics related to adaptation to climate change were set up in parallel, making it impossible for small delegations (which were even smaller at COP26 because of COVID-related restrictions and unequal global access to vaccines) to participate in or even follow all of the negotiations.

We have also observed spatial inequalities related to where bodies are in time and space across the geographies of COPs. Delegations from poorer countries attending COP summits often cannot afford accommodation close to official venues. They may face long commutes as noted by the delegate in the Loss and Damage negotiations. One participant from a small island developing state at COP26 suggested they could not stay at the negotiations into the evenings and had trouble attending meetings at short notice. On at least one occasion, some delegates were halfway back to their accommodation in Edinburgh—an hour’s train ride away—when they were called back in for further late-night negotiations. The longer commute for less well-resourced delegations is likely to result in fatigue and arguably less ability to focus on the task at hand: the negotiations. The longer the distance people are from the negotiation room, the less time they are likely to be in it. In this way, issues that are critical for poorer countries can become easier to move to the sideline.

Another unfairness lies in the increasingly frequent practice of COPs running behind schedule. When COP26 ran past its scheduled end date, Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi-British expert on climate change adaptation who has advised the Least Developed Countries group, argued that this was a delaying tactic by powerful countries. He tweeted:

Some delegates also missed crucial, final negotiating sessions because they were being tested for COVID in order to travel home as UK guidelines had suggested that delegates should leave the country as soon as practicable upon the COP’s conclusion. These issues all highlight problems of representation and legitimacy in the final and often crucial stages of discussions.

These are just three examples of the ways in which the COP process can disadvantage those for whom the stakes may be greatest. They highlight the paradox between the rhetoric of urgency and crisis which abounds at COP but where practices of slow violence play out. By paying attention to mundane practices such as workloads, commutes and the timing of key discussions, social scientists deploying an ethnographic approach can highlight how delegates grapple with issues of fairness and justice in the climate negotiations. Our research points to a double injustice: those who represent some of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change also face disproportionate structural barriers to participation in discussions that could play a role in addressing positions of vulnerability. Further research could examine to what extent these barriers shape both negotiation and on-the-ground outcomes.


We acknowledge funding from the European Research Council Starting Grant Scheme (grant 755753.O.).


Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.