Luckily, it’s late at night and dark, so no one can tell that my feet are on the upholstered seat as I rest my chin on my knees trying to stay warm. After a short delay at Boston South Station, the bus crosses the Piscataqua River. Deep breath: Maine. Three weeks after leaving Egypt, I am finally counting down the minutes until I can finally unknot my body and inhale the crisp winter air that finally engulfed the state in the two months I have been away. It’s not just my body that needs to be unknotted. My mind and spirit have been equally crimped since I left COP27 in late November.

I was already in need of a week’s nap when I left for a multi-day, low-carbon, piecemeal trek to Egypt back in October. On the final leg of my trip into the country, and in a scene more associated with Twitter clips than real life, I was assaulted by my seatmate, allegedly for being an environmental extremist. While this did little to brighten my mood, it meant that I got at least a few of those desired days in bed – albeit in a dark room with a wet washcloth and a concussion.

Concussion aside, my mood was never buoyed by the prospects of the conference. Egypt had hired the same greenwashing PR firm used by the likes of Saudi Aramco and ExxonMobil, and it touted a future with gas. I also had concerns about the influence of states like Saudi Arabia, which infuses the Egyptian economy with $10 billion annually – and itself would later present 66 proposals for tackling its growing contribution to the climate emergency – not one of which was burning less fossil fuel.

For the full two-plus weeks of COP27, I was in the Blue Zone – the U.N.-controlled area exclusively for country delegates and those accredited by UNFCCC observers. While there, I gave five formal talks, partook in news conferences and dialogues, and I co-launched an activism campaign with U.S. actor Rainn Wilson that went viral. I wasn’t alone in having unfettered access to heads of state and lead climate negotiators, however: 636 oil lobbyists also shared the privilege, 70 of whom were part of the official United Arab Emirates delegation that are shaping next year’s COP28 in Dubai.

To channel my emotions, I locked into a bubble of 20-hour days filled with meetings with scientists and policy-makers, talks, protests, and the insatiable quest for potable water and vegetables. The first week closed with the Global Climate March, held for the first time with special permission inside the Blue Zone due to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi’s crackdown on free speech.

It was only then, amid the chanting, bullhorns and signs, that I – a climate scientist – felt like an outsider. I found myself in tears by the contrast between those dead set on addressing the growing climate emergency and those dead set on keeping us addicted to oil.


As a life-long environmental activist, this tension wasn’t a new feeling, but it hit me this year differently. Earlier in June, I had spoken at the U.N. Stockholm+50. That conference marked 50 years since the United Nations had convened in Sweden’s capital city to first make the environment a focal topic. But it also marked 50 years of broken promises. Fifty years of unchecked pollution that now leads to 7 million preventable deaths annually. Fifty years of changing ecosystems that currently threaten 28% of all species with extinction. Fifty years of lies.

After leaving Stockholm, many continued to Bonn for pre-COP27 meetings (20 hours on the train for anyone counting carbon) where our leaders promised Egypt would somehow be different. We met again in New York for the U.N. General Assembly in September where these promises were reiterated. Yet, despite our international promise to halve emissions by 2030, 2022 marks another year during which record pollution has been pumped into our air.

It marks another year in which futuristic net-zero pledges have been waved around as get-out-of-jail cards. It marks another year that a U.N. climate conference has yet to even mention fossil fuels – the key driver of planetary heating – in its final text.

If, after 50 years of science and evidence, a climate conference still cannot take the climate emergency seriously, where do we go from here?

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