When Brianna Craft arrived at her first UN climate conference in 2011, she was 24, optimistic and full of hope, believing that the negotiations were where the crisis would be solved.
More than a decade later, her feelings have changed significantly. “Yes, it is the only thing that exists where the poorest countries have a seat at the table,” she says of the annual “conferences of the parties”, or Cops, “but that does not mean it is a good thing, or a right thing, or a just thing”.
Her memoir, Everything That Rises, charts how she came to this realisation while working on the talks with some of the poorest countries. A detailed but readable account of the complex negotiations, it intersperses her time at various Cops with her experiences of growing up in a household with a violent father in the US state of Washington.
Woven through with her reflections on her faith, the book aims to be a “personal, emotional narrative”, so that the crisis – and her colleagues and friends who try to agree solutions with rich, powerful nations – are made real for people in countries such as the US and UK.
Craft has a brightness about her that is engaging and reflects the emotionally open way she writes. But her manner is not mirrored by her assessment of the crisis.
A book charting the Cops between 2011 and 2015 could have a neat narrative arc: disappointment in 2013 and 2014, leading to triumph with the Paris agreement in 2015. Though there are inklings of this in the book, this is not Craft’s message. Careful not to downplay the hard work of her colleagues – many of whom we get to know, including Pa Ousman Jarju, a leading climate negotiator and former government minister from the Gambia – or the importance of the Cop for the countries they represent, she is highly critical of the climate summits and what they produce.
The connection between climate violence and domestic violence simmers in the text, as Craft transports us between her childhood home in the small city of Kelso and her fast-paced professional life in conference centres around the globe.
“Living with the climate crisis was so like living with him,” she writes about her father. “The stress and the fear. The constant risk of death. The building tension. The pressure and despair that impacts everything, underlies everything.”
When we speak, Craft extends the parallel further; for her, the climate crisis is based in a similar injustice to domestic violence. “Those who are least responsible are bearing the brunt of the violence of climate-fuelled disasters [and] poverty; they emit the least pollution yet they are the ones who are dying.”
Craft works with a collection of nations that are, in UN-speak, called the “least developed countries” group (LDCs), 46 of the poorest countries on Earth who represent more than one billion people. In these places, she says, people are five times more likely to die in climate-enhanced disasters than in the UK or in the US.
Working on the climate crisis is now Craft’s full-time job, but she had not even heard of it until she was 19. On taking an environmental class at university because it was the easiest way to fulfil her science requirement, she learned what humans were doing to the environment. She was overcome by the scale of the crisis that she had played a role in creating but had not, until that moment, known about.
She abandoned her plans to become an architect and wound up studying for a master’s in environmental studies at Brown University in Rhode Island. It was there at a weekly discussion group on global heating – with just $120 in her bank account, she had been drawn there for the free lunch – that she stumbled across the route to her first Cop. When her professor offered students the chance to intern at the approaching UN climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, hers was the fastest hand to go up. Her role would be to support the LDCs, which that year were chaired by the Gambia. Another unpaid internship led to a paid position working at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development thinktank, where she now works.
The rush of the Cop is palpable in her retelling: adrenaline-fuelled meetings that stretch into the night, powerful world leaders all in one place, and the political will needed to reduce emissions seemingly within reach. But also present are the painful difficulties: the deadly inadequacy of the decisions made, the sexual harassment that is rife in male-dominated spaces, and her friends’ and colleagues’ desperate dedication repeatedly stymied by more powerful countries and economic interests.
In person, Craft seems even more sceptical than in her book. “Rich, powerful countries have so much more ability to shape decisions as they want … so much of that power dynamic reminded me of the house I grew up in.”
While the US can bring hundreds of people to the Cops – some of whom are employed all year round – the countries she works with cannot, especially not when the talks, and the first draft of every decision, are in English. Only after a decision is made is it translated into the six UN languages.
Those who are responsible are not actively stopping the violence: they back out of the pledges, they walk away
Craft describes her role as a byproduct of these inherent imbalances. As an African American she describes a deep connection to the Gambia, but is aware that she does not know what it’s like to be from there, particularly given that she comes from one high-emitting country and is now living in another.
“The UN climate negotiations are an inherently abusive space,” she says. Consensus-based decision-making means that what is agreed must be something that no country will object to, “so it doesn’t match the scale of the emergency we find ourselves in”. At the same time, “those who are responsible are not actively stopping the violence: they back out of the pledges, they make false promises, they walk away, they don’t deliver, and those who are being impacted are not empowered to hold them to account.” Under the Paris agreement, Craft points out that countries have only promised to make a pledge to bring down emissions.
It shows. Fourteen years ago, Lumumba Di-Aping, then chair of the G77 group of developing countries, described 2C of heating above pre-industrial levels as “a death sentence for Africa.” Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies that last year posted record profits now have delegates attending the Cops in ever growing numbers, and in 2022 they had more representatives than any one affected frontline community.
But, despite their shortcomings, Craft argues that the Cops remain important for poorer countries because it is one of the few spaces where they are included in discussions. They are not part of the G7 and G20, she says, where the “world’s highest-emitting countries make decisions”. This is one of the reasons she remains in her job.
At Cop28 this year, Craft says two key things will be on the agenda: first, assessing countries’ pledges to ensure they do more in the next round of them; and, second, agreeing the specifics of the loss and damage funding mechanism. “We are now in a place where we will irrevocably lose whole societies … which is devastating, they need support and the funding mechanism for that.”
Craft says people need to vote, to divest and to protest. “I come from a long line of civil rights protesting and civil disobedience, and I know that it is risky but it is necessary for basic protection for the African American population.”
She is committed to using all the tools at her disposal. “It’s so fundamental to us to care and look after people in our lives”, she says. When it comes to fighting for our friends and family, most of us don’t question if we have the hope or resolve to act, we just do it. We should think about the climate crisis in this way too.” That way, she says, we “will find all we need to motivate ourselves to do something about it.”
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