We’re running out of time.
That’s the message currently on full display at Highland Council headquarters.
But it wasn’t elected officials shouting the message on Tuesday morning, it was coming from young people. Kids as young as six were making their voices heard through art, writing and conversations with each other.
Highland Council played host to a Mock COP27, organised by The Open University in Scotland, in partnership with the Highland One World Global Education Centre, and Developing the Young Workforce.
Organisers said the event gives students a chance to develop critical skills in negotiation, empathy and debate.
But beyond the classroom benefits, the Mock COP gave young people what they’re most eager for: a voice in how their future is going to play out.
As Inverness Royal Academy student Adnan Hussain said, it’s time for young people to get serious.
“We live in a world of instant gratification. We’re all consumers, but we don’t realise that our consumption is damaging the environment.
“We need to be more mindful about how we treat the world.”
Mock COP27: Know how the other side thinks
Students from 11 schools across the north – from Ardnamurchan to Gairloch to Speyside – crowded into the Highland Council chambers to debate a new global climate policy.
Teams of five or six students from each school were each assigned a specific country or organisation to represent. There were delegations from China, the UK and Ethiopia; representatives of corporations such as Shell and BP; and advocates for small island nations, refugees and indigenous peoples.
But the delegates weren’t the only ones with a role to play. There was also a team of student reporters roaming the chamber, keeping tabs on the conversation and keeping the narrative focused on the climate crisis.
Students needed to hold two minds throughout the day. One for their personal values, and one for the organisation they represented. For some like Inverness Royal Academy’s Mark Fernando, this was a tough ask.
“I only did it because I heard my school was playing China. I thought it was going to be really interesting to see how I could argue from a standpoint that I flat-out disagree with.
“It’s going to be very hard. I have to actively fight against myself and say things like, ‘Yes, I do want more coal production!’”
His classmate Ava McIlwraith agreed.
“Getting into a different mindset was a little more difficult than I thought it would be,” she said.
“But we finally got into a position where we could tell ourselves that this is what they would do, but not what we would do.”
‘Scary’ to think of the future
Catriona Willis, coordinator for Highland One World Global Education Centre, said this discomfort was intentional.
“At the Mock COP27 they’re developing negotiation skills, but they’re also developing empathy.
“They’ve all got an agenda. By negotiating, they have an opportunity to listen to others from another point of view and come to a shared understanding. That’s a really important thing for young people to develop.”
Across the aisle from Mark and Ava, students from Culloden Academy were preparing notes. But as representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, they had a different goal than the Chinese delegation.
Lachlan Jack said he and his classmates were responsible for convincing big companies and big countries to mitigate the impact of the climate crisis on refugee communities.
His classmate Anna Beattie said that preparing for Mock COP27 gave her a new perspective on the climate crisis.
“It’s important to us, and it’s a scary idea because the experts’ best-case scenario keeps getting worse and worse and worse.”
Loch Ness, not Loch Mess
While the high schoolers debated and negotiated their way towards a hopeful resolution, an even younger generation was giving voice to their own concerns in the halls.
Every visitor to the council chambers was greeted by the Art for Action exhibit. The series of installations highlighted the creative talents from 12 primary schools across the north.
Pupils at Lochardil created a tribute to Loch Ness that was also a warning. On one side was an idyllic vision of Nessie in bright blue waters. But on the other, Loch Mess loomed, decorated with real trash that the pupils themselves took out of the river.
Mock COP27: Leading the next generation
Gemma Burnside, partnership manager at the Open University and Mock COP27’s lead organiser, said that she has seen young people spurred into action by climate talks.
Last year, she arranged a successful virtual Mock COP event. But this year, the event expanded and students and teachers flocked to the idea.
“They feel like they can actually do something. When you listen to young people, they want to follow through. They want real action and they want to see a change and make a change.”
— OU in Scotland (@OUScotland) November 15, 2022
And she said that taking on the role of different groups helps them reconsider the real-life climate debates.
“It helps them understand the imbalances in these conversations as well. Who holds the power and has the biggest voice? Who writes the resolutions and actually incorporates the change?”
Councillor Karl Rosie, chair of Highland Council’s new climate change committee, called it an honour to host the event.
“Events like this that involve young people are so important. It’s critical for young people to have their voices be heard, not just for climate change but for democracy in general.
“The opportunities are so widespread across the Highlands, and I find it encouraging to see so much activity going on at the ground level. Greener policies don’t work if they aren’t taken up in the street.”