Linguistic Privilege at COP27

During the final days of the COP27 Conference there were whispers among concerned observers that this year’s conference would become known as the COP where the world gave up on limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C. With negotiation dragging into over-time and with no clear improvements to the commitments made last year in Glasgow, would progress be delayed for yet another year? –  Another year’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and resource exploitation that the planet simply cannot afford.

Despite continued disagreements between parties, one clear commonality was the use of the English language. It was striking that although some ministers and world leaders delivered their opening speeches in one of the five UN languages, conveniently translated for listeners through headsets, the negotiations predominantly took place in English. Given that the final agreement is published in English this is understandable. However, it is hard not to believe this puts many countries at a disadvantage.

As many of the observers who sat in on the negotiations noticed, much of the disagreements were around the use of certain words – the difference between “shall” and “should,” “phase out” and “phase down,” “particularly vulnerable” and “most vulnerable”. To a native English speaker (and lawyer), these distinctions between words may be more obvious, yet to those less familiar with the language, these subtle differences in meaning could result in agreeing to conditions that do not work in their favour.

There was a clear distinction between the negotiators of wealthy non-English speaking countries, such as Saudi Arabia, who delivered strong, confident, and impactful messages in American- or British-accented English, indicating that the speaker may have been educated abroad, and those from less-wealthy states. Not only were they obliged to deliver legally-charged messages in a second language but also to interpret the subtle nuances of words that may change the entire fate of their country. For many low-income countries, finding a team of skilled negotiators who are not only knowledgeable on the implications of and policy options to tackle climate change, but also fluent in the English language, may be next to impossible.  

One cannot help but wonder if this is a new form of colonialism. Although English is still the most widely spoken language, it is one of the few that has more non-native speakers than native speakers, currently reaching 379 million native and 753 non-native speakers worldwide. The ability to speak English well in a non-native setting has also become synonymous with wealth, as it is generally only those with access to resources whose children can go to private international schools and study abroad in the UK, US, or Australia. The fact that this divide now separates wealthy (and usually high emitting) countries, from low-income and mostly low-emitting countries, may be the reason why COP agreements so often lack concrete action to protect the most vulnerable communities. 

This year there was a clear increase in participation from indigenous community members, but they too were commonly obliged to speak in English, Spanish or Portuguese – all colonial languages - in order to have their voices heard. While many have made efforts to preserve their native languages, the pressure to become educated in English risks separating them from their traditional culture and yet those who do not have these skills will rarely have a place at the table, even though it is these communities that often have the most at stake.

Although COP27 may not have brought the ground-breaking agreement that the world desperately needs, there is room for hope, as each year the hypocrisies of a system claiming to be in service to the planet are exposed a little more. Last year, COP26 was called out for the lack of visibility for indigenous women and this year Helena Gualinga, indigenous climate activist of the Kichwa Sarayaku community in Ecuador, delivered a deeply moving speech to a plenary of several thousand people. Admittedly, her English is flawless, but it was last year’s failures that resulted in this small but important win. To create the global consensus we need, future COPs would do well to focus more on language as a means of inclusion.

About the author

Katherine Jones is a postgraduate student of Climate Change and Development at SOAS and also works for a start-up company in the blue carbon industry. She has a background in political science and international relations and has spent most of her life living in the Middle East. Her attention is now shifting towards Central America and the Caribbean which is the focus of her work and her dissertation fieldwork.