Millennium Fellows at COP26: Meet Angela Zhong, sophomore at Harvard passionate about Climate Action
It's such a pleasure to be connected today Angela! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
“Thank you. I am Angela Zhong, a Millennium Fellow, and a sophomore at the Harvard college studying Economics and Environmental policy with a language citation in Mandarin. I was born in Arizona, but I live in Houston, Texas. Living here has informed a lot of my opinions about climate change, because I can very viscerally see it happening in front of my eyes, with lots of hurricanes devastating the community, electric grid failures, flash floods and more. All of these are happening in a place that people think of as probably the energy capital of the world. And so that really gets me thinking about how fossil fuels play a role in the devastation we're facing. That's why I got involved with organizations such as MCN, the UNSSC, as well as general climate and sustainability initiatives on campus and off campus. I think climate change is one of the biggest problems our generation will have to face and so I’m committed to doing whatever I can to combat it.”
That is amazing to hear! How has the Millennium Fellowship experience been for you?
“The Millennium Fellowship has been a great resource! It was a very safe and enriching environment where I gained access to an amazing cohort of people who are passionate about the SDGs and local action. I appreciated the community aspect on campus where you can easily bounce ideas off of schoolmates, and this international community where you can learn from different perspectives and lived experiences. It’s been helpful for me as I tried to figure out; First what exactly I wanted to tackle, which ended up being the area of food systems and food waste; And second, how I can make a bigger impact with the resources I currently have.”
Thank you for sharing! You were one of a number of Millennium Fellows at COP 26. Given your passion for Climate activism, I'm sure this was an incredible moment for you?
“COP26 was sensational. It came at a perfect time as I was already in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference of Youth (COY), which is a pre-summit event for young people. (I highly recommend Millennium Fellows check that one out.) It's less prominent publicly, but has just as big of an impact - particularly in getting youth involved within the climate space to brainstorm and collaborate. I spoke there on the problems with the social cost of carbon and what we can do to fix that. Then an organisation allowed me to join its delegation of servers at COP. Being there was life changing! You get immersed in impactful climate activism 24/7 and that is all you think about. Seeing all of humanity join hands even just for a few days to think about how we save the planet is so refreshing. Maybe in some ways it might get a little exhausting because there's always more people to talk to, and there's packed schedules from 9am to 9pm - but at the same time, we never get the opportunity to think exclusively about climate change and what we can do to address it. That for me was the beauty of COP. The energy was really uplifting. I remember feeling a little bit jaded before, wondering ‘what can I really do?’, curious about what part I could play, seeing so many people doing amazing things and thinking 'how come i'm not one of them?' But COP allowed me to erase a lot of that negativity and focus on our collective duty to make a difference. I loved how they kept all stakeholders involved. There was a blue zone where a lot of the High Level negotiations happened, and a green zone which was a lot more public facing, giving communities living in and around Glasgow the opportunity to stay engaged and interact with the climate technological innovations that companies are working on. If any young climate activist has the ability to go to COP - please do! There's nothing like it, and maybe there are a number of problems with it, but I don't think that deters from the kind of impact created”
That's powerful! Sometimes conferences are criticised for creating only temporary impact- where people are connected to a cause because they're together, but then that excitement dies down after they separate, and status quo is restored. Did you feel this at COP?
"Good question, I think it's split depending on the stakeholders. With government entities, maybe there are many other problems to address, so for them COP is just a few weeks to focus on climate change, then delegate negotiations to other people as they proceed to focus on other things. But I don't think that means governments should suddenly stop doing anything or taking steps to actualize the COP agreements. Real power, I think, is in the youth stakeholders. A lot of young people invited are those who devote their lives to these causes, and typically you find they're the ones pushing a more ambitious agenda for longer lasting change. So having that interplay between these two stakeholders is really important - youth activists with their idealism and energy, governments with the tools to make things happen."
"We are inheriting the planet and will have to be stewards of it in the future, and so we should do whatever we can to make sure it's a safe and habitable place for us and the next generation"
Speaking about youth involvement, why do you think it's important that young people are included in global discussions around climate change?
"We are inheriting the planet and will have to be stewards of it in the future, and so we must do whatever it takes to make it safe and habitable, for us and the next generation. I also think it's important to have these multi-stakeholder voices when discussing climate, because it impacts different regions and different people differently. For example in Houston there's a lot of flooding and hurricanes, but for other areas, many of the problems have to do with industrial pollutants. All of these are important under the climate sustainability umbrella, and having many stakeholders from different backgrounds is the only way to make sure they're all covered. You need to have as many diverse perspectives as you can, and I liked that about COP because not only did it include the youth, but also indigenous communities, gender minorities, people with disabilities and more.
It was cool seeing many young people speaking on public stages, but I think it would be even better to see more youth in board positions within corporations, NGOs, and more. Speaking engagements are only one time events so you finish and it's over, whereas if you're part of a board and you have voting power, that makes a difference, because people need to sway your vote, so they listen to your concerns and try to resolve them. I don’t think we see that enough. Some organisations have an entirely youth counsel, which I think is a great step. But I would love it to be integrated so we see the interplay between older people who've been in the industry longer versus young people who have a lot of energy and ideas."
So powerful! There's naturally been Criticisms around COP, e.g the last minute pledge to 'phase down' rather than 'phase out' coal production. A minor change that obviously makes a big difference. What did you feel about these claims?
"I think part of my view is skewed by the looming climate anxiety I have, particularly about whether anything we do will ever be enough. Even if we do get a universally agreed, ambitious policy, its impact will not be felt until a couple of years or even decades later - just because of the way that carbon capture works.
More importantly, I don't think that COP alone is ever enough. One of my professors who is also part of the Harvard delegation talked about this in one of his blogs. Each COP passes a baton to the next COP, so we have a certain amount of things that we should get done. Therefore as long as that baseline level is met, it should be considered a success, because a lot of change is incremental, and it should be. As much as we naturally want ambitious and aggressive policies, sometimes a slow phase into that makes more sense especially so communities can have time to adapt.
For developing countries, changes like these are even harder. Events like COP should acknowledge the history of colonialism that impacts what current developing states can really do about their energy infrastructure, while still accommodating the needs of their people. Since ultimately a lot of industrial pollution was originally from more developed countries and then offloaded to developing countries to shift blame, which is really unfortunate. Change for them must therefore be slow and measured."
"Events like COP should acknowledge the history of colonialism that impacts what current developing states can really do about their energy infrastructure, while still accommodating the needs of their people."
Thank you for that great answer and for taking the time to connect! Do you have any Final Remarks to share?
"Certainly. For the graduating class - congratulations on a semester well spent. I hope everyone has had a rewarding and engaging journey through the Millennium Fellowship and in interacting with the sustainable development goals. I think two calls of action for all of us, including myself, to think about as we graduate are; how can we make big, lasting impact with the least amount of resources? And the second is something I see a lot within the climate movement - where there’s a lot of weight placed on being the ‘face of a movement'. Whenever you think of climate change, protests, activism, etc, you can think of certain individuals who you would associate with that. This process of clamouring to be one of the 'big faces', creates a lot of internal competition within the movement. Therefore it's important to interrogate why you want to do social impact work, and what your role is or should be. There's a big enough tent for all of us to fit in. Grassroots advocacy is important, protesting is important, and so is institutional change. We need people who are willing to do this work, even when it's less glamorous than being a high level activist."
Thank you Angela for sharing your story with us! Want to share yours? Get in touch here
Connect with Angela on LinkedIn.