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Received 28 Feb 2023, Accepted 16 Sep 2023, Published online: 23 Oct 2023
Research Article

A song in a cold place: the role of emotions in motivating youth activism and advancing justice at the COP

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The emotions of youth climate justice activists are often demeaned or misrepresented both by popular media and by COP organisers. The COP itself, as a cold, bureaucratic, and repressive space that tokenises frontline voices to create an optics of care, is a source of frustration and disappointment for many youth activists. Despite this misrepresentation and repression, youth activists use their emotions to strengthen their movements and actions at the COP. Drawing on collaborative event ethnography spanning a decade, this paper analyses how Global South youth climate justice activists strategically navigate and channel emotion through acts of emotional solidarity, emotional concealment, and emotional display. We assess how youth activists’ complex emotional experiences exist in generative tension within individuals and within the youth climate justice movement. Our findings suggest that their emotional strategies unlock the capacity for exercising power while cultivating relationships necessary for climate justice.


We thank John Foran, Tom Hobday, Emily Williams, Natasha Weidner, and our UCSB research team in Warsaw for their help in collecting interviews. We thank the undergraduate research assistants at UCSB who helped edit transcripts.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).


1 ‘We’ refers to one or more of the authors and the other youth activists with whom authors attended various COPs.

2 This vignette is a synthesis of our combined experiences at several COPs.

3 Middle-aged white man Richard Madeley used these words to describe youth activist Miranda Whelan’s work with Just Stop Oil on Good Morning Britain in April 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6T-iwy0bOU

4 The designation of ‘youth’ at the UN climate talks is broadly conceived and includes young adults under the age of thirty-five.

5 Despite this, there is relatively little literature about youth at COP. For example, youth are conspicuously absent from the 2021 book on COP coalitions: Coalitions in The Climate Change Negotiations (Betzold et al., Citation2021).

6 Access to being lauded as a hero is subjective and unevenly distributed according to privilege, and was relatively uncommon in Mayes and Hartup’s research analysis.

7 Friction across individuals within the youth climate justice movement, however, is not necessarily generative; it can lead to splintering along axes of differences. We do not have the data to sufficiently explore this critical topic and suggest it as a generative area of future research.

8 COP27 in Egypt was seen as particularly repressive (see Klein, Citation2022), although repression was present at all COPs we observed.

9 We join Nixon (Citation2013) in admiration of Saño’s ‘readiness – his desperate readiness – to crash right through the wall of bureaucratic language [… putting] his whole body, his whole being, behind his words’. Saño’s embodiment of grief as a call for urgent action contrasts with what Nixon calls the ‘slow violence’ of the climate crisis.

10 All actions and protest materials at COP must be pre-approved by the UNFCCC Secretariat. Participants in unsanctioned actions risk being ‘debadged’, losing their ability to enter COP.

11 The cacerolazo protest tradition has been used by activists throughout Latin America and other nations to call attention to injustice. Chileans used cacerolazo during the 2019 protests against inequality that caused the COP to be held in Spain rather than Chile.

12 There are nine constituencies in the UNFCCC composed of NGOs with shared interests. Constituencies are the formal channels for communication between NGOs and the UNFCCC Secretariat.

13 Simpson (Citation2021) uses ‘generative refusal’ to describe affirmations of Indigenous resurgence, actions that build new worlds, with new political economies, ethical systems, and relationships.

14 #Sexify COP19 – Equity. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgMM47Cndk4

Additional information


This work was supported by College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University.

Notes on contributors

Julia Coombs Fine

Julia Coombs Fine is a postdoctoral researcher at the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication. Her recent research focuses on how interpersonal conversations can promote collective climate action.

Summer Gray

Summer Gray is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She researches crucial dilemmas surrounding climate change adaptation and conceptualizes frameworks that promote climate justice and critical resilience.

Corrie Grosse

Corrie Grosse is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at College of St. Benedict and St. John's University. She teaches and researches energy, climate justice, Indigenous sovereignty, and social movements.

Brigid Mark

Brigid Mark is a graduate student in the Sociology PhD program at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research areas include climate justice, social movements, Indigenous sovereignty, and race.

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