Climate Action, Autism and Navigating COP27: Reflections and Key Takeaways

Hannah West

By Hannah West

In Empower Life

Reading Time: 7 minutes

COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh has been a cornerstone of my personal and professional development. It was a privilege to represent Empower and the Climate Champions at the Conference, and to work alongside truly bright minds. Exhausting, inspiring, non-stop, hopeful: months of hard work and preparation culminated in those two weeks.

Having taken the requisite time to rest and reflect on my first experience of COP, I am so proud of what I accomplished. All the more for being an autistic woman.

I learnt a lot during my time in Egypt, and have jotted below a handful of my key takeaways, covering themes of confidence, test and learn approaches, and self-care (among others).

COP27 took place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, where Hannah was based for the full 2 weeks.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare

Let’s begin with something which you could argue stretches across all learnings in some way: preparedness.

If you’ve read our post on How we prepare for COP Climate Conferences, you’ll know it’s really important to us as an agency to get our ducks in a row well in advance of big deliveries. Scoping and cementing ways of working early helps our internal and client teams align on precisely what is going to happen and when. This allows us to focus our energy on implementation – eliminating unexpectedness which can otherwise be especially difficult to manage at peak moments.

Being autistic, I take particular comfort in feeling prepared. In my day-to-day, I use tools like Street View to help envisage what to expect when travelling to new places. It’s a pretty foolproof strategy for a cafe around the corner, but the prospect of travelling to Egypt, navigating airports, public transport systems, hotels, the conference centre, new people, and everything else was a whole other beast.

To help prepare for so much newness in one go, I sought clarity from a bunch of different resources:

  • internal campaign scoping documents, which helped me understand what I would be responsible for delivering when on-ground
  • team members who had attended COP before, so I could better predict what a typical day at the conference centre might look like
  • logistical handbooks which added colour to the local transport routes I needed to take, where I would be staying, and who would be at the Conference with me

This meticulous planning helped me to visualise and get more comfortable with the thought of what I’d soon be experiencing.

Together For Implementation was the theme for COP27.
Together For Implementation was the theme for COP27.

2. Clear, Specific, Actionable Instructions

It’s no good telling me to just ‘fill up the kettle’ if you’re hoping for a cup of tea. I won’t flick the switch on. What if you’re not ready for boiling water right now? What if you need the water half-boiled? What if you needed a kettle-sized amount of water to feed a plant with? 🤯

When you get to know me, you quickly learn that I thrive on understanding exactly what is expected of me. Turns out, I’m not the only one at Empower who seeks this clarity. Our collective ‘Manual of We’ (more on that here) shows that we all do our best work when we have precise instructions.

My ‘Manual of Me’ has been more helpful than I could have imagined. It allows my colleagues to understand what allows me to bring my best self to work, and communicate with me in a way that is suitably ‘Hannah-fied’.

I’ll certainly be keeping my Manual of Me up to date going forward, and calling upon it for future crescendo moments of the year.

An extract from Hannah's Manual of Me
An extract from Hannah’s Manual of Me.

3. Amplifying voices – Children and Youth are our Future

The children and youth of our Earth have the most vested interest in its protection and recovery, as it will be them and their children who will inherit it. 

I knew long before COP27 that they are some of our most compelling voices capable of inciting the change at the speed and scale we need to solve the climate crisis. It wasn’t until seeing youth climate activists on stage delivering step-change-inspiring speeches at the epicentre of climate decision making that I had fully appreciated the need to protect (and grow) the space for children at every COP to come.

I had the joy of attending the opening of the first ever Children and Youth Pavilion at COP27, which saw hundreds of events take place over two short weeks. This safe space for young people to own and lead-in was (quite rightly) praised as one of the best pavilions, as powerful voices like Francisco Javier Vera Manzanares, a 13 year old activist, delivered their powerful and profound advocacy.

The Children and Youth Pavilion wasn’t the only space where youth shone. Their influence permeated all throughout the Conference. Sophia Kianni, adviser to the UN on climate delivered her Stop Lying speech to leaders. Omnia El Omrani, Youth Envoy to the COP27 President hosted the Global Climate Action High-Level Closing Event, a coveted spot on the main stage of the Plenary Hall.

There is so much more to be learnt from Children and Youth, particularly Indigenous youth climate activists who we need to see more of at all levels of climate leadership. Through social media, there is an opportunity for us all to engage with and elevate their voices. The deepened engagement with their work can do profound good to opening them up to large global stages.

Outside the Children and Youth Pavilion, with Baliqees Salaudeen, Communications Fellow for the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions.
Outside the Children and Youth Pavilion, with Baliqees Salaudeen, Communications Fellow for the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions

4. Self Care

It is a lovely (and vital) thing to look after yourself, and to listen to what your body is telling you it needs. Our ability to perceive and understand these sensations from inside our bodies is called Interoception, and like many other autistic people, I struggle with it. I often miss my rumbling stomach which tells me I’m hungry, until I’m a bit grouchy and don’t know why. Or I get a headache and feel slouchy, then realise my water bottle has been gathering dust all day.

Practising good self-care and keeping aware of my needs when running around in the blazing sun for long days was of utmost importance during the Conference. At home, I have my partner to encourage good habits of self-care, and to coexist with me when I do so. At the conference centre, I was accountable for myself.

I ensured that I set routine mealtimes (as much as the event schedule would allow) to make sure time was blocked for me to eat and drink. The Conference itself was bustling and loud, the days were long, the heat was harsh: a recipe for sensory overload. I had my noise-cancelling headphones on me at all times so that I could take a quiet moment to decompress when needed.

These were some small ways I cared for myself which was sorely needed in such an unfamiliar environment. The biggest display of self care by far, though, was asking for my partner to accompany me to Egypt.

This was a big, and probably unprecedented, ask. I could have easily been seen as a nuisance, and I’m sure that in other environments where I am less understood, I would have been. Luckily, thankfully, gratefully, my request was accommodated, assuaging concerns I had around being particularly vulnerable as an autistic woman travelling alone.

As my travel companion, my partner helped me:

  • Navigate the confusing processes of extra airport security, and transport to and fro the hotel
  • Communicate with hotel staff around check-ins when I was finding communication difficult from overwhelm
  • Implement an after work routine (which definitely included some  comfort TV shows and snacks)
  • Troubleshoot frazzling moments with me (even a last minute change of hotel!)
  • Feel a constant source of comfort for having my familiar person near

Without him, my experience would have been much more difficult to manage.

Through this experience, I learnt that I am more confident in my Neurodivergent identity than I ever have been. This confidence (something which I’ve historically sorely lacked), has grown in other reaches of my life, and helps me to be a more proactive, self-assured version of myself.

Practicing self care at COP27
Practicing self care at COP27.

This wouldn’t have been possible without my inclusive, understanding team at Empower, which leads me to my fifth takeaway:

5. Fostering an inclusive workplace culture needs more than just platitudes

One of the things which first drew me to Empower (aside from their many wonderful clients) was their emphasis on nurturing an inclusive, diverse culture: one which is a safe space for everyone.

I was pleasantly surprised when I joined to see regular DEI calls in the diary, where actionable steps are taken to constantly improve our DEI offering as an agency. Just recently, Empower adopted the Halo Code – the UK’s first Black Hair Code, which my colleague Bongi writes beautifully about here. This is one of many steps taken to actually deliver on – rather than speak platitudes to – diversity and inclusion.

This safe environment has empowered me (pun intended) to share that I am autistic in the workplace for the first time. I do not take it for granted that I felt able to share without the fear of negative consequences. I truly believe that if it wasn’t for me being able to thrive at Empower as an openly autistic person, I wouldn’t have been able to meet the challenge of COP as my best, most confident self.

Workplaces can have an immense power in supporting their people to thrive not in spite of their Neurodiversity but in light of it.

The learnings that I’ve taken from my time at COP27 stretch across me doing my brightest work, and are intimately linked to my sense of self. Even writing this, I am amazed that I am the same Hannah who pulled off a successful two weeks in Egypt as the Hannah who struggled to go to the corner shop alone in the not too distant past.

At this turn of the new year, I’m excited to see what 2023 holds for me, and what I can go on to do next.

With the full Climate Champions team at COP27
With the full Climate Champions team at COP27.

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