COP26 and the Great Lakes Region

Posted on November 19, 2021 by

by Stephanie Smith

I arrived at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland from my home in the Great Lakes region, and was heartened by the global community working to tackle climate change from many different angles. And yet, while there are many positive outcomes from COP26, they do not hit the mark for the accelerated pace of change we need. As I was reminded again and again, the people and countries that have done the least to create climate change issues are the most deeply impacted, with the fewest resources to create adaptive solutions. In my time at the conference, the voices of youth, island dwellers and indigenous people were loud, clear and absolutely urgent – their survival is threatened. But the outcomes of COP26 do not reflect the extent of change needed for the Great Lakes region and the planet as a whole.

While climate change impacts are inequitable, they are felt pretty much everywhere to varying degrees. The Great Lakes and their communities are being impacted by climate change through more severe storms, more extreme higher and lower lake levels, and changing temperatures, which affect the lake ecosystems and also the surrounding communities. Urban centers with aging infrastructure, areas with fewer resources and BIPOC communities are disproportionately impacted.

While some look to the Great Lakes as a climate refuge for those who can no longer live in their own communities due to fire, floods and droughts, this region also needs a more coordinated and accelerated approach to adapt to the changes we are amidst. Climate change is a threat multiplier and exacerbates existing issues, so we must have strategic, intersectional solutions that create, multiply and scale positive change. We’re not there yet, by a longshot, so what do we need to do?

Start with an inclusive vision for where we want to be. The people of the Great Lakes region in their diversity are not represented at our decision-making tables. As we hasten to develop the strategies we actually need for systemic change, the voices of youth and BIPOC leaders must be central to deciding upon, and guiding the journey. Yes, this is about regional preparation and action for the well-being of current Great Lakes residents. More critically, it’s about our future inhabitants – youth growing into adults here, and the incoming people that climate migration will lead here, seeking out the Great Lakes region as home.

Get better connected for bigger impact. With the Great Lakes at the heart of our region, we are already connected through these vital waters. Our current restoration and action agendas give us a strong base to stand on. But we need to embrace new voices – the same thinking and thinkers that have led us to this present moment will not get us to the change needed, in the relatively rapid timeframe needed. It’s imperative that we build stronger relationships and opportunities to share knowledge and solutions with the global water and climate change community

Integrate opportunities for engagement into all levels of our communities and schools. Because our vision should be about everyone, we need everyone engaged at varying levels. For a start, let’s mandate statewide, regional and national climate and water education that centers healthy people and a vibrant planet, with equity and justice for all. Youth leaders were at COP26 calling out for change, with a fantastic contingent from the Great Lakes region among them. But our young adults struggle with eco-anxiety and climate grief – and most of their peers are not adequately taught about climate change issues. This leaves them feeling isolated and frankly, tired. We must do better to support these leaders, who at age 25 have been doing this work for more than a quarter of their lives.

The calls to action at COP26 were crystal clear in their urgency. And while these aspects influenced the decisions made to reflect many global needs, they do not tap into the electric undercurrent of accelerated change truly needed. Let’s work within the Great Lakes region and connect with national and global partners to lead the change that’s needed now.


Stephanie Smith is a Freshwater Future board member and runs Zephyr Mangata, a consultancy accelerating positive change for people and the planet.


© 2021 Freshwater Future. All Rights Reserved.

Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.