Why I am reluctant to visit COP-29 in Baku (my home town) or E.O. Wilson’s advice is “march away from the guns”!

AI generated image with a prompts “Marching away from the guns”. Source: https://deepai.org/machine-learning-model/text2img

In the past few months I have been repetitively asked if I am going to COP-29 (UNFCCC) meeting in Baku in November this year. For those who don’t know me well, I was raised in Baku, Azerbaijan and consider Azerbaijan my home-country next to my current home, the Netherlands. I am also one of few environmental policy and governance professionals with 20+ years of experience, with academic and policy credentials in this area and work experience in Azerbaijan, the broader region and internationally. However, I was not invited so far to any efforts to organise any of the events within COP-29. I am also not particularly eager to ask to be invited, neither am I eager to organise any side-event or apply to one. You may wonder why, and I have also wondered – am I missing a golden opportunity to show-case my research in and on the region I care about, and the region that desperately needs attention and support due to mismanagement, conflicts and dwindling resources? Am I missing a chance to make new connections, get funding and secure new powerful allies? When else will the spotlight of the global climate/environmental community shine on Azerbaijan?

When Baku was first announced as a host of CoP-29 in December 2023, I was surprised and intrigued. I asked around and saw how much it was driven by the MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) people, not energy people or environmental people. Then President Aliyev mentioned it in his New Year speech, and it has since become a major PR talking point of pretty much all public (and private) institutions in the country. Then people I know and have worked with started getting appointed to leading positions in organisational structures of CoP-29; so it’s an email away for me to try and get on board. But would I actually like that? I realised that I had to do some soul-searching before reaching out to these former colleagues who are now powerful policy actors on the global climate stage. In two recent events, which I organised in the Hague, and where we discussed water security issues in the South Caucasus, questions were asked about CoP-29, ie whether we plan to hold any confidence-building measures at the fringes of the summit. In informal chats, colleagues expressed interest in being there and whether I knew how it all worked. Then a friend active in the arts asked if I am going, and another friend working for the European Commission asked the same question when she visited me earlier this week. This made me wonder — should I go? Should I make an effort to go, as this is what I have under my control?

My intuition tells me that I have nothing to gain from being there unless there is access to audience that matters and is willing to listen. And that access I don’t have at the moment. It’s a huge networking event with expected 80 000 participants, and a great opportunity to brand oneself and one’s research/work. But do I need this additional branding? People working on water and environmental governance in the region know who I am and how to find me, and the work I am doing with colleagues from SWAN (South Caucasus Water Academics Network) has a real impact — developing trust, capacity and research on the region. It’s a small community, everyone knows everyone. SWAN needs support to succeed (including financial support), but we first want to develop a team-spirit within our collective and show some modest results, also to ourselves, before getting funded externally. This is also important not to disturb the organic bottom-up process we are nurturing here; too much money/attention too early can be as bad as no money and no attention. Furthermore, as I grow older, I also learn to trust my intuition more and separate worthwhile efforts from flashy/attractive but ultimately less meaningful efforts and engagements. My intuition is based on years of experience, knowledge and feeling/thinking (a concept known as sentipensar in Spanish, or Feeling/Thinking in English), and I am finally trusting it.

Let me be clear to the reader who may want to invite me to COP-29 or any other high-impact event — I am ready to come and speak. But I want that to be meaningful, in and to an audience that is interested in change and not only in branding/networking/career promotion. To and in an audience that is knowledgeable about the topics of importance to the region — from climate change scenarios and their impacts on water availability in Azerbaijan, to the impacts of the dropping Caspian Sea levels, to the questions of distribution of water and other resources.

E.O. Wilson, source: https://www.the-scientist.com/renowned-ant-researcher-eo-wilson-dies-at-92-69557

And upon reflection, I think it has to do with the idea of “marching away from the sound of the guns” that spoke to me when I read it last year. E.O. Wilson, a deceased biologist from Harvard, and one of the founders of socio-biology, a discipline at the crossroads of biology, ecology and sociology. He wrote a piece of advice to young scientists in 2014, which I recommend to all early career scientists to read.  One of several points he made there is to avoid getting bogged down in the struggles of the profession (big debates), but rather observe them from distance, to keep an overview and not get drained of energy. He wrote

“You may have heard the military dictum for the gathering of armies: ‘march to the sound of the guns.’ In science the exact opposite is the case: march away from the sound of the guns! March away from the sounds of the guns. Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own”.

It’s probably not the best piece of advice in the times of climate change and multiple overlapping policy crises, when scientists are pushed to actually be activists and get their messages across to politicians and policy-makers. And maybe it’s not even meant in that way. But it is useful for those who are tempted to jump on a latest hot topic of the day to do “timely” research or advocacy (e.g. on social media), only to discover that the fashion has changed in a few years, or that nobody is listening. Now, everyone getting excited about CoP-29 may be just that —  “marching to the sounds of the guns”. Don’t march towards the guns, march away from them! Observe the guns, get a clear idea about what’s going on, and then advocate what is based on sound logic and science. Yes, COP-29 is valuable opportunity to get attention in a world where attention is scarce (and is a valuable commodity). But staying away to observe, and act when the time is right and when and where audience is actually interested in one’s messages may also be a good piece of advice.

This is what my intuition tells me (and how I rationalise it through connecting to thinking of E.O.Wilson). And if I am invited and there is such space at COP-29, I will think. In the meantime, I will work with my dear colleagues from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Turkey, the Netherlands and other countries on building research capacity and doing actual research on water security, governance and diplomacy in the South Caucasus through SWAN. If you are interested to know what SWAN is and what it does, please read our blog here. And feel free to comment on this blog post or write an email to me — you find it easily on this website or the internet!

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