As the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has said, climate change is ‘out of control’ and the world desperately needs more ambitious climate action. In this Q&A, we speak to Mehmet Erdoğan, who is working on climate change issues for the UN Development Programme, in New York. Mehmet was in Egypt in November 2022 for the UN’s COP 27 Summit (Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC). We asked him what it’s like to attend one of these global summits and work on an international issue that is so challenging and urgent.
Question: So, we’re here to talk about your experience at COP 27, at Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. It’s an incredible professional experience to have, but I imagine also quite challenging and complicated. In amongst all of this noise and activity and tens of thousands of people from around the world, what is a typical day like for you at an international summit like this?
Mehmet Erdoğan: I go to COP as a communications focal point for the UN Development Programme and its flagship initiative, Climate Promise. My job is to tell stories, bring advocacy messages and key messages from UNDP’s perspective, support on arranging media interviews and just make sure that what we’re communicating as an organisation is jointly moving forward.
Mehmet and colleagues at COP 27 in Egypt in November 2022
And so, being at COP, the days really are non-stop. You’re constantly on the move. You’re pretty much working from the moment you wake up until the moment you sleep. You basically don’t come back to your hotel room until it’s nighttime, you go to sleep and in the morning you do it all over again. From the moment you open your eyes, there’s often a delegation meeting where every person on UNDP’s delegation comes together, either virtually or in person, to discuss what’s happening throughout the day and make a joint plan.
From there, you move to the venue, to your side event, the plenary or the negotiations that you’re following, or to do media interviews that you’ve set up. You are there pretty much all day and you come back by 9:30pm, 10:00pm maybe, you do a debrief meeting about what went right, what went wrong, plan the next day, then you go to bed and you open your eyes and do it all over again. So, it really, really doesn’t stop.
Being at COP, the days really are non-stop. You’re constantly on the move. You’re pretty much working from the moment you wake up until the moment you sleep.
And at any given point at COP, as a communications person, you’re also attending to multiple and competing demands from your team. There’s a side event that you’re supposed to be working on, doing social media and promoting the messages from that. But there’s maybe also some media interviews happening, so you’re attending to that as well. And then you have a campaign going on and people are visiting that, and there’s a technical issue with the campaign that you have to deal with. So, at any given moment, you’re being pulled in many different directions and it’s up to you prioritise and make sure you manage them all.
Mehmet Erdoğan: So, I work for UNDP’s flagship climate initiative called Climate Promise, and the work that we do is really, really important, but it is quite high-level. We work with more than 120 governments around the world to make sure that they are preparing and implementing their climate plans and that they move along with the Paris Agreement.
But, because it’s often such high-level work, it’s difficult to bring audiences along with us on that journey. So, we’re thinking: how do we energise, motivate, and incentivise people from all walks of life to participate in this movement and move towards climate action together?’ The answer for us was to create a campaign called ‘Dear World Leaders’, where we ask people around the world to record themselves, one minute or shorter, telling world leaders how climate change is already impacting them, and what world leaders can do about it, what action they can take. And we wanted to take these messages to world leaders at COP to remind them of what’s at stake, and to remind them of who they’re accountable to, and what the world really wants them to do for climate action.
We work with more than 120 governments around the world to make sure that they are preparing and implementing their climate plans and that they move along with the Paris Agreement.
The result is this digital platform, ‘Dear World Leaders’, which houses nearly 400 videos from around the world. And this year we were lucky enough to bring 200 of these videos to COP as part of an installation. We’re really proud that it represents voices from all continents, all regions, and many underrepresented voices that often aren’t heard in the climate change debate, including Indigenous Peoples, young people, women, people from Small Island Developing States, and Least Developed Countries.
A COP delegate watching the videos submitted as part of the 'Dear World Leaders' installation
Question: Amazing. It was really impressive to see it on social media – congratulations.
Mehmet Erdoğan: Thank you very much. And anybody who wants to see these videos from around the world can go to the website and see the messages there. One thing I really like about the website is that you can filter the videos either by region or by emotion. So, you can look at videos that people are sending that are angry, that are sad, that are hopeful. I was so moved by just the diversity of messages that we got from around the world and seeing people in their natural habitats talking through some of the disasters happening in their communities and how they need this urgently to happen. It’s really incredible and I hope people check it out.
Question: Being able to search by emotion, that sounds really interesting.
Mehmet Erdoğan: Yeah. We wanted to create an emotion map, basically.
Question: So, for people wanting to work for the UN or an NGO, this would seem like an incredible opportunity. What did it mean to you personally to be able to work on climate change at the global level and to participate in an international summit like COP 27?
Mehmet Erdoğan: I’ve always wanted to do work that feels meaningful, like it can help to change the world for the better. And I’ve always wanted to use my skills in the service of that. I feel so blessed to be able to work on a topic like the climate crisis, which I think is the urgent crisis defining our time.
It is maybe the single most important struggle that we’re facing right now as humanity. So, to be able to participate in that is really important to me. And being at COP is incredible in that sense because you really feel like you’re a part of making history, and this is ground zero for these discussions. It’s the place every year that defines future climate action.
So just being there, in the room, especially in that final plenary as countries and parties to the agreement are coming in with their perspectives or their opposition or just voicing their opinions on what word should or should not be in that agreement – even to be able to watch that interaction, to be in that room feels incredible.
I’ve always wanted to do work that feels meaningful, like it can help to change the world for the better. And I’ve always wanted to use my skills in the service of that. I feel so blessed to be able to work on a topic like the climate crisis, which I think is the urgent crisis defining our time.
But also, more broadly, seeing young people protesting outside in the hallways, chanting, or Indigenous People coming from all walks of life, and just being there with a global community is an experience that you don’t get otherwise. I feel really, really blessed to be a part of that.
Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley speaks to decision makers and delegates at COP 27
Question: A bit more on the topic of you having the chance to do this type of work and contribute in this way. What do your family and friends say about you working on, as you say, the defining issue of our time, and going to summits, like COP?
Mehmet Erdoğan: Climate change is a really complex topic and it’s psychologically difficult to wrap our heads around because it involves thinking about how the crisis could be the end of us if we don’t solve it. So, there’s a lot of negative messaging that you often have to overcome as a communications person if you want people to become – and remain – engaged. I look at my conversations with my family and friends as a barometer for how to communicate with wider audiences as well, because I assume that the questions my family and friends are asking will be the same questions that people on digital platforms will be asking.
Those conversations often inspire and fuel me and help me think about the stories that I want to tell about climate change. I would say that my job in general has been a motivator to have some of these difficult conversations with family and friends. They will often ask questions about what exactly is being decided or what decisions are being taken or not taken, or why the process is moving so slowly – the questions that I guess all of us are always asking.
Question: Are they saying they’re proud of you?
Mehmet Erdoğan: They always say that they’re very proud of me, which is really, really nice.
Mehmet recording some social media content in front of his installation
Question: Finally… obviously climate change is a very difficult issue. I don’t think many people in the world would say that action is exactly where we need it to be right now. Most people agree there’s more that needs to be done. So how do you stay motivated? What gets you out of bed every morning to work on a really difficult issue like this?
Mehmet Erdoğan: How you stay hopeful is really the million-dollar question when you’re working on climate change. I’m not going to lie and say that sometimes I don’t have my moments of doubt or a crisis of faith, asking, ‘Am I doing enough? Is my work meaningful enough? Is the progress happening fast enough?’ and these are difficult questions to answer.
What keeps me grounded and hopeful is, first of all, my team works with more than 120 countries around the world, so we do get to see many developing countries and many Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries taking the action and building momentum towards climate action. Seeing that day-to-day gives me a lot of hope.
I’m not going to lie and say that sometimes I don’t have my moments of doubt or a crisis of faith, asking, ‘Am I doing enough? Is my work meaningful enough? Is the progress happening fast enough?’ and these are difficult questions to answer.
The people I work with are so inspiring; they really care about this topic. They are experts in their field. They have been involved, some of them, in climate action and throughout these COPs for more than a decade, and so to learn from them every single day and benefit from their insights also keeps me going. And with the ‘Dear World Leaders’ campaign this year, being able to create a space where people could come together to record their messages and share their insights, their feelings, being a vehicle for that gives me so much gratitude and hope, knowing that maybe I am helping in a small way.
Those are the things that I think keep me going.
Mehmet is working on climate change for the UN Development Programme
Question: Well, Mehmet, thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with us, and I really wish you all the best with what will no doubt be a very tough year again in 2023.
Mehmet Erdoğan: Thank you so much, and we always say in our team that to tackle the climate crisis we really do need everyone at the table. We need all voices to be heard. This isn’t just a crisis for governments or UN agencies or NGOs to tackle. It really is for every single citizen out there; there is a space, and I’m not talking about recycling or switching to renewable energy or anything like that.
The solutions we need are systemic, but we need people’s perspectives, we need people’s contributions, and so I hope that people reading this who are interested and involved join the fight in any way that they can.