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Instagram and Irn-Bru: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes the world inside COP26

Commentary: The congresswoman's visit to the UN climate summit is bringing some welcome transparency to the negotiations.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
AOC is proving a hit among the locals in Scotland.
Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

This story is part of CNET Zero, a series that chronicles the impact of climate change and explores what's being done about the problem.

With a swig of Irn-Bru, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might have done more for climate diplomacy at this week's UN climate summit than the rest of the US delegation combined. At the very least, she's won the hearts and minds of the locals.

The US has sent some of its most powerful and influential voices to speak at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, over the past two weeks, among them President Joe Biden, former president Barack Obama, former vice president Al Gore, climate envoy John Kerry and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Between them they've made many grand speeches, but none has made any discernible effort to connect with the summit host country's culture. Not so with Ocasio-Cortez. In answer to an Instagram question Tuesday evening about whether she'd tried Irn-Bru, a fizzy beverage known as Scotland's other national drink (after whisky, of course), she said she hadn't, but wanted to. The following day she was duly presented with a can of Irn-Bru by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

"I love it," Ocasio-Cortez said, in a video posted to Instagram after cracking open the can and taking a sip of the liquid, which is such a luminous shade of orange it looks radioactive. She compared it to the Latin American soda Cola Champagne.

It might be easy to dismiss this moment of reprieve from the gravity of the UN climate summit as little more than a photo op. But Ocasio-Cortez, who hasn't made a speech at the summit, has been using Instagram to bring people inside in a way others have not.

Climate justice advocacy groups have characterized this year's climate COP as exclusionary. Many indigenous groups and representatives from developing countries who should be attending the summit were shut out due to restrictions on accreditation, the cost of getting to Glasgow or inequities in vaccine distribution. Even those who have made it inside the secure zone where the conference is taking place have found themselves locked out of negotiations and key sessions. 

Inside COP26 with AOC

In a series of Instagram stories, Ocasio-Cortez broke down the purpose of UN climate summits, the specific focuses and goals of COP26, and how it's been structured around themes. She also showed viewers around the venue, explaining what happens in bilateral briefing rooms and plenary halls, and what she was doing during the non-public-facing parts of her day.

As she was posting on COP26's "gender day" she also explained why gender is such an important issue in fighting the climate crisis, and she noted it's one of the main issues she came to discuss at COP26. 

"Did you know the US had a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women? And that many of these women go missing near fossil fuel extraction sites?" she said. "Did you know that in other countries, women undertake much of the agricultural activity and climate change's effects on crops have huge ramifications for women and nonbinary people's rights?"

Ocasio-Cortez also endorsed something the climate justice movement has been asking for at the summit, but that few other politicians have acknowledged. "[COP] should be centering Indigenous peoples more as stakeholders in hard negotiations — not just speeches," she said.

The congresswoman is hardly the first to point that the US arrived at the summit on the back foot after withdrawing from (and then rejoining) the Paris Agreement — Biden also noted that last week. But her message that the country had "not recovered its moral authority" was well received within the summit walls.

Some of the same young activists who felt patronized earlier this week by Obama, for addressing his speech to them while failing to deliver on his own climate promises, were clamoring outside the press conference room hoping to meet her on Tuesday. Ocasio-Cortez's directness and transparency at COP26 appear to be resonating with them — and Instagram is at least a little to thank for that.