Youth in Revolt: Younger Generations Step up the Pressure on Climate

21-year old Abigail Borah is led from the COP after expressing her frustrations to American negotiators over the lack of bold U.S. action on climate.

I come from the energy world. If you’ve ever been to an energy conference — particularly one revolving around fossil fuels — the first thing you’ll notice is that the scene is dominated by old, white males. Depending on the renewable energy conference, the crowd gets much more diverse in age and ethnicity.

The COP climate conference is a whole different scene. Of course, it’s an international UN sponsored event, so it’s inherently diverse. What’s unique is the large number of young people in attendance.

It’s easy to get bogged down by the fact that the international negotiations are slow moving and, despite the last-minute deal brokered in Durban, still haven’t gotten us to close to where we need to be scientifically.

I remember one young woman in a background briefing with American negotiators last week saying “you’ve been negotiating this issue my entire life.”

If you’re still feeling down by the pace of action, one thing should give you hope about the process: the active presence of younger generations at these conferences — tracking negotiations, asking pointed questions, setting up meetings with diplomats, organizing protests, and doing anything they can to get youth voices heard.

I know this isn’t particularly new. Youth delegations have been coming to these meetings in greater numbers each year. But as a newcomer to the climate negotiation scene, it’s been pretty remarkable for me to see.

Two of these young adults particularly struck me: 24-year old American Ellie Johnston and 22-year old Chinese Songquio Yao, who went to Durban to “build bridges” and do what so many negotiators were unable to do for years. Johnston was part of a 14-member delegation representing SustainUS, a national youth coalition devoted to sustainability issues. And Yao was with a 13-member delegation from the China Youth Climate Action Network.

The Chinese and American youth delegations both met with their respective negotiators to express their passion for the issues.

We all know there’s a range of geopolitical issues that go into bringing countries together to pass something like the Durban climate package. But I can’t help but believe that the active presence of vocal, intelligent youth played a strong role too.

“We know this is so important for China’s future. We are here to tell our leaders that we care deeply about addressing climate change — and Minister Xie [china’s chief negotiator] has encouraged us to stay heavily involved,” said Yao, talking about her meeting with Chinese leaders.

“Waiting until 2020 for international commitments to reduce emissions is not okay,” said Johnston. “We’re hear to put an emphasis on younger generations and express our frustrations.”

That attitude and engagement were the norm at Durban.

Also last week, 21-year old Abigail Borah, a member of SustainUS and a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, received substantial media attention after standing up in negotiations and delivering an impassioned plea for action to the U.S. delegation:

“I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot.  The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait. We need an urgent path to a fair ambitious and legally binding treaty.

You must take responsibility to act now, or you will threaten the lives of youth and the world’s most vulnerable.

You must set aside partisan politics and let science dictate decisions. You must pledge ambitious targets to lower emissions not expectations. Citizens across the world are being held hostage by stillborn negotiations.

In the end, negotiators did put aside their differences and hammer out a deal in Durban. I know that many of the youth in attendance were very unhappy that we didn’t go further with binding commitments — and very rightly so. But they should be proud of their role in showing policy makers why these decisions are so important. After all, they have the most to lose.

“I’m really encouraged by the work my generation is doing around this. A lot of us get it,” said Johnston.

8 Responses to Youth in Revolt: Younger Generations Step up the Pressure on Climate

  1. nosoyyo says:

    The comment “you’ve been negotiating my entire life” was also made in this incredible , must-listen “Get it Done” speech (followed by a “Mic Check”) by Youth Delegate Anjali Appadurai

  2. John McCormick says:

    She did herself proud. Maybe a star is born. One day, perhaps, she will say: I’ve been fighting against AGW my entire life and, I’m winning.

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Stephen Lacey, I sincerely hope you didn’t intend your sentence “But they should be proud of their role…” to sound the way it does. It comes across as patronising and down right disrespectful of all those young people who were just about besides themselves at the obstructionist and intransigent role played by Stern and his ‘allies’.

    As more and more details about what happened behind the scenes come out, the depth of this quite unnecessary tragedy becomes clearer. Yet it seems you have reported it in a superficial and distancing manner. Does this demonstrate some of the roots of the problem, particularly as I gather you are not all that old yourself?

    I hope my interpretation is wrong. Can you please clarify? Thanks, ME

  4. Scrooge says:

    Its great to see the next generation get involved, after all they are the ones that have to deal with it. We have handed them mess. I’m not saying the the world isn’t better now than 40 years ago but we were handed a mansion and decided not to take care of it. The next generation has been handed a country (world) in a financial mess and inept politicians. They get to start out like the last greatest generation, only their war will be against global warming and that may be what defines them.

  5. Celia Schorr says:

    I thought the tone was admiring(appropriately) rather than patronizing. The young occupiers and the young people in Durban give me hope for the future! Great to have an uplifting story now and then.

  6. Stephen Lacey says:

    Merrelyn —
    It was absolutely not meant to be patronizing. Quite to the contrary. As someone approaching his 30’s, I fall into this age group, so I have nothing but respect for the people I was writing about.

    I have read the paragraph over a number of times, trying to figure out why you were so offended. Perhaps it’s because we see the Durban outcome differently? Unlike many of my colleagues and peers, I happen to think some progress was made in Durban. Is it close to enough? Absolutely not.

    But it’s not accurate to call it a complete failure considering we’ve taken a major step forward in bringing China and India on board for a potential legal emissions framework, mapped out the details for a $100 billion Green Fund, extended Kyoto, and established a framework for a post-2015 road map. We certainly won’t see Durban as what got us to where we need to be — but it will be seen as a needed step.

    I’m curious as to what you mean by this statement: “As more and more details about what happened behind the scenes come out, the depth of this quite unnecessary tragedy becomes clearer.”

    Could you please elaborate?

    I’m thinking you are reading my interpretation of the youth role negatively, because you also see the final outcome in a such a negative way?

    Thanks for your comment. You should know that it was not at all meant to be patronizing.


  7. Gnobuddy says:

    Stephen, for what it’s worth, I see nothing that’s even the least little bit patronizing or rude in your article. Very much the contrary.

    As for the outcome of the Durban event, we might as well face the fact that it is too late to undo the damage to our planet. We cannot stop the icecaps from melting, we cannot stop the permafrost from thawing out and spewing methane into our atmosphere, we cannot stop the acidification of the ocean and the destruction of coral reefs, and we cannot stop the ongoing planet-wide avalanche of species extinctions.

    The best we can hope for is that Durban and other future climate negotiations will reduce to some degree the now inevitable oncoming wave of human and animal suffering that is hot on our heels as our planets environment continues to disintegrate.


  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thank you for replying Stephen and for your reassurance. Perhaps the difference is that I am an old wrinkly who identified very strongly with all those young ones who spoke so powerfully. They didn’t seem like ‘they’ who should be proud of themselves, they seemed more like ‘us’ who so desperately hoped that after all those disasters, this would be the year that sanity prevailed.

    Unfortunately not. Apparently it was Canada who led a small push of nations, including Australia, who met to continually water down and disrupt the agreement that was emerging, and now as we know, Canada has announced that it is pulling out of Kyoto.

    Let us just hope, again, that this could be the trigger for some real action, with real teeth, that will make a real difference – we may still be able to save something, ME