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.