A young Tunisian is hospitalised after clashes with local authorities, a young Syrian cannot leave their country because of civil war, a young Palestinian isn’t granted a visa. Another story about the Arab Spring? No, these young people were all planning to attend the first workshop of the Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM) which took place in Eqypt this year in preparation for the UN Climate talks (COP18) currently taking place in Qatar.
The youth presence at the UN climate talks is vitally important, but it’s not so much about what they say, or what country or organisation they represent. Just by being there in the room, they serve as a reminder to negotiators that the price of not coming to an agreement will be paid by their children, and by all young people across the world. It reminds the negotiators that the talks are about ‘intergenerational equity’ as much as about economics and energy security.
When youth representatives at the UN climate talks come together, responsibility and blame are not their focus. You won’t hear phrases like “But what about China?” Youth organisations know that those affected will be young people the world over. So their focus is on global agreement and a global roadmap leading to global benefits for all people, wherever they live.
The concern felt by young people and their level of engagement in issues surrounding climate change were demonstrated at a recent event at London’s Science Museum. School children from across the country came together to join a panel discussion with experts in climate science, climate negotiations and food security. The event, Make the Link, was organised by the Citizenship Foundation and Plan UK to give young people in the UK an opportunity to engage in these issues and to have their voices heard.
Bridget Burns of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) has argued that a key problem at the UN climate talks is too many “navy blue power suits”. This position is echoed by the ‘voice of youth’ at the UN climate talks, YOUNGO : “Intergenerational equity has been a principle of the UN climate negotiations since 1992, but after nearly two decades of talks, the principle had become buried in dense policy and politics. By returning attention to this principle in 2009, youth provided a clear standard against which the UNFCCC negotiations can be assessed – do the outcomes safeguard the rights of future generations? Youth understand that climate change is not only an environmental issue but also one of social justice, industrial and economic reform, women’s rights, poverty and development, trade and commerce, and indigenous rights.”
In recent years, the lack of progress at the UN climate talks has led to youth-driven movements taking themselves out of these formal negotiations and instead speaking directly to people from all generations, all over the world, through innovative actions and by harnessing new technology. Examples include the unprecedented ‘Day of Action’ which took place before COP15 in 2009, organised by 350.org and described by CNN as “the most widespread day of political action in our planet's history”; and initiatives such as Avaaz, which have enabled people all over the world to speak directly to their decision makers.
When asked what difference YOUNGO and similar groups can make amidst the name-calling and blame game that are the UN climate talks, they say simply this: “YOUNGO has made climate change more real, less about numbers and more about future moral consequences of failure. Most politicians are also parents – we remind them that their choices affect their children’s future ... after the failure of COP15, youth have declared that they are will not wait for political leaders to lead the world in solving the climate crisis. Now is the time for civil society, and youth in particular, to be leaders themselves, implementing local solutions and setting an example for their governments and communities.”
As Mostafa Medhat, AYCM regional co-ordinator in Egypt says “We need to negotiate and discuss climate change and not how to get money or have a strong political position.”
The job of the negotiators at COP18 is to listen to these messages and act accordingly.
Annette Fisher is an international development professional based in London.