Youth at COP21

Youth at COP21

Among the tens of thousands of visitors descending on Paris this December for COP21, a significant cohort of those will represent what has long been a marginalized, unheard, and relatively ignored group of individuals. However, for the first time, figureheads are claiming that our youth generation will play a paramount role in the fight against climate change. So how are young people acting and engaging in Paris this year?

Young people have been a vocal and adamant voice at this years COP. They have descended on Paris affiliated with every type of organization, including national delegations, university teams, and NGOs. Youth delegations have been sporting t-shirts bearing the slogan of the United Nations action mantra: “We must, we can, we will take action.” The UN Special Envoy on Youth, Ahmed Alhendawi, appointed in 2013, serves as a liaison between younger generations and the UNFCCC. Speaking at a UN press event, Alhendawi explained that “we are the first generation which can eradicate extreme poverty but also we are the last generation that could reverse climate change…It’s the task of our generation to get it done.” As activists continue to detail the troubling impact of past generations and the impact that past actions will have on current generations, youth leaders are finally being heard.

This past Thursday was Youth and Future Generations Day at COP21, a daylong event that featured youth activists and the role of younger generations in mobilizing action against climate change. What began as a day of optimism and intense spirit, however, ended in frustration for many. Naomi and I were in attendance for the kick-off side-event, a discussion panel that featured, among others, Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC and organizer of COP21, as well as Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez, a 15 year-old youth director for Earth Guardians.

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres speaking at Youth Day, COP21
UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres speaking at Youth Day, COP21.

“[Climate Change] is about the survival of my generation. Every generation to come will be affected by decisions made today,” Roske-Martinez, explained, speaking with more eloquence and passion than anyone else I had heard at COP. Roske-Martinez and 20 youth activists sued the U.S. government last year under the pretense that the Obama administration had failed to adequately address the dangers of climate change and the impacts that would have direct action on their future.

Figueres went on to explain, in an impassioned speech to a room full of 500 observers, activists, and media personnel, the importance of the youth generation: “We need you to step up to meet the climate change challenge by activating your network…We need young people to be actively engaged in the transition to low-carbon, highly resilient lifestyles.” Perhaps her message would have carried more weight had she stayed to listen to the youth voices who were sitting besides her. After a group photo, Figueres took off, understandably racing away to attend another one of the multitude of events she is responsible for. Youth activists on the panel did not let her off easy. Anjali Appadurai, from Canada, started her story off with a sharp critique of Figueres departure. “I’m so deeply disappointed that Christiana Figueres left the room before youth had the opportunity to speak or ask her any questions…I hope this message reaches her,” she told the audience to an outpouring of support.

Undoubtedly, the youth will play a crucial role in the ongoing fight against climate change. While past generations bear the largest contribution to our current crisis, our generation is not only the first to face the impacts, but has the strongest capacity to take action. While the negotiations remain tedious, and it appears as though an equitable and ambitious deal is years away at this rate, those outside the negotiating halls present a wave of optimism and action.

As a student observer at COP21, it’s surprisingly disheartening to watch our world leaders debate the nuances of climate science, finance, adaptation, and mitigation. However, as Naomi and I have both expressed, civil society action occurring in the observer rooms of COP and the streets of Paris will be the difference in the fight against climate change. Perhaps the most striking observation of my first week in Paris is the multitude of voices that have descended on Paris. Activists of all sorts, from local farmers to indigenous leaders to university students and private sector investors, have all joined together to fight for a common yet unique cause. National delegations continue to express their gratitude in and the importance of the civil society in this fight. While those at the national stage may not pay as much attention to youth delegations and university students, it’s important to remember that these groups will soon be leaders in adaptation and mitigation efforts to fight the impacts of climate change.

While apathy and indifference continue to plague Emory students with regards to climate change discussions, examples from COP21 of youth leaders from around the world provide a glimpse of hope and inspiration. Certainly past generations owe a great deal of responsibility, but it is now up to us to develop innovative, equitable, and transformative actions to address climate change.


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