Don’t Think Youth Can Make a Difference? Think Again: The Role of Youth at the Paris Climate Talks, COP21

January 21, 2016

~By Talia Schmitt

Sick and tired of hearing that ‘nobody listens to youth,’ or ‘one person can’t make a difference’?

If so, it is time for a trip to an international environmental conference. This past December, I attended the Paris Climate Talks or COP21. There, youth were some of the first to arrive and last to leave- never ceasing to demand serious climate action.

Nearly 5,000 youth arrived in France a week before official negotiations for the Conference of Youth, a meeting organized by youth organizations around the globe. Here people learned about the climate agreement and methods to take action.

This momentum led into the two weeks of official climate talks. Youth groups demanded strict government regulations to reduce the blow of climate change- recommending actions like sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, a temperature increase restricted to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, and decisions that consider both people today and those of the future.

There is a youth non-governmental organization, YOUNGO, which was formed six years ago to give youth a larger stake in the process. There are two members of YOUNGO who are allowed to communicate information out to the government officials. However both young and civil society groups are in the clear minority in the rooms where negotiations took place.

According to a member of the Sierra Student Coalition, Katie Gibson, only nine badges were permitted to the 70 incredibly well-informed members of the Sierra Club attending the conference. Youth, who made up about a quarter of the 70 members, were lucky to share two of the nine badges. But even with two badges, students in the coalition made it work switching up who received the prized badge every couple of days. And whoever went into the conference room that day tracked down negotiators, trying to get their ear and persuade them to support strong climate legislation. They were strong, persistent and when push came to shove, feisty.

“These are not things that I was not involved in creating so we have to leverage the space in a way that we are heard and understood and we are going to hold [government leaders] accountable. So that is why we are [here]. And we will continue to do this no matter what,” Gibson said.

With lack of accessibility into the negotiating room, youth found other ways to get their voices heard. Dyanna Jaye and Timothy Damon, leaders of SustainUS, a U.S. youth environmental advocacy group, said they generated attention around these issues through measures like demonstrations and social media.

“[Youth] are really calling countries to task,” Damon said.

One of SustainUS’s primary goals is to decarbonize the global economy by 2050. This would require equal amounts of “carbon sinks” or places to absorb carbon like oceans and forests as the amount of emission outputs. To demonstrate this concept, youth drew an “O” around their right eye to represent zero-net emissions by 2050.

Youth were instrumental in some of the largest demonstrations reminding political leaders that they were in Paris, and demanding action.  Actions included the placement of 10,000 pairs of shoes in a Paris square (representing the number of people ready to march for climate action and social justice), to “fracktivist” rallies where youth demanded that “oil stay in the soil.”

And the noise didn’t stop in person. Hundreds of thousands of videos, podcasts, tweets and posts flowed out of the mouths of protestors onto the walls of social media.

And the pinging of the phone followed me back to the youth hostel where I was staying. Youth from around the world ended up sharing bunk beds and stories. The girl who lay in the bed next to me was from India and the boy in the bunk above me had be displaced from his home in Alaska due to rising sea levels. We talked about the environmental challenges in our own communities and shared solutions for the future. These conversations only began in the negotiation rooms and continued throughout the night, until the light shinning through the windows reminded us that it was morning.

Jaye explained one of the most important roles of youth: their “international identity.” Negotiators put their domestic concerns as number one, which can prevent necessary global action, she said. But youth, she added, stick with the big picture. Damon agrees.

“There is a generational identity taking priority over national identity,” Damon said.

Damon acknowledges flaws in youth activism like a high turnover rate of students since nobody is paid for their work. Also, there was a clear majority of youth from the Global North, where the conference was held. Regardless of the flaws, he agreed with Jaye that the role of youth is fundamental. He recalled specific examples. In this year’s text, he worked with the Guatemalan negotiator to include the importance of “intergenerational equality concerns” in the preamble of the agreement. Other youth contributed to an “environmental education” component of the agreement.

And even when youth were quiet, their presence had an impact. During climate talks in Warsaw in 2013, Damon recalled that the youth put black tape over their mouths to represent their lack of representation at the table. As negotiators left the meeting, he remembers them coming over to the youth to ask about their concerns.

Youth are not only active at the conference, but also when they come home.

“While youth bring an international perspective, they are still domestic actors,” Damon said.

As domestic actors, youth can take what they learned from all of their experiences ranging from late night talks with the students sleeping in the bunk above them to the message of a girl speaking up at a rally.

I for one, look forward to bringing those lessons home.

Students represent what they believe is the relationship between the oil industry and the public.

Students represent what they believe is the relationship between the oil industry and the public.


Below is a video Talia made about youth participation at COP21.

Check out Talia’s blog here:

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