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“No more empty promises, no more empty summits, no more empty conferences. It’s time to show us the money. It’s time, it’s time, it’s time.”
The piercing words of Vanessa Nakate echoed across a socially-distanced and youth-filled plenary at the opening session of the inaugural Youth4Climate (Y4C) event, held 28 to 30 September this year. Her powerful reflections on the climate crisis’ impact on her home country of Uganda resonated with the hundreds of young activists, government ministers, UN leaders and other representatives from 190 nations who convened in Milan to prepare for the negotiations at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) upcoming in Glasgow, Scotland, during the first two weeks of November.
From over 8,700 applicants, 400 young people were selected to represent their countries at the event. These delegates were then assigned into four working groups that drafted and finalized policy recommendations that were brought into the Pre-COP, a preparatory meeting for COP26 party delegates, held directly after the youth event. These working groups formulated climate policy strategies and priorities around themes of youth-driven ambition, sustainable recovery, non-state actors’ engagement and climate-conscious society.
The group discussions were bookended by provocative and heartfelt speeches from Greta Thunberg, COP26 President Alok Sharma, Italian prime minister Mario Draghi and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Resulting recommendations in the outcome document, showcased to the Pre-COP delegates, focused on youth-targeted capacity building and funding, energy transitions, loss and damage measures, nature-based solutions, non-party stakeholder alignment with net-zero goals, and mobilizing climate education. While many young people felt satisfied with the document, some challenged the narrative of meaningful youth engagement, stimulating new discussions around whether these policy documents truly encapsulated the diversity of youth voices.
Mohammed Zhairi, 15, whose organization in the West Bank has assembled over 110 young volunteers to raise awareness about climate education and climate justice, traveled to Milan to represent Palestinian people and communicate their oft-overlooked contributions to the climate justice movement at the event. Due to the Israeli occupation, he said, “people tend to forget everything else, and they just focus on our main problem, so climate is left behind.”
A climate-just future
While approaches to climate action differed among the young activists, narratives on justice and anti-colonial solutions for building climate-just futures resounded saliently throughout the event.
Canadian Felix Giroux, 24, serves as a board member of Youth4Nature, an organization dedicated to climate advocacy. He noted that ambitious climate policy must not replicate or sustain historical and systemic oppression, affirming “the importance of recognizing and creating safeguards for Indigenous peoples and local communities in Canada and abroad.”
Other young people spoke candidly of structural barriers that have hampered efforts for a just transition. Akil Callender, 26, who works for the World Bank, has spent his advocacy and professional career working on energy policy and transitions, particularly in his home region of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean.
“There are a lot of conflicting but reasonable views on the work that needs to be done, especially within the realm of energy. Every region, every country has their priorities, but we all share the goal of climate emissions mitigation, and it has been really enlightening,” said Callender.
The challenges ahead
Still, there were many shortcomings of the event that delegates addressed, often alluding to the homogeneity of voices and tendency of high-level decision-makers to conflate youth attitudes and approaches to addressing the climate crisis.
In reality, diverse and even conflicting opinions within the youth climate movement are common, with divergences in opinion stemming from upbringing and lived experiences.
Speaking of the lack of Caribbean voices in energy transition discussions, Callender reiterated this sentiment. He reflected that “people from countries in the Global North definitely have underlying privileges that country people from the Global South or poor countries just generally don’t have access to.” Consequently, Callender led honest discussions within his working group around the difficulties of immediate energy transitions and safeguard mechanisms for lower-income countries.
Others discussed the lack of agency that they have in climate action and decision-making. While many of the discussions centered around policies ensuring a just transition and shift to renewables, Zhairi noted how Palestinians lack control over their own resources, water and electricity – thereby limiting their ability to develop sustainable water management and renewable energy.
Despite these challenges, these young activists felt unencumbered by the traditional bureaucracy and procedures of the UN and pushed for a progressive agenda during ministerial discussions with youth at the Pre-COP. The event culminated in an outcome policy document of over 40 pages, serving as a testament to the capabilities of young people to organize quickly and draft youth-driven and forward-thinking policy agendas and ambitions.
“If you look at anything that we produce in the document here, which is just a very small snapshot of the whole movement, you will see the word ‘justice.’ We’ll see the emphasis on youth, on inclusion… the language is so different than any other kind of UN document,” said Giroux.
Nakate eloquently concluded her speech by providing a sobering look forward: “You cannot adapt to lost cultures. You cannot adapt to lost traditions. You cannot adapt to lost history. You cannot adapt to starvation. You cannot adapt to extinction.”