Frustrations from the World’s Youth at the UN Climate Conference

For the past two weeks, leaders from over 190 countries have been negotiating the future of climate change at this year’s UN Conference on Climate.

The negotiations have taken place between member countries of the UN international treaty titled the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The treaty was ratified at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in 1992.  The ultimate objective of UNFCCC is “to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system”.

Since the UNFCCC was established, the member states (today totaling 194) meet annually at the Conferences of the Parties (COP) to “assess progress in dealing with climate change”. This year’s COP, the 18th since its inauguration in 1994 (referenced as COP18), is being held in Doha, Qatar.  One of the main issues being addressed this year is the future of greenhouse-gas emission reduction and the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire at the end of this month.

The conference began with some very dark projections from international organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  In a UNEP report, published just before the beginning of COP18, they state that in 2010 greenhouse-gas emissions rose to 50.1 gigatons of carbon equivalent.  This figure represents a 25% increase from 2000, and is 14% higher than the projected emissions required (44 gigatons) to maintain the desired 2°C increase in climate temperature; the 2°C increase that scientists believe is the “threshold” to avoid “dangerous” climate change.

Naderev M. Saño, the lead negotiator from the Philippines, gave an extremely heart wrenching appeal to world leaders this week:

Mr. Saño´s plea has become a popular speech amongst news reporters and bloggers covering the conference.  The delegate’s raw emotion and evident frustration regarding the lack of leadership and action being taken by the UN delegation is rarely seen in an international setting such as this.

Nikkid Hodgson, a writer and climate researcher from California, was in the room when Mr. Saño gave this speech.  She writes:

I swallow my tears, trying to hold my emotion back as it rises up from my chest. This is the delegation I want, the delegation that reflects the urgency the American youth–the world’s youth–so desperately want from their leaders. When I sit back, reflecting on how the world would be if my delegation was more like the Filipino delegation, the chasm between what is and what should be is staggering and the weight of that reality burdens my heart and my conscience. When the U.S. asks what its youth wants from it, it’s this. This moment, this humanity, this leadership.

Hodgen’s words express the aspirations, and deep frustrations, of the world’s youth – both those that have been at COP18, and those that have been watching all over the World. The world’s youth are desperate for strong leadership. They are looking for leaders who are willing to make the difficult decisions needed in order to provide a better future for generations to come.

For years now, youth organizations have been present at COP.  They have watched as delegates enter and exit the meetings, arguing over the technical details of each annex of the agreement, including how much money “rich” countries should give to “developing” countries in order to help pay for climate adaptation and reparation.  Yet, the bigger issue of climate mitigation is not being solved.

While older generations continue to squabble over numbers, the world’s youth have consistently been shut out of the negotiation rooms and have been unable to take part in international decisions.  Decisions that will directly impact their future, and their viability, on this planet.

This issue was brought up to UN Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres and COP 18 President His Excellency Mr. Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah.  Ms. Figueres responded:

This process welcomes the impatience of youth. This is about your life. We welcome the healthy impatience of youth. At the same time, we must understand that this process will require a commitment for change of the financial structure of the world. We [negotiators and policy makers] are very far behind what the science tells us we should be doing.

Given that the UNFCCC was written to be a “strict intergovernmental process”, youth groups do not have much of a voice in these proceedings. Therefore, youth associations do what they can to influence those that have the ability to negotiate.

In 2009, for example, youth from all over the world came together to promote the 350 International Day of Climate Action (350 being the amount of parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere that is safe for humanity. We are currently at about 392).  The movement was later described by CNN as “the most widespread day of political action in our planet’s history.”

This year, at COP18, youth groups have come together again to share ideas, information, and resources in order to help create awareness and influence. Youth groups like YOUNGO and SustainUS planned awareness campaigns that were held outside of the conference rooms:

On the International Youth Climate Movement’s website, there are pictures of additional youth campaigns and protests from COP18.

Notably, the youth group Region’s Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM) led a historic Climate March in Doha on Saturday, December 1st.  It is believed to be Qatar’s first ever demonstration, and was approved by the Qatari Government.

Despite the large volume of appeals from the world’s youth, no revolutionary agreement has been reached at COP18.

As of Friday night, an agreement to replace the Kyoto protocol, set to expire at the end of this month, had not been reached.  Some critics believe that negotiations were halted due to “a host of reasons, though most developing nations blame rich countries like the United States, Canada and Japan for refusing to sign an interim successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol that would bind them to emissions reductions.”

Saturday morning, COP18 delegates agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol for another eight years, however, Japan, Russia, and Canada have pulled out of the agreement. Therefore, the only international agreement on climate change in effect today binds 35 countries to emissions reductions and leaves out some of the world’s biggest polluters including the US and China. The Kyoto protocol will regulate only 15% of world emissions.

World leaders have agreed to continue to work on a new global emissions agreement for 2015, which would take effect in 2020.

The older generations have decided to, yet again, finance their present interests with the youth’s future.

Before we see truly effective climate mitigation, we may have to wait until today’s youth become the official delegates they are now watching enter the negotiation room.

Unfortunately, at that point, it may be too late to avoid extreme climate disaster.

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