The youngest members of civil society have the most to lose — yet for COP organizers, they are too often an afterthought.
By Devi Lockwood
Following the election of Donald Trump, American students protest outside the United Nations climate talks during COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco, on November 9th, 2016. (Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)
Beatriz Azevêdo de Araújo, a youth delegate from Brazil, has attended every COP since COP19 in Warsaw, Poland, in 2013. She’s warm and confident and greets activists in Marrakech with a strong hug and a smile. Some United States youth delegates refer to her as their “afternoon espresso”; when things seem hopeless, Araújo and other members of the Brazilian youth delegation bring enthusiasm to an otherwise deadened space. Hugs are a much-needed antidote to despair.*
And on Wednesday — the day we learned that Donald Trump would be the next president of the U.S. — youth climate activists at COP22 were desperately in need of a hug.
I’m attending COP22 as a member of SustainUS, a group of climate justice storytellers from across the U.S. who were chosen to attend COP22 as “observers” — to bear witness to our own destruction. But I can tell you we weren’t entirely prepared for this outcome. I was shaken awake in the early hours of yesterday morning, when Brooke Larsen, a SustainUS delegate and environmental activist from Utah, put her hand on my knee. “Not all the results are in yet,” she said, “but it looks like Trump is going to be president.”
I moved through the day in a haze that felt like a bad dream crossed with a hangover. When I fell asleep the night before, Hillary Clinton’s victory had seemed inevitable. When I woke up, I was faced with the knowledge that my president-elect says climate change is a hoax. How do we move forward from here? The somber faces I passed inside the tents of COP22 mirrored my own anguish. I wasn’t alone in crying.
True to her reputation, Araújo welcomed me with a hug and a small point of insight. In her view, governments are less powerful than the people they represent. “My first COP, I attended negotiations rooms,” Araújo says, but in recent years, she hasn’t set foot inside that space, a combination of choice and the fact that civil society members these days are allowed only stringent access to the back rooms.
“From my perspective, it’s kind of pointless,” she says of the negotiations. “It’s very easy to promise things [at COP] and then go back home and do nothing.” For Araújo, in the absence of credible state action, any hope of taking action on climate change will require grassroots work by the public. “Youth here have to regain the power and just take action—because I don’t trust my government to do anything.”
David Tong of New Zealand leads the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute’s delegation at COP22. He’s a veteran of five COPs and doesn’t mince words. “We learned in Copenhagen, if not before, that the United Nations will not save the world,” Tong says. “We should damn well know by now that governments will not save the world. It’s people that save the world. Governments just tend to get in the way.”
A central irony of COP22 is that people with the most at stake in the negotiations — namely youth, women, indigenous people, people of color, and members of the global South — are largely excluded from negotiation spaces.
“Youth representation inside COP is very circumscribed,” Tong says. “Civil society doesn’t have much it can do.” The only time international youth are allowed to sit in the negotiations is when they are giving an intervention: a two-minute speech at the end of a long negotiation session. As a group, international youth are allowed just two or three interventions at COP. At the end of our two minutes, the microphone is switched off.
“Back in Durban,” Tong recalls, “my friend Anjali Appadurai gave an intervention. At the end, a party member said: ‘I wonder why it is that we let youth speak last, not first.’” In Lima, Tong watched Kya Lal, the only Pasifika youth representative at the negotiations, deliver an intervention — a deeply personal story about her home islands — to an empty room after the negotiations had finished.
Any youth influence over COP negotiations has been rendered largely symbolic. “We have been reduced to a photo op,” Tong says. “That’s not youth representation.”
In the wake of the announcement of Trump’s election, SustainUS planned an action in the outdoor pathways of COP22’s Blue Zone, the innermost area of the negotiating space. Besides a spoken intervention, there was also a musical one, as youth delegates from Switzerland, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Brazil, Vietnam, and elsewhere joined voices with U.S. youth in a song that we learned at a retreat at Canticle Farm in Oakland, California:
Let the land shape us.
Let water carve caverns within us.
Let the wind build and break us,
Fire remake us.
SustainUS delegates then unrolled an oversized scroll labeled the “Presidential People’s To-Do List.” The word “presidential” was crossed off in red paint because this election has taught us that it’s the people, not the government, who are going to have to find ways to deal with the climate crisis. The People’s To-Do List included: “work for climate justice,” “respect indigenous sovereignty,” “zero [carbon] by 2050,” and “break free from fossil fuels.”
After the scroll was unfurled, youth activists from the U.S. and abroad took turns telling stories about their lived experiences of climate injustice.
Ryan Camero of California sought to distance himself and his community from a Trump presidency. “Trump represents hatred, climate denial, sexism, and forces of oppression that we do not identify with at all.”
All the activists present vowed to continue fighting for climate justice, no matter who is in office. Trump quite simply does not represent U.S. youth; 55 percent of voters ages 18–29 voted for Clinton, and only 37 percent for Trump, according to the New York Times. At the protest organized by SustainUS, a ring of press with cameras and microphones looked on. Yes, youth at COP22 are reduced to a photo opportunity. We can only hope that amplifying our voices will help us eventually enact real change.
Just outside the COP22 Village, U.S. and international youth planted two flags, each with a blue-green marble view of the planet, as if seen from outer space. “We are all connected,” Ryan sang.
Later that afternoon, Araújo reflects on the protest. “The only reason why it’s useful to do an action like this is because we were here to support each other.This action for me was really important because it was youth talking to youth directly,” she says. “It was us strengthening ourselves and uniting to say that we’re together, we’re going to stay together, and we’re going to fight climate change.”
In a time when negotiators are questioning the point of gathering every year to set ambitious targets that many of them aren’t meeting, Araújo offers perhaps the most compelling reason for COP to exist: So that global activists can connect, exchange organizing skills, and take those strategies back to their home communities to mobilize in this time of crisis. In the wake of Trump’s election, global youth are learning that we can’t rely on elected leaders to make change.
With Clinton — who believes in climate change and advanced a fairly clear, if inadequate, roadmap to carbon neutrality — there was hope of pushing her toward a more progressive position on climate action. Trump is a climate denier who has promised to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and withdraw from the Paris Agreement. He’s a wild card, and a dangerous one. It’s not just American lives and livelihoods that are at stake, but also those of the world’s most vulnerable populations. I mourn for my nation’s shortsightedness in electing Trump as leader. I am part of a generation of activists who wonder if it is worth it to have children in the future — to bring them into this climate dystopia.
In the words of Tong: “Even if we fail, and we get a 3.5 or 4.5 degree world, I can’t think of a bunch of better young people to fail to save the world with.”
If nothing else, we have each other.
*Update—November 10, 2016: This post has been updated to reflect that Beatriz Azevêdo de Araújo’s first COP was in Warsaw, Poland, in 2013.