Guest Column: Youth voices can and must be heard in international climate talks

Young activists from the Canadian Wildlife Federation at the United Nations climate talks in Cancun, Mexico in December 2010. Photo by Syd Schulz.

By Syd Schulz, CG guest columnist

When people find out that I went to Cancun, Mexico for the United Nations climate talks, they ask some variation of this question: “So, did you save the world?”

I’m getting a little tired of this—the answer is no, of course, but it’s not that simple.  I didn’t go to Cancun with illusions of changing the world.  As a youth delegate with SustainUS, a U.S.-based, youth-run organization that promotes sustainable development, I went because I was offered the opportunity and because I’m fascinated by international politics.

However, as part of YOUNGO, the international youth constituency within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, I found myself surrounded by idealistic, brilliant young people. They were young adults with faith in their ability to affect the process, and that faith is not unwarranted.

A YOUNGO sub-group wrote a policy recommendation for Article 6, the section of the long-term agreement that deals with climate change education.  When the UN adopted Article 6, about half of the language was taken directly from the YOUNGO submission.  After pressure from the youth, almost all the countries agreed to adopt 1.5 degrees Celsius as the “shared vision,” or ideological target for reducing warming.

Of course, such policy changes are very small steps and they’re hardly in the world-saving category. When thinking about Cancun, however, I’m reminded of a quote by Bill McKibben, co-founder of and author of “The End of Nature.” He said that, when it comes to global climate change, “we need silver buckshot not a silver bullet.”  After two weeks in Cancun, I am convinced that youth attendance at UNFCCC conferences is part of that silver buckshot.

Many negotiators went out of their way to include youth delegates in the process. U.S. Chief Negotiator Jonathon Pershing held multiple briefings just for U.S. youth, answering our questions directly and frankly.  We also had the opportunity to meet with Conference President Patricia Espinosa, Secretariat Christiana Figueres and high-level ministers from many other countries.  No one dismissed us or treated us as children.  Most negotiators seem to recognize that it will be us and our children who live with the consequences of their decisions.  That fact alone gives our actions and demonstrations an emotional power that other constituencies do not have.

When we stood in a line outside the negotiating hall wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “You have been negotiating all my life. You cannot tell me you need more time,” delegates stopped to talk to us.  Most of them agreed. Many of them have children, too. They were glad we were there to back them up and say the things they could not.

Of course, our presence was not enough to push through a binding treaty. As always, there are powerful forces at work. Nothing changes easily.  Think how hard it is to change one person’s mind. Now, multiple that by 4 billion and you have a good depiction of international diplomacy.

But Cancun was not a waste. The conference exemplified compromise and strong leadership by Mexico and helped pull the process out of the Copenhagen rubbish heap.  Cancun showed that diplomats can still come together, bash heads and end up with something that looks, tastes and smells like an agreement.

Is it good enough? No.  The emissions targets agreed upon in Cancun will not save small island states like Tuvalu and the Maldives from going underwater. The money in the adaptation fund will not be enough to counter the adverse affects of climate change in the developing world. Anti-deforestation policies still fail to safeguard indigenous rights.

Expectations were so low for Cancun that it was easy for negotiators and governments to pat themselves on the back for doing anything.  While it is important to note that Cancun beat its nearly sub-terrestrial expectations, we cannot forget that we can do better. We must do better.

As young people and the primary stakeholders in climate change, we must deliver that message.  We must be loud. We must be visible at international conferences, national and local elections and the family dinner table. Our voices count. The world is listening.

Syd Schulz is an Athens, Ohio native and a sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont.