Youth Activists Vocal at Climate Talks

More than 500 young people from 54 countries converged on the coal-mining region of Poznan, Poland last month to weigh in on a critical discussion in preparation for a new global climate treaty, expected to be hammered out late this year in Copenhagen.

The largest youth turnout of the climate talks so far, the student delegates joined global leaders at the 14th annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) to lobby officials, push for policy and cultivate their growing network of young people working to address the climate crisis.

“The sophistication and the intelligence of the youth movement…was especially powerful this year,” said Kyle Gracey, 25, a graduate student at the University of Chicago and chair of SustainUS, one of the U.S.’s youth networks for sustainable development.

Over the past year, youth leaders say they’ve stepped up their use of technology and sharpened their organizing efforts to more effectively reach out across cultures to encourage participation. The result, they say, was a more focused message at Poznan and a more globally representative youth showing that surpassed the prior year’s count of about 200.

Why this generation of young people, and why this issue?

“It’s our future being gambled with, and it’s our generation that is going to be bearing the brunt of either poor decisions, or really good decisions,” said Brianna Cayo Cotter, 27, communications director for Energy Action Coalition, an alliance of 50 organizations that supports the youth climate and energy movements.

“Young people have been at the forefront saying…we cannot go forward with any piece of legislation or any corporate practice that does not, at bare minimum, safeguard the survival of all countries and all peoples.”

The message that “survival is non-negotiable” emerged as youth’s central theme in Poznan. Continuing their trademark displays of visual activism (they played a game of ice hockey in a swimming pool in Montreal to envision an “ice-free” future and duct-taped their mouths in Nairobi to protest the lack of youth representation), youth delegates silently raised small placards bearing that single word “survival.”  The demonstration aimed to remind global ministers what was at stake. But it also helped them secure pledges from about 90 countries – including Uganda, Sweden, Iceland and Venezuela – to commit to their Survival Campaign as they develop a new treaty. The U.S. was not among pledgers.

Over the two-week negotiations, youth leaders met daily to focus their agenda. Using a U.N.-like governance structure, they broke out into working groups concentrating on media outreach, policy and activism. They formed an overseeing body that monitored progress, establishing legislative goals and policy statements to be read at high-level meetings. They stayed connected with youth outside the talks by blogging in real-time and posting photos and videos to social networking sites.

For the first time, youth delegates in 2008 were given a daily blocked hour and meeting space to coordinate their actions, with the UNFCCC also helping to organize an intergenerational side event on climate solutions.

It’s clear the youth movement’s work is gaining steam. Their loose collective of a decade ago is today finding its voice — and the ears of their international leaders.

“Young people are not just young,” Laurence Pollier, Programme Officer of the UNFCCC Secretariat, wrote from Germany via e-mail. “They are also concerned, thoughtful citizens capable of…changing the society of which they are a part, consistently proving that they have the power to make…a difference in their local communities and in the world.”

Young people who participated in Poznan took different roads to the negotiations — as diverse as their own backgrounds. Some prepared with formal youth training, some were sent with full funding from their government or university. Others made the trek with the help of grant money, or simply paid the bill themselves.

In the case of SustainUS, for example, the 19-member delegation made the trip with a combination of grants and their own fundraising dollars. They prepared with a weekend training session in the early fall of 2008, getting guidance from peers who had attended previous climate talks and young activists from other environmental groups. From there, youth from delegations around the world began coordinate their efforts online, sharing strategy and information to focus a global youth mission.

A month after the climate talks, youth leaders count that international coordination among their accomplishments. But many left Poznan, too, with their share of disappointment. Little progress came of the negotiations as leaders look to Copenhagen. And many youth expressed frustration in the few decisions that were made, such as striking language from a deforestation agreement that would protect indigenous people’s rights.

“Young people have the added hurdle of not having the financial resources, the political power, and in many cases the voting power, to mount a really successful campaign,” said said Raj Shukla, director of education programs for The Climate Project, a nonprofit organization spearheaded by former Vice President Al Gore. “But I think this Millennial generation…is increasingly powerful, and I think they are starting to realize just how powerful they are.”

In this year leading to Copenhagen, young people say they will amp up awareness campaigns in their local community and continue to organize globally to diversify their own international representation. Here in the U.S., more than 10,000 youth are expected to meet in Washington, D.C. from February 27 to March 2 for Power Shift 2009, the second national youth summit on climate change.

The event, said Gracey, is a great place for youth interested in climate change to network with other youth, learn more about the issue and find out how they can join the movement this year in Copenhagen.

“For us, there’s really no down time. We’re hitting the ground running from Poznan,” said Gracey. “This is our moment.”

See More:

Road to Copenhagen: Its Getting Hot in Here

UN Talks Set Program: Grist

Enthusiasm for Clean Energy Translates to Votes: ClimateEdu

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Published: January 13, 2009