Written by Julia Theilen, graduate student of International Communication at St. John’s University.
At the closing ceremony of COY13 (the thirteenth Conference of Youth) held prior to the UN climate change conference COP23 (the twenty-third Conference of Parties) in Bonn, Germany, a young woman representing the Pacific Climate Warriors, moved the audience with her metaphorical speech:
With a flower in her hair, she explained to the audience that when her people on the island she’s from are canoeing, they put the young, strong and energetic people in the front to paddle and serve as the engine of the boat, while an elderly member of the community sits in the back of the canoe to steer it in the right direction. In order for the canoe to arrive at its destination, both the young and the more experienced, older people need to collaborate to achieve the common goal.
She then transferred this learning to all people living on this planet in combatting climate change, the biggest current threat to the young woman’s home. Only if we include both young and adult citizens in understanding and acting against this threat, using the energy of the young to move forward and trusting the experience of adults to take the right decisions along the way, can we take meaningful and rewarding climate action.
Young and older generations coming together to collectively act on climate change
When I had the opportunity to participate at COY13 and COP23 in the beginning of November 2017, one thing became very clear to me: Young people around the world are already creatively and passionately uniting to take effective climate action. Empowering them with the financial and technological resources to participate in UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) processes so they can fulfill their potential as agents of real social change, is crucial to secure life on our planet for future generations.
At COY and COP, being part of a team representing the non-profit organization IAAI based in Austria, my team supported the organization’s “Give Youth A Chance” Campaign, a multi-stakeholder, large-scale resource mobilization initiative for youth climate action. We engaged with young climate activists at a workshop creating a campaign video together, and at COP23, we held interactive side events to forge the Grand Coalition called for by COP23 president Frank Bainimarama to bring climate action forward. We discussed the potential of block chain technology for youth empowerment for climate action, held press conferences and engaged with visitors at our exhibition booth.
Particularly impressive to me was the confidence and maturity with which young people raised their voices for the protection of the planet and a more sustainable future. For instance, Kehkashan Basu, a 17 year old girl from the United Arab Emirates had traveled to COY and COP to represent the environmental organization Green Hope that she founded herself and to encourage more young people to take climate action and to make their voices heard. She also showcased the power of music as an emotional mode of communication to engage others in climate action by performing her self-composed “Song for climate justice”.
Unofficial U.S. delegation committed to compensating for administration’s withdrawal from Paris Agreement
While all developed countries such as France, Korea, Japan, and the United Kingdom, as well as China, a country that has experienced rapid economic and social development but still has complex development needs, presented their commitments to climate action in a pavilion in the Bonn zone of the conference, I was disappointed to see that for the first time, the U.S. government declined to set up a presence in the pavilion zone at the summit. The United States’ absence in the pavilion area was based on the country’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement, being in accordance with President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy. After Syria signed the Paris Accord during the first week of November during COP23, the U.S. is now isolated on the world stage as the only nation in the world who refuses to be a member of the climate deal.
It wasn’t until the end of the first COP23 week that an unofficial U.S. delegation of representatives of America’s “We Are Still In” Pledge had opened an unofficial, separate “US Climate Action Center”, a large inflatable complex that resembled a cluster of giant igloos. It was set up next to the Bula Zone, where negotiations were taking place, while the other nations’ pavilions were all located next to each other in a conference hall in the Bonn zone. With this huge igloo complex, the U.S. had the largest pavilion at the summit. Members of America’s unofficial grass-roots delegation were committed to demonstrating the country’s enduring commitment to tackling climate change, ensuring a clean energy future, and upholding the Paris Agreement, despite the government’s contrary announcement.
However, a group of local leaders from America’s city halls, state houses, boardrooms, and college campuses, representing around 127 million out of over 320 million Americans cannot compensate for absent federal policy, due to the Trump administration’s exit from the accord, in working towards reducing emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, equaling the country’s previous Paris goals (read more on this in the New York Times). The rival group of governors, mayors and business leaders who were at the U.S. Climate Action Center, speaking for the American people, were not part of the official U.S. delegation and hence not participating in negotiations.
As a visitor at COP23, I acknowledged and respected the presence of the U.S. Climate Action Center and the commitment that the members of the America’s Pledge are showing. However, the enormous size and special location of the unofficial rival delegation’s igloo complex, the largest pavilion of all parties, felt inappropriately overcompensating, considering the country’s lack of official contribution to the negotiations resulting from the Trump administration’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
The important role of communication in understanding climate change and promoting climate action
Looking back at my experiences at COP23 now, I came to a concerning realization:
There are so many non-profit as well as private sector organizations leading the way with sustainable technological innovations and business ideas, and most governments are following comprehensive strategies of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, that after being at COP and seeing all of these developments, one would think the world is on the right track to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Having had access to this conference, I learned a lot about recent innovations for clean energy, about different countries’ engagements in climate action, and more. However, I realized that what I experienced at COP23 was comparable to living in a bubble of climate activists and environment protectors detached from the rest of society, surrounded only by people who are already highly involved with the issue and who are dedicating their professional occupation to solving the climate crisis. Unfortunately, life outside this bubble looks different. When we look at the world news agenda and the broader public, climate change still has rather low priority and for many people in the world, it’s not yet an issue that affects them personally.
Are people within the climate action movement mainly talking to themselves, both at international conferences and on social media? How can we raise awareness for the urgency of combatting climate change amongst the masses that are not yet involved with the issue? How can we connect all climate initiatives around the world with each other for an exchange of ideas, and how can we connect them with potential funders, to take more systematic and globally coordinated climate action? How can we better communicate what is being discussed at COP23 to the outside world?
Call to take responsibility and start with change on an individual level
Now that I had the chance to be part of the climate action ‘bubble’ for a few days, I understood that every individual person plays an important role in widening the circle and giving climate change more relevance amongst the larger public. If everyone advocates in their personal social circle for respecting nature and for leading a sustainable lifestyle, reducing their personal carbon footprint through initiatives like climate neutral now, motivation and innovative concepts to combat climate change will spread around the world, outside of the walls of COPs and COYs.
Fiji, the country in the South Pacific that had the presidency of this year’s COP, is famed for rugged landscapes, palm-lined beaches and coral reefs with clear lagoons. We all need to understand though, that with sea levels rising already, people who live in Small Island states like these have no time left to wait for highly industrialized nations to give climate change first priority. Polar caps are melting, large-scale deforestation and major wood fires are spreading, and animal species are going extinct. Storms, floods and earthquakes and other extreme weather events that result from climate change around the world are already causing climate migration, many deaths and destruction of infrastructure, as the Global Climate Risk Index 2018 recently published by Germanwatch shows. It’s time to face the biggest threat not only to our environment and animals, but to ourselves as human beings – now.