Activism & Volunteering

Reforming the youth constituency at the UN climate negotiations - Part III : Approach

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“So now that we have an idea of the role that YOUNGO has at the UNFCCC, and the changes that need to take place internally to make us more effective, we must turn our attention to how YOUNGO interacts with the negotiators, the talks and the media to achieve our aims and objective.” In the third article in his series on reforming the youth constituency at the UN climate negotiations, Luke tackles the approach that YOUNGO takes at the talks.

So now that we have an idea of the role that YOUNGO has at the UNFCCC, and the changes that need to take place internally to make us more effective, we must turn our attention to how YOUNGO interacts with the negotiators, the talks and the media to achieve our aims and objective.

Since becoming an official constituency, YOUNGO has focused upon protest and actions about broad issues at negotiating sessions. This is natural considering that YOUNGO is primarily composed of activist individuals and organisations, but delegations (comprising predominantly unelected officials and therefore not under pressure from an electorate) enter these talks with a mandate that constrains their actions and policies. They are unlikely to have significant changes of heart due to a catchy chant or placard.

Domestically, organisations and individuals such as those within YOUNGO can be extremely effective - as seen in the Arab Spring or the civil rights movement in the US. But these organisations have worked alongside others who employ a wide variety of tactics, all of which have combined to achieve their goal. We need to be realistic: if we haven’t been able to change domestic positions solely through protest, it will most certainly not work at an intergovernmental negotiating process.

To put it bluntly, acting like a domestic protest movement at international negotiations is not going to work.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some wins. But looking back, our greatest successes have not come from civil action and disobedience at negotiations. As youth, our most concrete, tangible victories have come from through professional engagement with negotiators on youth specific issues. This can be seen in both the inclusion of a paragraph on informal education in the Rio+20 outcome document, and in the work of the Article 6 working group at COPs 16 and 18.

These successes were supported by, but not built upon protests in the corridors, instead they were outcomes of relationship-building and dialogue with diplomats.

Stemming from these successes is another key lesson that we are still yet to learn. Most negotiators don’t know what the main policies of YOUNGO are; let alone what direct outcomes we want in the text. More often that not, this is because we don’t have any direct policy points and we rarely make submissions to the UNFCCC. Those that we do have are often hastily developed at COPs, outcomes of a rushed and often fraught process. We don’t effectively use our working groups to lobby on specific points and ideas. Instead we focus our energies on finding consensus and composing messages to chant in the corridors.

And without these clear, specific and well-argued objectives, our ability to speak to and through the media has suffered. Yes, stunts are valuable in getting pictures or a small article onto page 30. But our real coverage has come instead from youth-focused analysis projects like “Adopt A Negotiator” or “Youth Policy”- written by young people but not a programme of YOUNGO. If we are looking for real progress in media coverage then we should focus upon scaling up these initiatives and bringing them to a wider audience. We should aim to utilise our media networks and negotiator trackers to produce and disseminate well-articulated analysis and critique of the talks, including much more clearly defined demands for what the texts should look like.

Along with these changes we should utilise a stronger online presence. Digitally we should operate as a movement. We should have a list of youth representatives and organisations that can disseminate our documents and media article to thousands of youth worldwide. We can use this same network to gain feedback and information from our constituency. If we are looking to represent youth worldwide then why not use networks which already exist instead of building our own?

Our website should become the hub of operations and an antenna for further youth involvement. Youth from around the world should be able to easily find what positions YOUNGO is taking on different issues, how we work, and get in contact with working groups, as well as develop knowledge about the UNFCCC and its associated issues [and acronyms].

I am not calling for a wholesale scrapping of our current tactics. But a change in our approach is vital, and there is already some appetite for this change to occur. Without a new approach, changes in our function and form will remain ineffectual and our opportunities for real progress will go unrealised. Yes, shouty protest actions are cathartic, and yes, they show that we won’t be hemmed in by UNFCCC rules. But ignoring the platforms provided that would enable us to make headway in advocating for the progressive, ambitious climate agreement our generation needs risks cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

This blog is part of a series authored by Luke Kemp for /environment looking at how the youth constituency to the UN climate talks should reform itself. You can read his other articles here.