Activism & Volunteering

Reforming the youth constituency at the UN climate negotiations - Part II : Form

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“While we as youth have done an admirable job so far, we clearly have some inherent internal problems. Problems of memory, coherence and consensus aren’t just holding us back; they are becoming worse with each passing COP.” In the secondarticle in his series on reforming the youth constituency at the UN climate negotiations, Luke looks at the form and structure of YOUNGO and how to best utilise limited resources.

While we as youth have done an admirable job so far, we clearly have some inherent internal problems. Problems of memory, coherence and consensus aren’t just holding us back; they are becoming worse with each passing COP.

As such, the second major reform needed within YOUNGO is around form. What we do needs to determine how we structure ourselves. An effective internal structure will help us to achieve our aims in the short and long term.

My proposed form and approach makes the most out of our opportunities as a constituency. A focus upon influencing negotiations through persuasion and networking means that we will need to make better use of our access to negotiators, events and speeches. Stronger working groups and majority voting will allow for us to be a stronger, unified voice.

Institutional Memory

The first major downfall of YOUNGOs current form is the lack of emphasis placed on institutional memory. As most youth who attend COPs are self-funded, many cannot afford to return year on year, and as such, much of YOUNGO is reinvented come the talks. Not only does this mean that we do not learn the lessons of past mistakes and successes, it means that YOUNGO finds itself floundering on basic processes, unsure of how they were handled in the past.

Additionally, many of our working groups are constantly in flux and there is a lack of communication between them. This has led to extreme inefficiencies. Often we begin a COP without any clear policy positions, let alone ones which negotiators are aware of. Without these policy positions, working groups are left to play-catch up through the talks as they try to follow progress, write and agree to positions and then create advocacy opportunities to advance the agenda.

We need to break this groundhog day scenario. We need to be able to build on our work each year, continuing to develop our standing and efficacy at the talks if we are ever to get anywhere.

Decision making

Consensus decision making is an aspect of YOUNGO that is so rigidly stuck to as an ideology that, far from making us inclusive and equitable, it has become a barrier to agreement and efficacy. Our Spokes Council (the daily morning meeting bringing all of YOUNGO together) essentially operates as a negotiating session between different organisations. Our procedures are time-consuming and ill-defined. The sense that this process is designed to help us achieve our collective aims easily becomes lost in the circular discussions.

The way that YOUNGO works has fostered a situation where many do not wish to oppose proposals in meetings for fear of being seen as a barrier to progress or action by the movement. As such, divides and tensions forms and groups start to emerge that work on the fringes of the constituency, taking their own decisions that are in direct conflict with those being taken by other ‘fringe’ groups. This results in a lack of coherence that is not just seen in the Spokes Council of YOUNGO. Points of outright conflict have emerged, as seen by the infamous singing spider protest at COP18 (see a great post and explanation here) that damage the movement by making public our divisions and disagreements.

I envision a Spokes Council which is made up of working groups when it comes to voting issues. Majority voting would be used when consensus cannot be reached. This would make us a more flexible and adaptable body, allowing for change and for the group to take strong positions on controversial issues. It would also eliminate the problem of giving everyone a veto (a single climate sceptic could cripple YOUNGO if they chose to attend our sessions) and encourage dialogue and compromise on issues that are often otherwise hidden under an aversion to block.

Working Groups

From experience, it appears to me that despite all the rhetoric about us working together as global youth, irrespective of the usual divisive labelling, everyone appears to identify themselves first and foremost with their organisation, not with YOUNGO.

YOUNGO is simply a collection of groups, generally going about their own activities. We occasionally come together for statements or grand actions, but the majority of the COP is a scramble of different organisations often with competing messages and agendas. Working groups play second fiddle to these independent organisations.

A greater emphasis needs to be placed upon our working groups. Working groups serves as the glue that holds YOUNGO together as well as our teeth in terms of influencing negotiations. These teeth need to be sharpened.

To do so, we need to address problems of coherence and memory and we need to stop being afraid of any form of hierarchy or specialisation. Misguided hatred of hierarchy has meant that most working groups act without any form of leadership. This must change.

Giving a greater deal of responsibility and power to working group coordinators who can provide facilitation skills, expertise and an ongoing presence between COPs would undoubtedly be beneficial for YOUNGO.

Coordinators within working groups would not only lead writing session summaries for institutional memory, but would also organise the working group in between COPs. This will help to ensure the lobbying continues to happen well before negotiating sessions and that we actually make submissions to the UNFCCC when invited to. Currently, we have a terrible track record with both.

To suggest these changes in practice are easy. In reality changes in form would be the hardest aspect of what I propose to change.

YOUNGO is fantastically inspiring in it’s collective passion, integrity and fearlessness in sticking to what is ‘right’. But that fearlessness can sometimes become stubbornness in the face of change.

While function and approach are open to rational discussion and agreement, the idea that YOUNGO might become a hierarchical organisation no longer based on consensus would be for some, unacceptable.

But we must face up to the fact we are not imitating more progressive, integrated supranational structures like the EU. Instead, we have organised ourselves to replicate the same intergovernmental process that we criticise for being ineffective, unjust and slow.

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