For the three days before the 18th UN climate negotiations (COP18), young people met in the eighth annual Conference of Youth (COY) to plan for their engagement with the upcoming talks.This year UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres paid an unexpected visit youth were running a strategy session on how to be effective. Sarah Arnold from the UK Youth Climate Coalition tells us about her visit and the outcomes of COY8.
For the three days before the 18th UN climate negotiations (COP18), young people met in the eighth annual Conference of Youth (COY) to plan for their engagement with the upcoming talks. Several high level speakers also attended and shared their opinions on how young people should work and engage with the UN process.
Christiana Figueres - executive secretary of the UNFCCC - has long been a champion of young people at the UN, and is considered by many young people who attend the climate talks to be somewhat of a heroine. At each meeting she makes time to talk to young people, unafraid to tackle our interrogations head on in youth-dedicated question and answer sessions.
This year she unexpectedly visited COY on the second day while youth were running a strategy session on how to be effective. After two years overseeing the talks, she seemed somewhat disillusioned with the rate of progress, acknowledging that the talks were slow and very frustrating, and that “steam is running out”.
Christiana went on to charge youth (along with the rest of civil society) with pushing the process, providing “speed and scale” to the talks. She used the analogy of a boat, referring to governments as the captains on the deck, and civil society in the engine room. She said that young people could best engage with the talks by focussing on two or three specific policy areas and how they link together. And in a later talk on Monday, she encouraged youth to become the future negotiators of tomorrow.
In contrast, the keynote speakers of COY urged youth to take the opposite approach. Wael Hmaidan from CAN international stressed that young people should not be ‘carbon nerds’ focusing on policy. Yeb Sano, a negotiator for the Phillipines told youth not to read the convention text, that climate change would not be solved by meetings and that we should use this time to make friends and to share alternative solutions
I respect all three of the climate leaders mentioned above, and appreciate their willingness to engage with young people. However, I do not think youth should subsume themselves into the UNFCCC process completely; nor should we opt out of the system, or simply engage at a purely decorative level.
Climate change is a complex, multilayered, multinational problem. Young people are the key to the solution - because it is us who will have to live with the consequences, and we are not entrenched in the system that created it. The UNFCCC does not hold all the solutions, and is moving slowly, so investing all our energy into it will be an exhausting and potentially fruitless task. But ignoring, or standing apart, from the only global venue for discussing the problem is not a way forward and ignores the unique vision we can bring, as well as the expertise individual young people might have.
It may be that young people themselves are partly to blame. The most common question asked to Cristiana Figueres, other high level diplomats, negotiators and decision makers is “How can youth best engage with the process?” We cannot ask them to create a space for us, we need to create our own space. We need to engage with specific policy, to craft our own solutions, to campaign creatively and innovatively and to change the discourse, because that is what is needed.
Christiana Figueres ended her pep talk to youth saying, “we must not give up”. We agree, but that doesn’t mean we have to toil away in the engine room. We need to make ourselves more visible, to promote our own solutions - and call out those who are blocking progress. Our ‘captains’ are not always steering in the right direction and maybe it’s time for a mutiny.