Participation & Governance

History Repeating Itself or a Brave New World? Youth and the 20th Annual Climate Change Negotiations

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Civil society action at the most recent climate negotiations has highlighted some weaknesses and divisions amongst youth, but also some paths forward to a new way of cooperating together. Luke Kemp, historic ‘critical friend’ of youth at the UNFCCC and regular contributor to tells us about the difficulties faced - and progress being made - by youth at this year’s climate talks in Lima.

Credit: COP20 Website
Credit: COP20 Website

Youth have often struggled cooperating internationally. For many newcomers, this was depressingly obvious during the first few days of both the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the climate talks, the 10th Conference of the Youth preceding it. An afternoon session was stalled for over an hour due to arguments over whether there was supposed to be an activity concentrated on introducing the negotiations and youth constituency (YOUNGO) followed by the writing of a youth declaration, or both were supposed to occur simultaneously.

This was probably due to language barriers, misunderstandings or simply a miscommunication, but it nonetheless was not a positive start and highlighted many existing fractures.

There has also been a consistent tension throughout the year between the elected focal points and some of both the Bottom Lining Group and wider constituency. This was on display in recent, unnecessarily heated fights over the design of youth t-shirts and the design of the schedule of ‘Young and Future Generations Day’.

Even more worryingly, the working group structure of YOUNGO appears to have dwindled, with the Intergenerational Equity (fondly known as ‘Inteq’) and education working groups the only two left standing (the former having largely incorporated the mitigation working group) and operating in a connected fashion.

Personalities are only partly to blame. No-one in particular is guilty. Most of this, in some way or another, has happened before. It’s a structural issue.

Most youth who have been involved with climate negotiations have felt the dismay that accompanies seeing how our common struggles are so often suffocated by procedural disputes ad in-fighting. Both COP18 and COP19 even ended in late, desperate, reconciliation talks between many youth. Today, as I write this article, history is repeating itself with many youth now in discussions on how to reform YOUNGO. It’s a situation I warned of over a year ago when I first wrote a series on YOUNGO reform.

Our cooperation appears to be more than loosely based on the UN talks that we so often chide. Yet, as YOUNGO has faltered, many groups of youth have stepped forward.

logoConsistent pressure and advocacy by education and article 6 working groups has led to a number of European countries, including Poland, putting forward a key piece of text on education for the 2015 agreement. This group has now taken on a large number of amendments propose by youth. This youth inspired and crafted text is now likely to be adopted by a high-level ministerial meeting at COP 20 next week.

The Inteq group has had ‘Intergenerational Equity’ inscribed into the ADP non-paper on elements for a 2015 agreement, making it increasingly likely that the principle will be enshrined into existence for the first time in international law. They are now diligently following through with consistent campaigning and lobbying on numerous measures to implement this principle; efforts which have resulted in many countries showing support and taking on their numerous important amendments to the text.

Recently a number of student campaigners from the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFSMA) also achieved a key victory in Lima. Their lobbying efforts have led to both Australia and Canada tabling text on their behalf that recognises the ‘health co-benefits’ of mitigation action on climate change.

A common theme amongst of all these efforts has been the role of smaller, focused groups who have concentrated not just upon protests, but on complementary policy-driven, professional engagement. They seek to influence the negotiations in a holistic way that makes use of the diverse range of talents within YOUNGO, such as the legitimacy and access of official youth representatives, organising abilities of campaigners and knowledge of policy heroes (my new official replacement term for ‘policy wonks’) .

As our overarching structure (YOUNGO) has faced delays, bottom-up action from working groups has compensated.

Perhaps, international cooperation by youth is not destined to repeat the same political conflicts as our parents; it is shaped and moulded by our structures. My forecast, at least for the near future, will be a movement of youth, and our power, towards smaller working groups and campaigns.

As with climate action, when the top-down fails, the bottom-up compensates. The way forward for youth engagement is within these focused and targeted working groups which are connected by an umbrella campaign or ideal, such as that of intergenerational equity.

Of course many issues exist, such as inclusivity and finding some continuity for group activity throughout the year. Regardless, it matters little whether YOUNGO continues to repeat the mistakes of the past, because many are forging a brave new world of youth action within the climate talks.