The Next Generation on Climate

The Next Generation on Climate

Following the news from afar makes it hard to know exactly what transpired to make a climate deal happen over the weekend in Durban, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with youth.

And not just the notion of political leaders perhaps understanding how they control the destinies of the youngest and future generations, but the commitment, indignation and chutzpah of youth who participated in the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

As we assess what it means that climate negotiators managed to not come out of COP 17 empty-handed, including how best to communicate the deal to the public (see our discussion in the Member Forums), I wanted to note that two of the most lasting images from the coverage I saw about Durban both involved college students.

The first was a speech given by Anjali Appadurai, a Canadian studying at the College of the Atlantic in Maine, who addressed the conference on behalf of youth delegates. Saying that she represented more than half of the world’s population (“the silent majority”), she passionately called for immediate deep cuts and chided the negotiators for proposals to delay action until at least 2020.

“The most stark betrayal of your generation’s responsibility to ours is that you call this ‘ambition.’ Where is the courage in these rooms? Now is not the time for incremental action. In the long run, these will be seen as the defining moments of an era in which narrow self-interest prevailed over science, reason and common compassion. There is real ambition in this room, but it’s been dismissed as radical, deemed not politically possible,” Appadurai said. “What’s radical is to completely alter the planet’s climate, to betray the future of my generation, and to condemn millions to death by climate change. What’s radical is to write off the fact that change is within our reach.”

My favorite part came after her speech when, still on the podium, she did a mic check a la Occupy, doing a call-and-response with youth (and others) in the room imploring the negotiators to “get it done!”

The second memorable youth moment came when Middlebury student Abigail Borah had the gall to interrupt the beginning of lead U.S. negotiator Todd Stern’s speech at the concluding plenary. In a high-pitched yet strident voice, Borah told the conference (in spite of the COP chairman telling her to sit down because “no one is listening to you”) that she was speaking on behalf of the United States since the “obstructionist Congress” meant that the U.S. negotiators in Durban were unable to represent the American people:

“I am scared for my future….You must take responsibility to act now, or you will threaten the lives of youth and the world’s most vulnerable. You must set aside partisan politics and let science dictate decisions. You must pledge ambitious targets to lower emissions not expectations.  Citizens across the world are being held hostage by stillborn negotiations. We need leaders who will commit to real change, not empty rhetoric. Keep your promises. Keep our hope alive.”

One who spoke when it was her turn and one who interrupted, but both young women made it apparent that the voice of youth needs to be heard louder and clearer on climate change. So did other youth-related goings on in Durban, including the Adopt a Negotiator Project that involves youth showing up and tracking international climate negotiations as well as an event promoting The Rio+20 Global Youth Music Contest.

Young people around the globe who have awakened to the reality of climate change must be shaking their heads at how slow and ineffective grownups have been at addressing such a serious and imminent threat. In addition to making sure that youth, including those too young to vote, are a top constituency for our work, those of us trying to communicate about climate change must embrace the fervor and idealism of youth and make sure that our ears are open to what they have to say.

This is why we felt it was important to have the youth voice represented in the roundtable discussion we are presenting tomorrow on Climate Attitudes 101: What We’ve Learned, Where We’re Headed. Matt Lappé is the program director of Alliance for Climate Education, a group which was recently named climate communicator of the year by George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication, for its excellent work educating and engaging high school students on climate change. I look forward to speaking with him, along with Tony Leiserowitz and Eileen Quigley, and gaining insights into what American youth are thinking, feeling and doing about climate change.

(note: There are only a handful of spaces left to join tomorrow’s roundtable, so you are encouraged to sign up soon. All Climate Access members are invited to join the post-roundtable discussion in the Member Forums starting at 3 p.m. EST.)

Image is a screenshot from the video