Voice of youth heard in Durban

Guest post by Max Song

American youth delegate Abigail Borah was ejected from the plenary floor of the UN climate conference in Durban on Thursday for interrupting the United States’ special envoy for climate change Todd Stern

“I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot. The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait. We need an urgent path to a fair ambitious and legally binding treaty,” Borah said, after which she was escorted from the room.

The impact of youth groups has been felt in Durban. On December 6, young people from the United States and China held a joint workshop to discuss how the two sides can cooperate with each other with the goal of allowing the next generation of American and Chinese climate leaders to set off on a path of cooperation, instead of disagreement. Some of their ideas include:

– Creating a China-US network of young climate activists;

– Knowledge sharing on expertise in environmental activism;

– Signing a memorandum of agreement on climate-change issues between the two countries’ younger generations

The youth groups have until now focused their efforts on grassroots campaigns, some of which have been very successful. Chinese youth launched a Climate Action Day that more than 30,000 people attended, for example, while the Sierra Club has run a campaign called “Campuses Beyond Coal” which aims to shut down all campus-owned coal plants across the United States, with 16 already committed to weaning themselves off coal.

Durban is not the first time that youth from the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases have met. Chinese and US youth groups have participated in UN climate-change meetings since the summit in Copenhagen in 2009.  Last year, they created the first China-US Youth Climate Exchange at the UN Climate Summit in Cancun, even catching the eye of the media. Surprisingly, they are often able to meet and talk with some of the top negotiators from US and China.

But, despite their achievements, I would say young people should aim higher still. The future of the world’s climate depends largely on the cooperation between the United States and China. With discord between these countries’ negotiators as strong as ever, youth could be constructive just by bringing the two sides together.  

For example, youth are able to gain access to high-level officials in a way that many other observers are not as they are viewed as non-threatening and good for public relations. Particularly given the dominance of US-China bickering at the climate negotiations, youth could set up a side event where leaders from the two sides could openly engage outside of the negotiations, to demonstrate to youth and the public that they can find some points of common ground. No such side event has occurred in Durban, although there have been many events showcasing Chinese and US experts in the official China Pavilion.

Long-term continuity of these movements also needs improving. Each year, inspired young people meet on an international stage at the UN climate conferences, but when they return to their respective countries, the dialogue often stops and their lives as students and youth leaders take over. Meeting and sharing experiences at the climate meetings are an important first step, but that’s often where the collaborations end.  Youth could benefit if they created a more permanent structure to build on, rather than starting afresh every year.

Max Song is a Master’s candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He attended COP-17 in Durban.