Agents of Change—Why Youth, the Global South, Minorities, and Woman Must Take Their Rightful Seat at the Table, and How They Are Being Prevented from Doing So

by Emily Williams,

CSSC Campaign Director

The UNFCCC likes to think that it’s “politically friendly.” At the Conferences of the Parties they work tirelessly on media, informational pamphlets, swag, and dazzling side events to “celebrate” marginalized demographics and throw around rhetoric of welcoming them into a place of leadership. Nearly every day has a theme here at COP; human rights got its very own day on Wednesday. Yet the UNFCCC chose to celebrate two demographics in particular with their own days—Women’s Day Young and Future Generations Day (YoFuGe). However, as a youth and as a women, I have to ask myself—am I being tokenized?

In my work with the California Student Sustainability Coalition, I don’ often reflect on what it means to be a female youth in climate leadership. I’m surrounded by youth who respect one another, and women are strongly represented in leadership roles. However, at the COP, I have been much more self-aware. I begin to see myself as no more than a “kid” or a sweet face to take a photo of for a press conference. YoFuGe Day this year was titled “Agents of Change.” The day featured plenty of side events, panels, and press conferences arranged around youth and future generations. Negotiators and staff of the UNFCCC sang praises of the wonderful youth who took it upon themselves to try to get involved, and toted these smiling youth as role models of how to eventually get engaged in the negotiations process. Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, even had a briefing with youth. The briefing was held in a large conference rooms, with tables forming a giant rectangle so everyone could see each other. She wanted more. We all climbed over the tables and sat criss-cross-apple-sauce on the floor in the center of the room, going around the room and asking her questions: “how can youth be better represented in the negotiations process?”; “how can the UNFCCC provide financial support for disadvantaged youth to attend?”; “why will you not allow focal points for major NGO groups to attend who are under 18?” She delivered a long and eloquent speech, cameras around the room snapping photos, and pens scribbled on notepads to keep up with what she was saying. At the end of the briefing, scrambling back over the tables, I had to pause and ask myself if any of our questions were answered. I could only account for 2 of them.

Why aren’t youth represented in the COP? The UNFCCC keeps pushing for us to be “agents of change”, and yet doesn’t provide the space for youth to be represented in this process. Youth, who represent 1/3 of all people around the world, are only granted 1 minute per large plenary session to address the negotiators. Youth also have incredible ideas. They have proven themselves time and again by creating draft texts for the sessions, engaging in high-level negotiations with ministers, and organizing campaigns that sometimes do their country’s job for them. And yet, youth (even though youth includes people up to 30) are given the kind of respect they deserve. We are not statistics, we are not case studies, and we are not props. We are negotiators for the future and for the planet. After all, whose futures will climate change impact the most?

This trend unfortunately transcends youth. The COP held a second day to commemorate a certain demographic—women. Women’s Day was entirely and incredibly…anti-climactic. Several side events played tribute to women, yet when you looked beyond the UNFCCC display of politically-correct side events, you realize that nowhere were women actually being treated as equal. I attended an event at the US pavilion on arctic melting and arctic communities. Both the subject matter and the gender balance was depressing. The panel itself was somewhat balanced (4 men to 2 women). However, when a women introduced the panel, the crowd talked over her; when the man stood up to begin speaking, the crowd fell silent. Later, a female tribal leader from Alaska skyped in and gave an incredible account of what oil extraction has done to her community and her home (spoiler alert: it wasn’t good). When a female audience member posed a question directly to her about the Arctic Council and ways for youth, indigenous people, and women to engage with it, a male panelist immediately jumped in to answer the question. That day, a twitter hashtag was created to track gender faults at COP; it’s results were sadly unsurprising.

To achieve gender equity, we cannot just hold a day to commemorate women and ask them to speak on a panel to strike a gender balance. That is tokenizing. We need to instead look at our delegations, see who is doing the majority of the work and the majority of the talking, and start creating some systemic shifts in balance.

We’ve recognized women and youth need to be more represented. Even the UNFCCC has determined it is politically safe enough a topic for the UNFCCC to recognize as well. But what about the Global South and minorities? Don’t they face many of the same discriminations and tokenizations that women and youth experience?

Let’s introduce the term equity. The UNFCCC uses it in a very particular context —equity means common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDRs) when it comes to who has the responsibility to deal with climate change. However, equity also means recognizing the historical injustices faced by a community or nation-state and determining what kind of resources they need to be given to ensure that the playing field is indeed even.

So for countries that have been colonized and are today experiencing the worst impacts of climate change, if we practiced equity, they would be given the leg up they deserve and not be burdened with the heaviest responsibilities of responding to climate change. That however is not what happens. The Philippines have been hit by a super-typhoon for each of the past 3 COPs , the Maldives are experiencing intense salt-water intrusion and are losing their land, and large swaths of Northern Africa have experienced extensive drought leading to forced migration. Despite these terrible burdens faced by the Global South, they are continuously shut down in the negotiations process and not given any support by the Global North in passing the kind of treaty that would save their people from even more suffering.

But these countries and people are not only subject to damages from climate-change juiced-storms. They’re also subject to negative impacts from their own governments and people in our movement. In Peru, the host country of COP20, environmental defenders face grave threats. Peru is the 4th most dangerous country for environmental defenders. Right before COP, 4 indigenous leaders and environmental defenders of the Saweto tribe were killed by loggers, and the Peruvian government has so far done nothing to respond. Then Greenpeace did a visually-striking action at two Incan sacred sites—Machu Picchu and Nazca. Greenpeace however did not get the permission of the indigenous people of Peru, and ended up desecrating the Nazca lines.

There is no UNFCCC-recognized “Global South Day” or “Negatively-Impacted Communities Day”, because this process still doesn’t recognize the rightful place of leadership of those most directly negatively impacted.

Youth, women, the Global South, and minorities are the most impacted by climate change. Many of these demographics also have the first-hand experience of what exploitation and injustice means, and thus a real understanding of the urgent need for ambitious mitigation, adaptation support, and finance for loss and damage. We are the people who have to live today, and tomorrow, with the under-weighted cost-benefit analyses run today. If we are ever going to respond to climate change and create solutions that effectively avoid the worst suffering, we need to rethink who is making the decisions, and who is being left out.

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