Youth flock to Paris climate talks to add ‘moral urgency’

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    Renee Karunungan at the UN climate change negotiations in Bonn

    Renee Karunungan at the UN climate change negotiations in Bonn

    Thousands of teens and twenty-somethings will go to the UN climate talks in Paris to push for a strong agreement on carbon reductions.   

    Forty to fifty thousand people are expected to attend the United Nations climate change negotiations and affiliated side events set to begin in Paris on Monday.

    Thousands of those participants will be young people, teens and twenty-something activists who hope their presence will add a sense of moral urgency to the negotiations.

    Some have raised money on crowd-funding sites to travel to Paris. Others are supported by non-profits aiming to increase representation from developing nations. Many say the outcome of the meetings will impact their way of life. 

    Motivated by a fear of a heritage melting away

    “Climate change has affected my life since, well, since I was very young,” said Jannie Staffansson, a 25-year-old masters student who will represent the indigenous Sami people of Scandinavia at the UN climate negotiations.

    Staffansson grew up in the mountains of central Sweden in a reindeer herding family, where she said people are constantly talking about weather conditions.

    “When I was fairly young I noticed the talk was more about ‘Well this is strange, now the ices are melting here, and the lakes are open there and such things,” Staffansson said.

    One strange change: winter rains that later freeze over on the ground are increasingly covering the lichen and moss that reindeer eat in an impenetrable layer of ice, making it impossible for the reindeer to access. Staffansson said precipitation is also changing in the spring, when baby reindeer are born.

    “All of a sudden, it starts to ‘snow rain’,” she said. “And that makes it difficult for the newborn reindeer to become dry. And many of them freeze to death.”

    The stress brought on by climate change has only gotten worse as Staffansson has gotten older. The traditional knowledge of weather patterns that her elders used to depend on is matching less and less with reality, making it harder to manage reindeer herds.

    Staffansson hopes to relay this message of changing weather to politicians in Paris as a representative of the Sami Council. Earlier this month, she also ran in a relay race across Northern Europe in her traditional Sami dress to raise awareness for climate change ahead of the talks.

    “If I cannot be a reindeer herder, I wanted to help the reindeer through climate work, to work towards stopping climate change,” Staffansson said.

    Young people given official constituent status

    UN delegations from some countries reserve slots on their negotiating teams for young people.

    To expand youth participation outside of these official delegate positions, the United Nations recognized young people as an official constituent group in 2009, placing them alongside indigenous people’s organizations and women’s groups, among other constituencies.

    The youth constituency has a loose organization and no paid staff, but the official status gives youth groups access to the talks, permission to speak in front of delegates, and office space at the UNFCCC.

    In many ways, these young people have the most at stake in the outcome of the negotiations, said Nicholas Nuttall, spokesperson for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the host of the climate summit.

    “They are the generation that will inherit either our inspiring policies that governments take or the failed policies that governments fail to take in terms of what’s going to happen to their future,” Nuttall said. 

    Renee Karunungan, 26, is one of eleven young adults from around the world shadowing their home country delegations through a program called “Adopt a Negotiator.”

    Karunungan will write about the negotiations from the perspective of developing nations, in blog posts and stories accessible to young people. A recent headline of one of her stories: “Why the UNFCCC is just like high school.”

    “I think this is the problem of our generation, which we will carry on into the future, and the solution lies in us to solve this climate crisis,” Karunungan said.

    Karunungan will be trailing the delegation from the Philippines, another country at the front lines of climate change. She lives in metro Manila, which sits on a bay and has rivers cutting through its densely populated center.

    “During recent big typhoons in the Philippines, our city or our community is always flooded,” Karunungan said. “Up to about a month’s rain can be dumped into the city in one day.”

    Even young activists are jaded

    Nathan Thanki, the 25-year-old co-leader of the official youth constituency, has been to a handful of previous climate talks and is less optimistic about the outcome in Paris than some first-timers.

    “It’s really tiring and really draining to go and watch, if you’re being melodramatic, the end of the world being negotiated.” Thanki said. “It’s very frustrating as a young person to repeatedly watch governments sort of quibble over commas and just really not live up to the level of ambition we all know is needed.”

    Thanki is from Belfast, in Northern Ireland. He has been cobbling together funding to work as a youth organizer on the UN scene full-time since he finished college in 2014.

    Despite his frustration with world leaders, Thanki said what brings him back to the talks again and again are the other passionate young people who flock there from around the world.

    “You go into the convergence spaces, the art spaces, the squats, and there’s a lot of energy,” Thanki said. “You get involved in very different kinds of conversations, it can be overwhelming, definitely, but it’s mostly just very inspiring.”

    Thanki is not optimistic that world leaders will pledge to cut carbon emissions enough to keep climate change at bay. He is advocating for carbon limits that would keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, more ambitious than the official current target of two degrees.

    Stephen O’Hanlon, a junior at Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia is not optimistic either. The 20-year-old will travel to Paris as the culmination of a class on the international climate talks.

    Still, O’Hanlon believes it is important for young people to go to the talks. He sees Paris as the kick-off event for a new wave of climate activism.

    “The Paris negotiations are representing the first time that world leaders are putting us in a different direction, putting us in a direction away from fossil fuels,” O’Hanlon said. “That’s a huge victory for our movement, but… because it’s not enough we’re going to keep pushing.”

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