After two whirlwind weeks at the UN climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, I’m finally back home in Chicago with some time to reflect on my experience. I was at the negotiations with SustainUS, a U.S. youth network for sustainable development. Run entirely by youth volunteers, SustainUS has been sending delegations to the climate talks since 2005. (You can meet this year’s delegation here!)
At the negotiations, we worked with hundreds of other international youth from six continents to push for stronger carbon emissions reductions targets and a fair and binding climate treaty. SustainUS delegates worked on a wide range of issues in Durban. Through actions, speeches at the plenary meetings, briefings with negotiators, and speaking to the media, we called for policy objectives and brought attention to youth involvement in climate change. Adam from Milton, MA, started a working group to highlight the importance of water management in climate change. Kate from Redmond, WA, focused on innovative financing for the soon-to-be-launched Green Climate Fund. Alongside Katherine (Manhasset, NY), Ellie (Asheville, NC), Ethan (Statesboro, GA) and MJ (Stow, OH), I worked on the communications and media team writing press releases, documenting events, and setting up interviews with reporters on youth activities at the talks.
Amanda (Washington, DC), who led the working group on youth actions, helped to fill the space between the convention and exhibition center with several creative actions. One in particular highlighted youth cooperation through an action that connected climate justice with Captain Planet. The spirit of working together by combining our collective energies was something that really came through while working with environmentalists hailing from Brazil to Bangladesh. Like the Captain Planet show, the action featured youth climate heroes from five different continents who told a success story on what they have done to fight climate change in their home countries — a reminder that climate change is a global problem that needs global cooperation to solve.
Outside of youth activities, the actual talks were at a gridlock. The United States was pushing to delay a new climate treaty until 2020 — a timetable that scientists have said would be too late to avert catastrophic impacts of climate change. Meanwhile, Canada dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol while Japan and Russia stated that they would no longer meet the Protocol’s targets. Feeling frustrated particularly by the United States for obstructing progress in the last week of negotiations, we decided that bolder action was needed. We wanted to call out the U.S. Congress for blocking climate legislation at home and for preventing our negotiators from actually negotiating the climate deal that was needed.
In the official plenary session, as lead U.S. negotiator Todd Stern was about to speak, Abigail Borah, a 21-year old New Jersey resident and student at Middlebury College, spoke up from the back of the room:
“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 … 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. 2020 is too late to wait.”
Although Abigail was removed by security and suspended for the remainder of the negotiations, she received an ovation and her words reverberated in the conference center. Her action was followed by an impassioned speech by fellow youth Anjali Appadurai about the need for urgency for young and future generations, as well as a sit-in organized by 350.org calling for climate justice. The United States began to change their tune, backing away from the 2020 position.
After 36 hours of overtime negotiations, a deal was passed – but not the ambitious deal that we were hoping for. A second, but weak commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, a green climate fund with no source of funding, and a promise to broker a new climate treaty in 2015.
But in the end, what I came away with was not pessimism that this could not be done. Rather, it was inspiration and hope from my generation and faith that together we hav the power to change things, whether at the UN or in our schools or hometowns. I met amazing people from all walks of life who were working toward sustainable development as journalists, activists, ecologists, and even young political leaders. And as I am writing this back in the United States, I know that this energy is not something that just happens two weeks a year at the negotiations, and that youth around the world are continuing to fight for climate solutions in their own communities every day.