By Scott Manning
I attended the United Nations COP-26 with my editor, Jeff Radford. He has attended many United Nations conferences during his time as a journalist, and prior to COP-26 the last conference he coveered was the 2015 COP-21 in Paris. In contrast, this was my first United Nations event, and by attending I joined many young people getting involved in the climate crisis.
Climate change is a significant consideration for us. After all, my generation will be dealing with the consequences of climate change and working to develop solutions to the crisis throughout our lives. Yet my generation also shares similarities with older generations: young people have different degrees of engagement with the climate issue, and there are disagreements about what exactly should be done about it.
And although young people like Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate from Kenya are leading youth movements for climate justice around the world, not all young people are hopeful about the future. I know some of my peers are cynical about our prospects over the next few decades. So young people do not currently form a fully united front against climate change, but many young people are participating in the solution-building process.
I saw two main kinds of youth activism in Glasgow. First, young people attended the COP26 conference in large numbers. Jeff and I observed over the course of several days at the conference that the average age for an attendee was probably mid-thirties to early forties. This average age was driven down by significant youth participation. Young people attended the conference as observers, journalists and activists working at informational booths. Other young people were accompanied by their older counterparts —perhaps part of a mentoring relationship so that they could experience and participate in the United Nations process.
Second, young people marched and attended rallies throughout Glasgow and across the world. In this setting they marched to demand greater and more immediate action than what COP-26 was appearing to provide. The marches in Glasgow saw tens of thousands of people march for climate justice, demonstrating the tremendous commitment young people have to the climate cause.
Many young people are upset about the state of the climate, and they should be upset. This planet is our home, and we should be more mindful about how we live in our home. Some young people may be upset that the United Nations appears to approach such a serious challenge with, in the words of Greta Thunberg, a bunch of “blah, blah blah.”
From this perspective, the United Nations COP26 conference did not pursue the climate change with the action such a challenge requires. Instead, some young people see the UN conference as a political exercise in which politicians and business leaders come together to promise change without delivering on that promise.
A friend of mine at college pointed out that the UN does not have a robust mechanism to create enforceable, binding agreements that hold countries accountable. Instead, the UN operates through consensus building and pledges, and these pledges may be broken. For example, at COP-26 activists complained that developed countries had failed to uphold their agreement to provide billions in climate financing to developing countries to address climate change threats. This kind of broken promise undermines the capacity for the United Nations conferences to generate significant change.
Instead of attending the COP sessions, other young people engage in protests. Protests and marches are effective means of generating engagement with young people because these forums appear to speak in their understanding of enacting change through collaboration and people power. Yet here activists must still work to generate long-term political coalitions. This kind of engagement can be difficult for young people to pursue due to a lack of knowledge on how to get involved as well as a lack of available time.
In Glasgow, I, too, found the United Nations conference to have frustrating moments: speakers at the presidency presentations would give overly broad promises about reducing carbon emissions by 2035 without providing details; at some negotiation sessions representatives appeared to offer small edits and revisions instead of settling the major disagreements; and the conference was full of people calling on the creation of climate solutions, leaving one to wonder what solutions already exist and what steps we could take to implement these preexisting solutions today.
Yet despite these shortcomings, I think COP26 had important developments. In particular, the broad commitments made to end deforestation and to drastically reduce methane emissions were positive developments. And by the end of the conference, the United States and China agreed to work together on climate efforts.
So upon reflection, COP-26 was messy. But I think that this reflects the reality of the climate situation and the participation of young people in the climate crisis: such a large concern like climate change offers no easy solutions or conclusions, and young people will participate in the climate conversation with a wide diversity of perspectives and approaches.
Young people may care about climate change, but that care does not immediately precipitate clarity. I expect that we will continue to contend with the full consequences of climate change for some time to come. And eventually, solutions, decisions and plans of action will emerge.
As I left COP-26, I was filled with both hope and frustration. Frustration that the conference had not been more fruitful, but hope that actions would be taken. As Obama concluded in his remarks to young people in Glasgow, now the hard work begins.