Idealism or Political Pragmatism: What should youth bring to the UN climate change negotiations?

By Maggie Knight

I came to the UN climate change negotiations with mixed ideas about what I as a young person can offer to the process. Yesterday was Young and Future Generations Day at COP16, with the YOUNGOs (Youth Non-Governmental Organizations) organizing many actions and side events, which gave me plenty of time to mull these ideas over. I bring idealism, hope, frustration, and cynicism to the negotiations—but which is most effective in affecting the UN climate change negotiations?

The first perspective is one of idealism and hope. Here, youth can offer a fresh perspective and new energy to drive progress on the talks. We can manifest this in a number of ways—from meeting with our official delegations and demanding more ambitious climate action to hosting creative actions in the halls of the conference centre to actively lobbying for certain policy outcomes, as with the YOUNGOs’ successful work on Article 6 (education and outreach), which this morning, at a session attended by a large number of international young people, became a draft COP decision. Idealism means sticking to principles—such as climate justice, the necessity of doing our fair share, and the possibility that all Parties might operate in a spirit of seeking the greater good. Idealism gives us the power to demand change for the kind of world we want our children to grow up in, and to feel truly rights and just in what we are asking for. An idealistic perspective can indeed motivate negotiators to change their mindsets—but at other times it seems simply unrealistic.

A second perspective is much more politically pragmatic (or, in less appealing terms, frustrated and cynical). From this perspective, you realize that the COP16 negotiations will not produce any sort of grand legally binding deal to cope with climate change, and that it was never intended to. You also realize that even if we do get a legally binding deal next year at COP17 in Durban, South Africa, it is unlikely that it will be sufficiently ambitious or sufficiently well implemented to avoid at least some of the dire impacts of climate change (sea level rise engulfing several small island states, or changing ice conditions undermining traditional ways of life for northern indigenous peoples, for instance). Pragmatism recognizes the heavy influence of American domestic politics in obstructing leadership from the Americans and that Canada’s tar sands hamper our government’s willingness to take progressive climate action. Pragmatism recognizes that the language of “the rights of Mother Earth” from the Cochabamba Accord is unlikely to make it into the negotiating text at these negotiations, and that (at least the people I know) don’t have a comprehensive idea of an entirely new system would work—and that capitalism is unlikely to roll over and die any time soon, no matter how epically economies crash.

Of course in reality few people, young or old, bring a solely idealistic or solely pragmatic approach. But a considerable amount of tension exists between the two. Nowhere was this more evident than at the two sessions with the Executive Secretary of the UN climate change negotiations Christiana Figueres I attended this week. She spoke to a briefing of civil society on Wednesday, warning us that “If we are too ambitious…we will get nothing” and that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” This is clearly post-Copenhagen pragmatism speaking. Her conclusion that “if you collectively kill whatever comes out of this, you stand no chance of getting anything” was a plea to civil society not to come out of Cancun announcing another failure of UN process, in fears that nations will opt for other means of acting (or refusing to act) on climate change.

However, at an event for Young and Future Generations Day yesterday, I asked Ms Figueres the following question:

Many young people in the room, including me, are both scientists and policy wonks as well as youth climate organizers, so we are knowledgeable about the impacts of climate change. We heard yesterday and again today that we must not be too ambitious, or we will sink the boat, and we are sympathetic to the political challenges the process is facing, but many of us feel that it is simply grossly irresponsible, given what we know, not to push for rapid action. How do you suggest we as young people should navigate idealism with political pragmatism while keeping hope that we will see the kind of agreement we know we need?

Her answer was clear: “If you lower your ambitions then you are not true to yourself and what you do. You are not true to me either.” She said that young people must be patient, but must never give up their ambition for change. And thus my conclusion: both idealism and pragmatism must play a part in continuing discernment and grounded good intentions. As for my current state of discernment, I can only come up with a compromise: we should stay rooted in what we feel is ethical and just, while working constructively for as rapid progress as the constraints of the system will allow (at least until we manage to change the system).

Ministers and Heads of State arrive next week for the high level portion of the negotiations. I can only hope that some of them are willing to be idealistic.

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  1. […] I was inspired by this blog from the Canadian Youth Delegation about some speeches UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana […]



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