YOUNGO: Walking the Talk

Here at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Canada is constantly criticized for inaction, weak policies, and condemning the world to catastrophic climate change.  Not only are we standing aside and allowing climate change to ravage communities worldwide, we’re actively contributing to the problem and negotiating for the ability to continue to do so.

Because of this deplorable stance on climate action, the CYD comes to the UNFCCC every year to represent the voice of Canadian youth, to pressure our government to make better policy decisions, and try to save our futures from catastrophic climate change. Youth delegations from around the world do the same, but each group is different in its approach and tactics.

All youth at the UNFCCC are represented within ‘YOUNGO’, the Young Non-Governmental Organizations constituency. This is the avenue through which we can make official policy recommendations to the draft negotiating text, how we can engage with and support youth around the planet, and how we can learn from one another.

Our approach to the negotiations is very different from most people represented by YOUNGO. The Canadian Government is very unrepresentative of our opinions, so we are forced to shout louder and play harder than most other youth delegations. One thing that I have noticed, though, is that many other European governments are just as unrepresentative as ours, but their youth delegations are hesitant to fight them very hard. As we have tried the standard modes of engagement (letters, meetings with officials, policy documents, making official statements without stepping on anyone’s toes) in previous years both domestically and at the UNFCCC to no avail, we’ve decided to move on the some different tactics. It seems the the polite, Canadian approach to climate activism doesn’t work for changing climate policy any better than the Government of Canada’s approach to common but differentiated responsibility. So this year we’re pushing a few boundaries within the UNFCCC and calling out actions

As many of my fellow youth delegates and I have observed, we are frequently tokenized by the ‘real’ delegates: the party members, the negotiators, the secretariat. While many other NGO bodies (like business, trade, research groups, environmental NGOs) have more obvious sway over the policies put forth by countries and processes accepted by the secretariat, our presence is rarely taken seriously and our interventions are often brushed aside. This is upsetting on many levels, the most relatable of which is that my delegation and I didn’t fundraise, scrimp, and save several thousand dollars to fly to Africa and have our efforts amount to nothing.

As a result of this historical tokenization, this year the CYD has taken on a new approach – we’re here for effective action, and we refuse to be brushed aside. While our successes this year have been exhilarating, they can be a bit daunting- I find myself on the phone with reporters from across the world at any given moment, and I sometimes find it challenging to get our message across with clarity and passion. I find it nerve-wracking to open myself and my opinions up to criticism from the world. I find it physically challenging to stay well fed, slept, hydrated and happy while working day and night to get our story out there, to find time to do basic tasks like shower and laundry while staying up all night to put together our daily newsletter, and still make it to 8:30AM meetings with our negotiators. But I do these things because the alternative – not working to fight climate change, not trying to make real impacts on our government’s policies, not changing the public discourse around climate justice – is a far worse fate. It is the duty of youth to stand up for our future, and to do so as effectively as possible. I feel a righteous anger that decision makers (particularly those in my ‘democratic’ government) have done next to nothing of consequence in recent years that would protect my right to a safe and prosperous future.

Our approach to the role of youth at the UNFCCC has led to some contention with our partners in YOUNGO. Many of the member organizations of YOUNGO are limited in what they can do and say by their funding rules. Many delegates are focused on maintaining positive messaging around the UNFCCC. Many individuals and intimidated by the inevitable confrontation associated with truly challenging the fundamental decisions made by our governments. These are legitimate concerns that I will not cast aside as important factors in deciding what a delegate will and will not do at these negotiations. But I would like to propose another idea for the actions of youth of all stripes. We need to start doing what we’re calling on negotiators and governments to do; we need to recognize the absolute urgency of this situation, and we have to stop dancing around the fact that our future is accelerating down a path of climate chaos.

While I appreciate that YOUNGO represents a diversity of voices and organizations and has a variety of goals, I think it’s time to recognize the main reason we’re all here in Durban: to make climate change history. It has become clear to me that we are not going to accomplish this by trying uphold the social norms of the UNFCCC, by making heartfelt interventions during plenary sessions, by doing symbolic actions in civil society space where there are very few party members, or by writing the same policy documents each and every year. It is clear to me that we need to rethink our strategy, redefine our target audience, and re-frame the international climate negotiations on our terms. It is my vision that youth from across the globe stand up for their right to a safe future free from climate change, and recognize that the path we’re on right now will not take us there. I hope we can see that the methods we are currently using to change that path are not sufficient. I hope that this COP will help us realize that if we want our fate to change, we need our tactics of achieving our goals to change as well. I hope that we can act on the urgency of the situation, as we have urged our politicians and decision makers to do so many times. I think it’s time that the youth of the world start leading by example. It’s time that YOUNGO, and youth worldwide, stop making token gestures towards stopping climate injustice propagated by the parties to the UNFCCC, and start forcing real change in governments of all levels. It’s time to put rules, norms, and niceties aside – our future is on the line.

2 Responses to “YOUNGO: Walking the Talk”
  1. Gay Nemeth says:

    Thanks for going the extra mile and representing…

  2. Cam Bell says:

    Robin, you’re a champ. I have to say though, climate change is inevitable, regardless of carbon emissions. We need to be able to adapt to natural variations, while also preventing un-natural warming and change. There is no such thing as a “future free from climate change”, but we can prevent rapid warming that hundreds of millions of people around the world will not be able to adapt to quickly enough.

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