LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – At the last major UN climate change talks, in Madrid in December 2019, Marie-Claire Graf, then 23, led Swiss negotiations on efforts to increase the capacity of developing countries to reduce emissions and adapt to warmer temperatures. world.
Graf, a sustainability and politics student, had studied the matter and was asked by the Swiss presidential office to take the role of the person with the best qualifications for the job.
But some senior negotiators are not prepared to accept that someone so young can be trusted to do the job.
Someone asked Graf to put him in touch with the Swiss delegation in charge. “I told him that I am the Swiss negotiator in charge of this issue,” said Graf, now 24.
The European repeated his request, and when Graf said again he was the right person to talk to, “he just walked away.”
“Obviously she can’t understand the fact that a young woman can sit there and make up her mind,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As young people eager to push for climate change action begin to move from street protests to decision-making positions, they face a variety of challenges.
Some, regardless of their expertise, struggle to be taken seriously or find themselves limited to advisory roles and photo opportunities. With many of their jobs still unpaid, those who are less well off have limited opportunities to contribute their ideas.
And while young people have taken on the role of climate negotiators with real powers in countries from Costa Rica to the Netherlands and Sudan, many are still lagging behind other important decisions, such as how pandemic recovery funds are spent.
When the crisis hits, “young people are often the first to not be allowed into the room anymore,” said Aoife Fleming, a 23-year-old climate negotiator and Dutch law student.
But the decision about whether a generation’s worth of loans is used to turn the economy green – or shore up a pollution system – is precisely where young people need a voice most, they stressed.
“That’s a lot of money and it has a big impact on how the future will look,” said Fleming.
TAKE A CHAIR
Young people – who have a big share of what a warming planet will look like in the coming decades – have been seeking decision-making power on climate issues for years.
Youth at the 2005 UN climate negotiations, for example, issued a statement demanding “sit at the table”, saying “our future is what you are negotiating”.
But such seats remained few, even as youth representatives flooded into panels and events, especially after high-level youth-led protests in 2019, some inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who brought millions onto the streets.
“Young people are everywhere – but consultatively,” said Graf. They get “two minutes” at the start or end of the event, he added.
“Everyone stands up and claps and says how encouraging it is to listen to you – but then they don’t listen, and make decisions like they did before,” he said.
Marcel Beukeboom, the Dutch climate envoy who has mentored his country’s young climate negotiators and helped them win more power, said many of them are now experts on climate policy, covering everything from agriculture to clean transportation.
But this fact has not received enough recognition, he added.
Some were initially happy just to be included in the discussion but Beukeboom told them that in order to keep their seats at the table they needed to “add value.”
Now “they are very well prepared – and they are invited back,” he said.
Their biggest goal today is to get their interest noticed and start helping set the agenda, specifically providing a long-term perspective on what decisions made today mean in the future, he added.
Nisreen Elsaim, a 26-year-old Sudanese climate negotiator, who has attended six of the UN’s major climate summits and worked as a negotiator at three summits, said that including young people in decision-making was essential to accelerating lagging climate action.
Global temperatures have risen 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, and the goal to contain warming to 1.5C could be lost in a decade without the rapid transformation of world energy and other economic systems, scientists say.
“Having … a new generation of blood in the negotiations makes things go faster,” Elsaim said in a telephone interview.
The older generation is often reluctant to put their accomplishments aside to try something new, said the young physicist who has a master’s degree in renewable energy.
But young people don’t have a conflict of interest, he said. “We don’t feel too attached to anything,” he said.
In his country, where more than three in four people are farmers or herders and are already facing increasing losses from increased heat, crop failure and extreme weather, the need to act quickly is clear, he said.
But while Elsaim’s government and the broader group of African negotiators have paid him to attend UN climate talks and have consistently supported them, he said, other youths from poor countries have struggled to pay their way.
Kassim Gawusu-Toure, 33, a Ghanaian negotiator, said his government would finance his trip to the COP26 summit in Glasgow this November, but others were not as fortunate.
“This is a serious challenge facing young people from the continent, raising funds to be there,” he said.
Graf, from Switzerland, says as young people slowly take up more decision-making seats, they bring with them two key fresh perspectives: a desire to act now and a vested interest in what’s going on.
“We are worried about our own lives and our own future,” he said. “We only have a few years to completely change and transform and change everything. We can’t talk about doing something in 20 years. We want to see everything finished in six months. “
It can be frustrating for some people who “want young people there as long as they aren’t too demanding or intrusive,” he admits.
But young negotiators are increasingly proving their worth, he said.
“They have the ability and understanding, and they can say, ‘This is where we have to go’,” he said. “They deserve to be there.”
Reported by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; edited by Megan Rowling. Appreciate the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a Thomson Reuters charity. Visit news.trust.org/climate