Can One Young Voice Get the Future of Climate Policy Back on Track?

A young American challenges the UN climate assembly, and shows the world that there is a concerned climate constituency here in the U.S.

Between the big flop in Copenhagen last December and the next round of U.N. climate talks in Cancun, there are a bunch of "intersessional" meetings of the UNFCCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), like the ones going on right now in Tianjin, China. These intersessionals are intended to move the ball down the field and, ideally, get the actual text that's being negotiated into some kind of manageable shape to be dealt with in the two crazy weeks at the end of the year. In reality, they usually wind up involving lots of posturing and arguing over procedure. (Last year, the negotiating text actually got longer during the October meetings in Barcelona, the last before the COP15 in Copenhagen.)

That doesn't mean that there's nothing going on in Tianjin right now worth paying attention to. Earlier today (Monday morning in Tianjin time), an American youth climate advocate delivered a smart and impassioned speech to the entire gathered UN assembly. The "intervention" (as it's called in the UN's strange vernacular) was given by Alex Stark of Washington D.C., who is "tracking" the negotiations for (and who just so happens to be my successor in that role). Alex's remarks resonated at the talks, and so I wanted to reprint them here in their entirety:
Thank you chair for giving the youth the floor. My name is Alexandra Stark, and I will be 62 years old in 2050.

I have a few questions for all of you gathered here:

What did you feel after the Copenhagen meeting?

Were you frustrated and disappointed? This is how many young people around the world felt.

Were you running short on hope? I ask because I asked these questions myself.

We went back home feeling puzzled and desperate. It seemed that perhaps everything we worked for had not resulted in anything–especially if everyone is simply pursuing their own interests.

But in fact, I was wrong! The global movement that came together for Cop15 is actually growing. More and more people are seeing climate impacts in their own countries and that is causing even more people to become involved. More and more organizations are making efforts; more and more individuals are participating. Youth are particularly active. This coming Sunday, we will take part in the global work party on the 10th day of the 10th month of the millennium’s 10th year. Just 6 days from now, we will take action alongside over 7,000 groups in 183 countries.

When I consider all that’s happening, I know we’re not defeated. Copenhagen’s disappointments have motivated us to keep going. We still must achieve our goals for an international agreement in line with what science and justice demand; but with a growing global movement we can do this.

Climate change action is no longer just the talk of some politicians, but more and more the missions and actions of every individual in the world. The youth are leading through our actions, and these talks must catch up. Thank you.


In response, TckTckTck's (and MNN's) Karl Burkart wrote the following:

Normally these 2 minutes NGO speeches are politely tolerated by UN negotiators waiting to get on with the day’s business, but in this case Alex’s talk had ripple effects. The LCA (Long-term Cooperative Agreement) chair took the time to formally comment on her remarks, and later in the day the chief EU negotiator said, ‘If you need a reminder about what we’re up against, listen to the youth delegate’s statement.’


I will add that, as an American, I'm awfully proud knowing that Alex was elected by all of the YOUNGO (or international youth NGO community) to give this intervention. It's important for the rest of the world—activists, advocates, negotiators, and leaders alike—to know that there is a strong and vocal American climate constituency.

If you're curious about what's happening in Tianjin, in the lead up to the Cancun talks, I would definitely recommend following along at TckTckTck and through the awesome (and, yes, I'm biased) international Adopt-a-negotiator project.

Photos: Leila Mead/IISD

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

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