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.
For the most part, the humans suffering the harshest reality are impoverished, powerless, and voiceless. Unless those in power either a) wake up to a powerful sense of empathy (not likely), or b) suffer these consequences themselves (also not likely, at least for some decades), nothing will happen.
That's where the young people come in. Even the most callous young person must contend with the non-negotiable fact that economic privilege, class, or the random luck of birth will not protect them from the poisoned planet they're about to inherit. And fortunately most young people — in keeping with longstanding tradition of young people — aren't callous. They are wide awake, bonded by fear, outrage, and courage. When you think of what they're up against, one wouldn't fault them for wanting to push the entire Trump administration out to sea on ice floes (with Arctic sea ice melting at an alarming rate, there are plenty to go around.) But that isn't their style, and, more to the point, isn't on their schedule; they just don't have the time.
At the U.N., young climate leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, and change-makers are now confronting the effects of climate change, presenting ideas for solutions, and meaningfully engaging with decision-makers and senior-level business executives. The five finalists of the Summer of Solutions campaign, Edgar Brian Mejia, Monika Selina Seyfried, Anurag Saha Roy, Brighten Mabasa, and Michelle Han, will compete against each other in a pitch competition presenting solutions that run the gamut from data storage in plant DNA to 3D printing using plastic waste.
It's the beginning of what we can only hope will be a tidal shift on a global scale. If the millions of protestors gathered on the street on Friday are any sign, it will be.
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