Youth at the Heart of the UN Negotiations

By Elizabeth Dirth and Alexander Pfeiffer

It is a pretty existential question to ask two weeks before we fly from Amsterdam and Oxford to Marrakech in Morocco (emitting much CO2) to attend this year’s Conference of the Parties (COP) as civil society observers.

Individually, we have no real influence. We have no official voice. We are not decision-makers at the UN level or executives in large companies. We cannot make agreements happen a certain way. We cannot even make Ministers or Heads of States make agreements happen a certain way. But we do have a vision.

The choice is not whether we adapt to climate change, but how

No matter what happens, in Paris, or Marrakech, or at COP23 or any future COP, our world will be fundamentally altered by the reality that is climate change. Whether we continue with our ways as we always did and have to deal with levels of adaptation to climate change never before achieved by human civilisation, or whether we successfully transition to a low carbon world, there will be no business as usual option. We will be faced with a fundamental change of human society either way. This situation is very difficult to grasp.

Either we successfully transform our society, our energy systems and our way of life into one that is not only low but even ‘net-zero’ carbon, thereby significantly reducing emissions to zero quickly, or, we wait too long. We allow ourselves to be paralysed by short-termism and indecision of how to move forward and we end up taking drastic measures in a reactive way in order to adapt to our changing climate and changing home, unprecedented in the history of our society. There are certainly scenarios in between these two extremes, but the future is somewhere on this spectrum. We must expect a dramatic change in our way of life in the coming decades.

Even more difficult to grasp is that as ‘millennials’ these changes will happen in our lifetimes. Contrary to the narratives of some governments and businesses today, climate change is already happening and can be seen everywhere in the world. There is no such thing as business as usual in our world today.

Elizabeth Alex
Elizabeth Dirth, YEL COP22 Delegate and Alexander Pfeiffer, Head of YEL COP22 Delegation

The ‘millennial’ generation is positioned to rise to the challenge

The only way to not become paralyzed by the fear of what the potentially disastrous future scenarios might look like is to accept the complexity of the challenge we are facing. We must wholeheartedly embrace the fundamental change and move forward. There is no part of our society that is more personally, socially, economically, and ethically invested in climate change than today’s young people – in every walk of life.

Our generation wants a low carbon world. We will be the ones living in it, we will be paying for it through our future taxes or consumer choices, we will be responsible for normalising use of it in our behaviours, we will have to fix it and upgrade it. We are, in this sense, not just an important stakeholder: we are THE most important stakeholder in the climate change negotiations.

However, our world continues to justify its short-termism through the mainstream narrative about the future and climate action. The more we frame climate change as a future problem, the more we create a cognitive distance of the public that allows us and our elected representatives in particular to continue to justify our inaction. Therefore, there is a conflict between promoting the narrative that prioritizes future generations and the behavioural ramifications of it. Because of this there must be an important distinction, between this future generation’s narrative and the real issue: considering future generations requires action in the present to integrate them into decision-making. In this way, there should actually be no distance between discussions about future generation’s impacted on by climate change and present action.

Our mission at COP

So what does attending COPs as an observer have to do with all this?

There is no-one better able to move beyond today’s short-termism than young people. However, current perceptions of young people engaging in this arena start and finish with an image of an activist or campaigner. We do not attend COP to campaign or demonstrate. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. We attend COP to show that there are young people that are ready, willing and able to participate constructively in the decision-making process, understanding and accepting its limitations while at the same time actively working towards solutions.

We cannot wait to be given legitimacy. We need to legitimize ourselves. We are in Marrakech to continue what we started in Paris and earlier to carve out our legitimacy in this world of international climate change discussions, multilateral negotiations and global governance arena. It is our firm belief that the only way that anyone in the history of humanity has been able to gain sustained influence is by building a courageous vision and showing the drive to achieve it steadily, but surely. The COP22 in Marrakech represents another vital opportunity to refine this vision, and play our part in ensuring we take the next crucial steps towards making it a reality.

Elizabeth Dirth and Alexander Pfeiffer, delegates for Young European Leadership (YEL) at the COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco. Elizabeth is the current chair of the 2050 Climate Group, and Alex is a doctorate student at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) at the Oxford Martin School.

Follow the YEL delegation at COP22 with their daily video blog. Catch all the team’s highlights and analysis here.

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