I saw daylight this morning for the first time in five days.
Inside the crucial U.N. Climate Summit, known as COP21, currently underway in Paris, we are completely insulated from the world we are trying to save. I am here as a U.S. youth delegate, spending my hours in the sterile hangars at Paris–Le Bourget Airport where the talks take place, oscillating between surging hope and deep despair.
As the days fly by, one question seems to remain: When nothing we can do will ever be enough, what can we do?
I traveled here by bicycle, moving slowly through 11 countries over the course of five months, gathering stories from people mobilizing for climate action. I was filled with the energy of a climate movement reaching almost every corner our journey explored, from oil-refining communities in New Brunswick to farms in rural Sweden. Now I’m here in Paris, at our final destination, still searching for that energy. And it’s harder to find than I expected.
I feel the despair creep in each day as I hear the monotonous voices of negotiators. The best possible outcome of the commitments put forward by the world’s leaders looks to be an agreement of limiting global warming to an average temperature rise of 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrialized levels by 2100. This is a death knell for the world’s most vulnerable countries.
But it’s not just the likely political outcome that quiets me. Our voices as youth are structurally silenced.
We often hear, “We must secure young people’s futures” — and I wince every time. It’s difficult to hear yourself referred to as a passive participant in the shaping of your own story. We are talked about a lot in the process of reaching a global agreement on climate change, but rarely are we allowed to talk.
Along with the scientists, entrepreneurs and other activists who are here as “observers,” we are unable to access the rooms where negotiations are actually taking place.
Instead, we sprint between strategy meetings, press conferences, side events, permitted actions and the long white tables where we sit on our computers for hours at a time, attempting to communicate this circus with the world outside.
My occasional bursts of hope, however, come from hearing stories of strength and resilience from those working on the frontlines of the climate crisis. These young people from around the world are all agents of change in their own communities.
There’s Alejandra Salas from Costa Rica, who is a leader on climate change education. There’s Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a 15-year old indigenous hip-hop artist from Colorado, who is suing Obama for climate inaction. There’s Sagar Aryal, from Nepal, who founded his own environmental nonprofit when he was 10 years old. We are all working together.
And that includes spreading awareness about issues that matter most. Last Monday, the countries most susceptible to climate change — small island states — came together to courageously demand climate change be constrained to 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, rather than 2.7 degrees Celsius. Two days later, disturbed by the lack of media coverage overall, we organized an action to demonstrate our solidarity with the declaration.
Our first speaker was A.J. Alik from the Marshall Islands, whose fellow islanders have named themselves Pacific Climate Warriors in the face of being some of the first people to lose their homeland to rising sea levels.
“I want you guys to look at me, and think about my people,” he said before the assembled crowd. “One-point-five to survive, one-point-five to strive.”
The crowd began to chant: One-point-five to stay alive. One-point-five to stay alive.
This is what the negotiators and U.N. officials don’t understand — unlike those who have staled in a lifetime of bureaucracy, young people still have the capacity to imagine a just and stable future. We still know in our hearts that a more beautiful world is possible.
During her speech at Young and Future Generations Day, which took place inside COP21 on Dec. 3, young campaigner Anjali Appadurai said those in power need to be willing to be challenged in order to create change. Just moments before, Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), had donned a matching T-shirt with a group of young people for a photo op — before promptly leaving the room.
Anjali did not spare any words.
“I am disappointed that Christiana left the room before the youth had the chance to speak,” she said. “She needs to know that we need spaces here that sometimes cause discomfort for the older generation.”
I gave Anjali a standing ovation. When we know what the world we want looks like, it’s difficult to create it when we’re still constrained by the rules of the old one.
While I was up long before dawn for the U.S. youth delegates’ early-morning media strategy session on Friday, I did not go to the conference center. After days of barely sleeping, eating solely bread and cheese, and struggling to find the time to shower, I decided to take a day to seek elsewhere the tools we need for a new world.
A group of us gathered for a workshop on sustainable activism with The Eroles Project. Our day of deep reflection and rebuilding began with two questions: Now, at the end of your first week at COP21, what are your hopes? What are your fears?
I did not bicycle to Paris because I held much hope for this process. COP21 is just one climactic point in the closing of a brief and destructive chapter of human history. Our generation, standing on the shoulders of many before us, is already beginning to move to the next. Our story is one of interconnected people power, facilitated by an unprecedented technological revolution that has opened up the possibility of a generation that has a collective identity beyond borders. And I fear the power of that is not being acknowledged enough.
As young people at COP21, many of us can say that these negotiations have dragged on longer than we have been alive. I remembered today, sitting on the floor of a community art hub in the northeast corner of Paris, the question that we need to be asking ourselves while we are here. For years the youth climate movement has dwelled on the “What can we do?” Finally it is time we started to ask, “Who are we becoming?”
Only then will we finally realize: We are the ones we have been waiting for.