WARSAW, Poland — On November 21, one of the final days of this year’s United Nations climate conference, more than 800 people walked out en masse from the conference venue. The group included representatives of developing countries, NGOs, businesses and youth, trade, farmers’ and women’s groups. Single file, forming an enormous line, we waited patiently to have our badges scanned by security. Our T-shirts read, “Polluters talk, we walk.” Security guards gaped and politicians paused as heads of giant organizations like Greenpeace and Oxfam, normally committed participants at U.N. conferences, marched silently along with hundreds of others, filling hallways and emptying meeting rooms. Some of us carried signs showing the red dot, the symbol of solidarity with the climate-impacted people of the Philippines, who were recently hit by the largest typhoon in recorded history. We left, and the conference was suddenly strangely quiet.
Young people have long been frustrated with the political response to climate change. As the science gives us increasingly dire warnings that we are running out of time before climate change becomes disastrous, we look to our leaders for some sign of movement — and consistently get nothing. Youth from all over the world gather each year at the U.N. climate talks, only to see endless political head-butting, meaningless speeches, useless fights and, eventually, empty texts containing no legal requirements to take action. Those of us from rich nations watch our governments refuse to take responsibility for their massive carbon emissions; meanwhile, government representatives and ordinary people from developing countries assert again and again the fundamental, uncomfortable truth of the climate crisis: those who will be affected first and hardest by climate change are the world’s poor.
The bright spot at these conferences is meeting with other youth. Every year, several hundred of us from around the world gather at the U.N. talks to represent our various organizations and NGOs back home. We’ve become a sort of family, a gathering of close friends who see each other only once a year but keep in touch year-round. There are enthusiastic reunions, long talks over beers and even couples that pair off through these gatherings.
Most important, though, is the work we do together. Inside the conference, the youth play a number of roles; for instance, some of us organize actions or protests inside the conference halls. Creative expressions of frustration have become a ubiquitous feature of the U.N. — politicians either cringe or look forward to seeing events like “Fossil of the Day,” at which three “fossil awards” are sarcastically awarded to countries that have done the most to block progress each day, all accompanied gleefully by the Jurassic Park theme song. Other youth — for example, College of the Atlantic’s Earth in Brackets student group, where I started out — take on the role of “policy translators,” sitting through hours of painfully boring meetings, deciphering political documents and blogging and tweeting simplified versions. Others lobby politicians to consider future generations in their work, and yet others communicate through media or writing to the public back home. All of our work is meant to represent and strengthen the voice of the youth we represent in our home communities.
Though the youth often experience personal or cultural differences, most of us have a common vision for the future we want: safe societies, thriving ecosystems, tightly-knit communities and economies built for people’s needs rather than the fossil fuel industry’s coffers. It would be a radically different world. Many delegates at the conference recognize this, and we form close relationships with some of them, like Yeb Saño of the Philippines.
But the U.N. process isn’t yielding results anywhere near what will help us achieve this vision. Carbon emissions continue to soar and the fossil fuel industry continues to be a powerful lobby in the political process. Many grassroots movements are already fiercely engaged in the climate struggle — be it through resisting pipelines, demanding renewable energy or organizing against the extraction of the tar sands. Meanwhile, youth are recognizing that it is up to us to amplify society’s response to climate change. We understand that it is the relationships we make with each other that will enable us to collaborate in building global resilience and ending our dependence on fossil fuels. After all, it’s our world to inherit. [The youth slogan at the failed 2009 Copenhagen talks was “How old will you be in 2050?”]
The night before the walkout, many of us gathered in the “convergence space” — an old, charming building where much of COP 19’s grassroots organizing took place — to plan it. It was clear at that point that no progress was going to be made, and the presence of the coal industry at the conference showed an almost absurd conflict of interest. We decided to symbolically step out of this year’s talks, sending a sign that we were temporarily giving up on the U.N. process in order to build grassroots momentum in our home countries and come back stronger at next year’s conference. By walking out, we were shifting the focus to people’s movements and collective action from the ground up.
2015 will be the most significant year yet for climate change. It is the year in which scientists tell us global emissions must peak — that is, reach their highest point and begin to drop — if we are to avoid disastrous global warming. It is also the year in which politicians are expected to sign a new global agreement to tackle climate change. Those of us working to fix this crisis have exactly two years to step up our efforts and work strategically, which will inevitably mean that we — Big Greens, youth groups and every single person concerned about our future — will have to re-evaluate how we participate in the political process.
Walking out of the U.N. talks didn’t mean that we are abandoning international politics. Rather, when we walked out, we used the hashtag #Volveremos — in Spanish, we will return. We will gather our communities, and when we arrive at next year’s talks in Lima, and the 2015 talks in Paris, the collective action of millions of people will light a fire under the slow-moving political process, and — in the most radical dreams I dare to have — this bottom-up action will propel us to a world we can feel proud to inherit.
Anjali Appadurai is a climate justice advocate whose work has focused on the intersection between social movements and the U.N. Convention on Climate Change. She works with grassroots climate justice organizations in her native Vancouver and around the world.
Our Planet in the Balance: The Warsaw Climate Talks, by Renée Feltz
Our Planet in the Balance: Rev. Billy Ready to Create a New Buzz, by John Tarleton