Fran Mills reports back on her experience at the Commonwealth Youth Forum:
This week, I spent two days at the Commonwealth Youth Forum (CYF), a gathering of more than 500 young people, feeding into the Commonwealth Head of Governments Meeting taking place down the road.
I went there, as always, hoping to influence climate policy and to help shake some sense into a world that still barely blinks an eye at impending disaster. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Instead, I made a discovery: in the commonwealth space, young people had given up on politics.
Having been involved with the international youth climate movement for a while, I thought I knew the drill. We may be hugely diverse, but usually our demands are not: we want radical emissions cuts, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, and our role in this movement is to hold governments accountable. It makes sense – in 2050, we will be the ones living with the reality of rising seas, mass migration, and famine, and it will be us who have to explain to future generations exactly how this was allowed to happen.
But at the CYF, while the leaders of a third of the world’s population were meeting down the road, we were not working on the policy asks that we would present to them later in the week. In fact, most of our ‘recommendations’ were almost identical to the ones that had been presented three years earlier in the run up to the Paris agreement. They weren’t fitting of the urgency of our situation.
Instead, we spent the two days coming up with plans for projects that the youth council themselves could implement.
It was confusing. Speaking to fellow delegates, I found my fellow youth as inspiring and full of energy as ever. I heard familiar discussions on climate damages tax, legally binding emissions targets, and a ban on plastic. Many delegates came from climate vulnerable countries, including people with disabilities, hurricane survivors, and non-English speakers. At the sustainability plenary, a panel of young climate activists, along with former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, discussed New Zealand’s ban on new oil and gas exploration licenses, climate justice, and the possibility of mass direct action.
The radical voices I was used to were definitely not missing – so where were they in the policy discussions?
As was explained to me by seasoned youth forum attendants: young people no longer believe that their policy demands will be listened to. For many of us, the UN’s climate negotiations have been going on literally since before we were born, and yet we are still on course for catastrophic climate change. After years of working, presenting, seeing no change and repeating, youth at the CYF have decided to take matters into their own hands, spending their time planning things they can achieve themselves.
While this is admirable, it leaves us in real danger. If we, the ones who will be around in 2050, don’t push politicians for systemic change, then who will? If we let them think that we’re apathetic, submitting the same asks year after year, then how can we expect them to raise ambition?
This meeting was a real opportunity. Centered on the theme of ‘common futures’, with the entire conference having been diverted 9000 miles by an extreme weather event that left Vanuatu unable to host; demanding radical action should have been easy. And it came at a critical time. Estimates suggest that greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2020 in order to keep warming below 1.5°C. This was one of the last chances for governments to coordinate in order to give island nations like Vanuatu a fighting chance for survival.
It may not feel like it, but youth can make a difference on climate.
In 2015, we got intergenerational equity – the principle of equality and preserving natural resources between generations – mentioned in the Paris agreement. We have also had many policy wins in the areas of education and capacity building – and it is telling that many of the policy recommendations that came out of the CYF policies focussed on these areas.
For the more cynical among us, these asks are recognised because they don’t represent a threat to business as usual, but they are still proof that we can be heard, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
That young people are feeling disempowered is not okay.
The 500 delegates to the CYF not only represent the 1 billion young people of the commonwealth, but also every generation that comes after us. If the commonwealth leaders don’t pay attention to 60% of their population, we have a huge problem.
To heads of government, politicians, and negotiators: don’t ask our opinion if you intend to simply ignore anything you don’t like. If you are going to hold a youth forum, or to invite civil society in general to contribute, be prepared to report on exactly how you took their recommendations into account. Or prove us wrong, and commit to real, ambitious action.
And to my fellow young people: taking things into your own hands is great, and the projects that have come from the commonwealth youth council are admirable. But please, don’t give up on influencing the high level politics – we have a very short window of time, and we need co-ordinated action.
We need to continue to demand legally binding zero carbon emissions targets, an end to new fossil fuel infrastructure, and systemic change for climate justice. Maybe it is time to try another, more radical way to influence politics, but it is not time to give up altogether.