World / Science & Health

Young climate activists seek step up from street protests to political table

Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reuters

Young climate change activists demanded a greater role in decision-making Saturday as they met leaders at U.N. headquarters, saying that their growing voice on the streets has yet to earn them a seat at the political table.

“The decisions about our future are still being made largely without us,” said Marina Melanidis, a Canadian delegate at the gathering, held ahead of a U.N. summit Monday aimed at accelerating action to tackle global warming. “Young people deserve to co-design their own futures — and honestly, you can’t do that without us,” she told United Nations officials.

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, agreed young people should have more influence over policies that will affect them, particularly with regard to climate change. “We need young people represented in the places where decisions are made,” rather than simply protesting outside that system, she said.

Komal Karishma Kumar of Fiji warned that young people will start to hold leaders accountable at the ballot box if they did not step up efforts swiftly to address climate threats.

“We will mobilize to vote you out,” she promised.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recognized the leading role of young people in street protests that have pushed the urgency of curbing global warming up the political agenda.

More than 4 million people marched Friday in a series of rallies around the world to demand that governments do more to rein in rising temperatures and help those who are suffering from worsening extreme weather and rising seas, organizers said.

In the face of pressure, governments are beginning to respond — and “largely this change in momentum was due to you,” Guterres told about 1,000 young climate campaigners from more than 120 countries at the one-day summit. But he warned: “We are still losing the race. Climate change is running faster than we are.”

Almost 90 big companies are pledging to slash their emissions of greenhouse gases in a new campaign to steer multinationals toward a low-carbon future, organizers said Sunday.

We Mean Business, a coalition of advocacy groups, said dozens of companies in sectors from food to cement to telecommunications had joined the initiative in the two months leading up to the U.N. summit.

The coalition was launched in June with a call to action by the United Nations, business and civil society leaders. We Mean Business said 87 companies are now involved, with total market capitalization of more than $2.3 trillion.

Some companies in the coalition have agreed to slash their carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, including the Swiss food company Nestle, the French building materials company Saint-Gobain and the French cosmetics maker L’Oreal.

Others have stopped short of committing to go carbon-neutral but say they will align their operations with a goal of limiting the increase in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as enshrined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. This group includes the Finnish telecommunications company Nokia, the French food group Danone and the British drug maker AstraZeneca, We Mean Business said.

With fossil-fuel companies still developing new oil and gas fields and many developing countries expanding coal-fired power, the coalition’s pledges are minuscule relative to rising global emissions.

Some experts have questioned whether publicly traded companies committed to maximizing shareholder returns will be able to make the sweeping investments required to fight climate change. Yet many investors have been pressuring companies to act on climate risks, and chief executives also face pressure from an upsurge in youth-led activism, which mobilized millions around the world to protest Friday.

We Mean Business believes pledges by a core of mostly European, and some North American and Asian companies, to commit to independently verified emissions targets will prompt others to follow suit.

At Saturday’s youth summit, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, a figurehead of the youth movement, described it as “unstoppable.”

Other participants spoke about efforts they are leading to cut emissions or reduce climate impacts back home.

Some said they are prepared to take strong personal action, such as pledging not to have children until their governments act on climate change.

Solomon Yeo, 24, a law student from the Solomon Islands, said he and others are working to fill gaps in international law, in part by drawing links between a warming climate and how it threatens human rights.

They hope to find ways to eventually get cases involving climate change liability before the International Court of Justice, which Yeo said “would help states understand their duties to protect future generations.”

Emmanuel Mobijo, 24, of South Sudan, who works on tech innovation and peace-building, as well as climate action in his conflict-torn country, said rainfall is fast becoming scarcer there even as many families still rely on farming.

“The youth here have answers — this meeting has shown it,” he said. “But we will not have enough answers for the questions of the next generation if we don’t act now.”

Pita Taufatofua, an Olympic athlete from Tonga who lives in Australia, broke down in tears when he described how his Pacific island homeland had seen half of its buildings destroyed by a powerful cyclone while he competed in skiing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

“If 50 percent of New York disappeared, people would act,” he said. “Fifty percent of my country was wiped out in one night and people haven’t acted yet.”

Gabriela Cuevas, a Mexican legislator, urged youth leaders to search for ways to “translate your activism into policy and legislation.”

“Do not expect the same people (in power) will change everything,” she said. “So, welcome to politics.”