As global climate talks founder, young people demand real change

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For more than 18 years, negotiators representing countries big and small have come together at this time of year under the auspices of the United Nations to talk about how we are going to avoid the worst of climate change. For the 40,000 or so people who attend the climate negotiations each year, it has become something of a holiday tradition — and as with any family, the global family of nations is ripe with characters and disagreements that never seem to get resolved.

But this year, youth activists from around the world are determined to prevent this reunion of nations from becoming a cheery festival of business-as-usual and deal-swapping with big fossil fuel companies.

Each year, a different family member hosts all the other nations. This year tiny little Qatar stepped up to show off a new tree-inspired conference center and other products of its enormous oil wealth, and hoped that negotiators interested in kicking back with stiff beverages would be satiated with copious amounts of tea — Qatar is alcohol-free.

The negotiations were rung in with blaring alarms from the World Bank [PDF] and U.N. Environmental Program, both of which released reports excoriating nations for inadequate progress in that subtle way that international agencies do, with long statements and lots of numbers. The World Bank’s President Jim Yong Kim was more frank in a conference call announcing the bank’s report when he said, “We will never end poverty if we don’t tackle climate change.”

Youth activists welcomed conference goers sliding along moving sidewalks with signs that asked, “What will your climate legacy be?” and offering reminders to negotiators of the dim legacy of climate disasters they have already set in motion.

U.S. youth at the negotiations are focused on the White House, where action on climate change is essential during President Obama’s second term. Last year at the negotiations, nations agreed that 2015 was the next occasion to aim for a global treaty. In the interim, work is focused on getting the financing together to help developing countries grow their economies in a sustainable manner, sorting out disputes about whose responsibility it is to reduce emissions, and laying out a framework that nations can agree and stick to.

Things would have begun well enough, but the U.S.’s top negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, began by appealing to the hall of nations that the U.S. had made “enormous” efforts to address climate change, eliciting a rousing guffaw from civil society, developing nations, and probably just about everyone else. Things didn’t get any better when the next day reports out of Washington indicated the president had quietly signed legislation that excludes U.S. airlines from the European Union’s emission standards.

But while the official negotiations are heavy on talk and light on action, outside the meetings there are signs that people — young people in particular — are ready for real change. Over the weekend, hundreds rallied in the streets of Doha to call on the Arab world to act on climate change. The march — the first to be allowed in modern-day Qatar — was led by a coalition of non-governmental organizations including the Arab Youth Climate Movement.

Meanwhile, in our own oil-rich country, U.S. youth are sitting in trees and locking down to heavy equipment to stop the Keystone XL pipeline; students on over 100 college campuses and growing are calling for their schools to divest from fossil fuels; and thousands have devoted their energy to starting up businesses and organizations with environmental and social missions at their forefront to build a new economy. Amid a vacuum of national leadership on climate change, youth are filling in the void.

As the second week of the Doha climate talks gets into full swing, and heads of states from the wealthiest countries call in to remind negotiators that their national interests will not bow to any kind promise of a multilateral agreement, it seems this annual holiday gathering will continue to prove inadequate for at least another year. For now, it falls to us to fulfill our own holiday wish lists. It falls to people young and old to come together and build the political pressure to keep the rising seas at bay.

I think we’re ready for this, and I look forward to the holidays in 2050 when I’ll be 63 and can say that it was hard, but we did it — and look how strong the economy is, how clean our air is, and how much happier we are. That will be a legacy worth leaving.


The Earth Summit debacle: Why our leaders don’t have game

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As those of us who attended the Rio+20 Earth Summit get back into the daily grind, and those who weren’t in Rio have already forgotten it ever happened, we begin to realize the mistakes that were made and the lessons we can learn.

As a young person who will live with the results of Rio+20 for years to come, it is already feeling like a missed opportunity for something much better. The slogan that was bandied about, plastered onto the wall of the conference center, and put at the top of the final “outcome document” was “the future we want,” but the “we” clearly didn’t refer to the young people who were at the summit, or the many who didn’t even consider going.

The future we want was never going to be made in Rio, but a few things sealed its dim fate:

1. Most people declared the game over before they even jumped into play.

In the schoolyard, the kid who sits on the sidelines and poo-poos the game is always the biggest annoyance to the kids trying to play it. In Rio there were a lot of folks declaring that the United Nations was the wrong forum, that a summit was the wrong tool. Rather than suggesting, or starting, a new game, far too many just sat on the sidelines and griped.

Sure, the U.N. is a bureaucratic mess and has been woefully inadequate in addressing our environmental challenges, but is anyone really expecting the nations of the world to come together and come to agreement smoothly? Just because it is hard, does that mean we can let our political leaders off the hook?

From the press coverage of Rio that condemned the conference from the beginning to the absence of major environmental groups and President Obama, the cynicism bug was pervasive and turned out to be self-fulfilling. No one came into Rio believing they could win the game, so in the end, no one really did. It turns out inertia is a pain in the ass to overcome, especially when you don’t really believe you can overcome it.

2.The game was played by an outdated set of rules.

Okay, so there were a few that came to play the game — to dive into the policy and plow a path forward. The halls were filled with veterans of U.N. negotiations. But rather than being played like a great chess game, it was more like checkers, with the usual cast of characters posturing and stonewalling.

There was the U.S., which wanted any mention of “equity” scratched from the final agreement; the Vatican, which seemed able to exercise a supernatural ability to erase mentions of reproductive rights from the text; the European Union, which wanted to bolster the U.N. Environmental Programme and build better governance structures; and then the G77, a group of developing countries, that did everything it could to make sure growth and development could continue unfettered. The path plowed forward was essentially the same as the path we came on.

What if, instead of the same-old-same-old, the U.N. had really taken to heart input from a wide array of stakeholders? What if negotiators had really looked to their citizens to advise them on what direction they should take? Rio afforded an initial attempt at this, the Dialogue Days, but the results had no formal way of being incorporated into the negotiations and so, like so much, they fell short.

3. It isn’t actually a game, although leaders treated it like one.

It would be nice if this were all just a game — one where we could play it again and it would come out differently. Unfortunately it is no such thing. The Rio+20 conference was about us, and our home — our one home, Earth. As Rio+20 began and world leaders arrived, they posed for pictures and gave nice speeches, but there were no actual negotiations at the summit itself. The lackluster outcome document was declared agreed upon before the conference began, as if it had all been figured out and we had time to spend three days patting each other on the back.

Where to now?

Rio+20 was just one attempt to catalyze global coordination toward a future where all people can live well. While our leaders dealt us a full dose of disappointment, we will move on and learn lessons that will enable us to overcome the blades that keep our social fabric torn and the greed that makes our natural resources scarce.

Here in the vacuum created by inadequate international policy, an array of solutions is springing up. People are recognizing that our national governments aren’t capable of fixing our problems; instead, we must fix them ourselves while holding our governments accountable for enabling our progress.

On the grave of the famous futurist Buckminster Fuller, who popularized the idea of a spaceship as a metaphor for Earth, it says, “call me trimtab.” The trimtab is the very edge of a ship’s rudder, which turns first to disturb the water so that the rest of the rudder can turn much more easily, which then turns the entire ship.

Let’s call Rio+20 — and the crucial new space for action that was born from it — a trimtab, and go on to do more than we ever imagined.

Speak up! Young people need to be heard at the Earth Summit

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Next month, the United Nations will hold a mega-conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — the Earth Summit, aka Rio+20. In addition to being an international Who’s Who of over 130 heads of state and leaders in sustainable development, it will also be a chance for young people to assert the urgency of the challenges we face and seize the opportunities presented to our generation to address them.

Yeah, I know you’re probably still sour about the last global enviro conference that made headlines — the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations. I understand that bitterness. I was there, a senior in college then, all wide-eyed and hopped up on hope. But in preparing to attend the Earth Summit with other youth leaders, I come with renewed enthusiasm that this conference will be different.

For one, we are all a little more sober heading into Rio+20. Few anticipate that it will produce a sweeping treaty that will plug our smokestacks and curb our passion for plastic. And after talking with U.S. State Department negotiators, I am assured that this is certainly not the course the U.S. is taking. (There are, however, many things that the State Department could warm to with a little pressure from the American public, like including at least one young person on the official delegation to represent American youth.)

Rather, Rio+20 will be a global conversation and test run in 21st century governance, driven by our planet’s limitations and need for diverse stakeholder participation. This is an opportunity for those of us energized by the street and internet democracy that has proliferated in recent years to bring our voices to the table with world leaders.

Our economies are trembling, our environmental alarms are blaring, and young people are antsy for real change. This is a moment for my generation to roll up our sleeves in Rio and call for more ambitious policy and leadership, but also to be honest with ourselves that policy alone won’t be a silver bullet for the world’s problems. Much of the work needs to be done in communities, building the organizations and business that can address today’s social and environmental challenges.

Rio will be host to a political process, but it will also be an opportunity to exchange tools and techniques that will help us implement our sustainable development goals. With events in Rio ranging from a corporate sustainability forum to an Occupy the Earth Summit event, there will be something for lawyers, indigenous people, young people, local government officials, and everyone else working hard for the future of this planet.

As we continue to see minimal mainstream media coverage of Rio+20, it is clear that the revolution will not be televised. Instead, it will be catalyzed by a generation of individual voices amplified by the power of collective action and digital technology. As with other recent transformative events, news will spread through personal social networks — but our actions will speak louder than our words.

As a young person, here are four ways you can directly plug in from wherever you are:

1. Join the hundreds of youth working on the Earth Summit by joining the Major Group on Children and Youth, a worldwide network open to anyone under 30. You can get involved in working groups that do everything from crafting policy submissions to raising media awareness.

2. Attend the Youth Blast, a parallel event for young people held just before the official conference, from June 7-12. The Youth Blast will be webcast, so you don’t have to be in Rio to take part in the workshops and presentations by young people, foreign ministers, and leaders of non-governmental organizations.

3. Get out our your webcam, hashtags, and dust off that forgotten blog. It seems like everyone from nonprofits to federal agencies have a contest of some sort to gather the thoughts of youth worldwide from blog to video to music contests and calls to tweet out your hopes and dreams for the world. Follow the coverage, repost the good stuff, and elevate the conversation.

4. Engage with U.S. leaders. They represent us, and it is important to make our voices heard. Send a telegram to the White House to tell Obama to come to Rio! Or, if you prefer the easy route, sign the petitions here or here — or just give the prez a call at 202-456-1111.

To find more ways to get involved, check out this extensive list compiled by SustainUS or if you are still at a loss for what this whole Earth Summit is about or just generally want to know more check out this great guide [PDF] on youth participation at Rio+20 put together by the volunteer-led youth group Rio+twenties.

So far through the Rio+20 process, we are seeing more humility than in past global meetings — an admission by world leaders that we are a long way from meeting the goals laid out at the first Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago and that we must find fresh ways of driving change on the local, national, and global levels. The opportunity is there for us to seize. As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said to young people this week, “this is your United Nations.” Time is of the essence.

Ellie Johnston is the Lead Now fellowship director at SustainUS, a youth-led organization that empowers U.S. youth to advance sustainable development at UN conferences and back at home. She also works at Climate Interactive, which helps global leaders and citizens explore the pathways to address our climate, energy, and sustainability challenges through simulations and systems thinking.

‘Climate refugees’ not recognized as ‘refugees’ by UN

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Survival is not negotiable. And yet the right to survival for millions of people who have had to leave their home due to the effects of climate change is given little recognition by the United Nations and most countries. These environmental and climate refugees face uncertain conditions as they seek new homes in areas that can be less than accommodating—to say the least. A new report out of the UK suggests that by the end of the century one billion people could lose their homes to climate change.

What happens to these people when they are forced beyond their country’s borders and into foreign lands?

Refugees, as defined by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, can be granted asylum in other countries. The UN definition of ‘refugee,’ however, does not include those who are displaced by the impacts of climate change. The definition is exclusive to those who “have a well-founded fear of being persecuted” if they return to their country. Some have proposed that the definition could be expanded to include environmental disasters, though this is unpopular due to fears that it may undermine the already tenuous status of political refugees. What is needed is possibly an entirely new UN treaty or an amendment to an existing one that codifies the rights of those who are forcibly displaced by climatic and environmental disruptions and must leave their countries.

Where this threat is most apparent is in two of the lowest-lying countries. Tuvalu and the Maldives are considered to be in grave danger by sea level rise and may find their land submerged by end of century given the most dire climate predictions. President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, has already put out a call to other nations seeking land for his entire country of 300,000 in the event that their country becomes flooded. Land is a fundamental aspect of a country and without it questions arise about the legitimacy of the country’s sovereignty and the citizenship of its people. Without a nation people will become “stateless” and their rights are thrown into a murky grey area of international law that leaves their right to a place to live in question.

The majority of those displaced by climate change do not leave their country but move to places that are more habitable within their own nation. The UN does not consider them “refugees” either, because they haven’t left their country (in addition to being displaced by climate change). Just because a person is able to remain in their own country does little to lessen the severity of their circumstances, often every bit as dire as those who seek refuge beyond their nation’s borders. Those who remain in their country often face little protection and assistance from governments that are grappling with the effects of climate change whether they be due to sea level rise, drought, or other disasters. People displaced by climate change in their own countries are recognized by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which includes those displaced by “natural or human-made disasters.” Though this document is widely accepted by nations, it is not legally binding, so is not always implemented.

The UN climate negotiations (COP 16) that are beginning in Cancun this week, may take some steps towards adapting to disruptive climate changes, but will very likely do little to directly address the rights and needs of climate refugees. Though adaptation is a critical step towards preventing the occurrence of climate refugees and may be the best course of action that we can hope for from international agreements. National governments can be pushed to recognize the rights of climate refugees in legislation. The Sierra Youth Coalition is taking a stand for climate refugees as Canada considers changes to their refugee laws. Sweden, however, has set the example for other countries with the Alien Act, which recognizes the needs of those who are “unable to return to the country of origin because of an environmental disaster.” What if our nations changed the discourse to one that sees refugees (and other immigrants) as an asset in building national diversity and resilience rather than as a burden on the economy that must be shut out?

Copenhagen outcomes

<cross-posted on SustainUS AoC Blog>

Sitting in a cavernous reception hall dimly lit by Christmas lights and a projector screen broadcasting President Obama’s announcement of the Copenhagen Accord was not the end to the UN Climate Change Conference that I had anticipated—but really what had I anticipated? It was very late Friday, December 18th, 2009 and around me sat members of the International Youth Climate Movement, environmental organizations, and representatives of non-governmental organizations from across the world who had come to Copenhagen to bear witness to the UN climate negotiations but who had been shut out of the Bella Center, where the negotiations were held, in the final days of the two-week conference. As President Obama’s press conference concluded, there were resounding boos in the audience and blank stares as we sat aghast at the agreement that had just been described

The political outcome that came out of the conference, the Copenhagen Accord, realizes none of our demands and is characterized by a weak pledge and review framework for key mitigation targets that was left empty of commitments as leaders flew home. As news of the Copenhagen Accord spread in Copenhagen, stories on how it was brokered emerged to provide tinder for a wild fire of political drama and finger pointing. Reports suggest that the Accord came out of an unscheduled meeting between President Obama and leaders of China, Brazil, South Africa, and India. President Obama then announced the Copenhagen Accord as a “meaningful outcome,” before it went to the entire body of nations at the conference for acceptance. Then, after an all-night negotiating session, and lacking consensus on its approval, the UNFCCC decided to merely “take note of the Copenhagen Accord.”  Continue reading

COP 15 photography

I am finally back home and finding time to organize photos and reflect on everything I experienced.

Here’s a short photo slide show I put together of some of my photos, and those of others, from Copenhagen:

For a slide show of more of the photos I took in Copenhagen click below.

One of my photos was featured online in the New York Times collection called “Documenting the Decade.” This photo is part of a stunning collection of photography from readers depicting the highs and lows of this tumultuous start to the 2nd millennium. Continue reading

Inside COP15: Where are We Now?

cross-posted on and

I have almost been in Copenhagen for two weeks now and have been watching from the inside and outside of the Bella Center as the UN Climate Change Negotiations proceed. At this point the progress that is needed to have a fair, ambitious, and binding treaty has not occurred. The nations of the world are still stuck in a political gridlock and the transparency of this process for observers is becoming increasingly limited.

Right now I am sitting in the Bella Center, wearing a bright orange t-shirt that says, “How old will you be in 2050?” I am listening to the plenary session broadcasted on screens throughout with clusters of NGOs, young people, and party delegates crowded around. Security guards walk around staring me in the eyes. Outside protester are tying to break-in, we are receiving fragmented reports about what is going on just beyond these walls of what has become a UN fortress. Somehow I have managed to find myself within it, in a surreal microcosm of the world. I am struggling with a mix of emotions in navigating what on one hand seems an incredible access to power but on the other is the reality that the struggles that appear to be contained in this conference center are really much bigger and are found outside and back at home.

The pace of the negotiations is wrenching many of us here in the heart as our frustrations and fears about our futures and others are put on the line with the increased delays in action. The marches outside with thousands and the dozens of actions within the Bella Center are drawing the world’s gaze to Copenhagen and on climate change. It is incredible to me that my country or rather a few key decision makers are able to stall the process. Though really, that is only a simple analysis of the state of things right now. We are working with a process that is flawed (whether or not there is anything better—I do not know). I wrote yesterday on the SustainUS Blog about my inspiration from the amazing people I have met and the development of networks of people that are seeking solutions now. This seems to be the best we have at this point.

Continue reading

A Dose of Optimism Among the Frustration

Written 12/15/09 and cross-posted at

Everyday in Copenhagen at the UN Climate Negotiations brings an exciting roller coaster of activity where the challenges of addressing climate change and the gravity of the situation in which we are present is juxtaposed against daily struggles for access to the conference center and confusion about what is actually happening around us. Word travels fast around the conference center and to the outside, so that those following the negotiations at home often receive information at a similar rate to those inside. This connectivity enables a greater transparency than ever in this process as the public is able to

In the twists and turns of this trip, I have found myself rubbing shoulders with Nobel laureates and making international media for the mere fact that US youth are here in overwhelming numbers to take a stand for bold climate action. This week people who, like me, just want to add their voice to the process have overwhelmed the Bella Center’s capacity. Many who recently arrived for the final week are finding they have limited access to the Bella Center and very little access to the negotiation halls. With observers limited in access to the Bella Center, it may turn out to be a wonderful opportunity for coordination. Among the International Youth Climate Movement we now have a moment to take a breath and plan our next steps. We may see in the coming days that the emerging stories of the young people here in Copenhagen will begin to be articulated as we further unite in solidarity for climate justice in meeting rooms and at dinner tables across Copenhagen. Yesterday a young person from Nepal sat down at a table where I was eating and we exchanged stories of youth activism in our countries. Similar conversations continued in the evening at an event where international youth leaders were brought together to share their stories.

While we are all feeling a bit frustrated with the progress made here politically, we can be reassured by the conversations and networks that are forming, which will provide the necessary action to address climate change. Even Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, has reminded us all several times this week that an international treaty will not resolve our climate woes and that the upwelling of people focused on solutions is what is needed at this point.

My trip to Copenhagen…so far

I had planned to provide updates much more regularly from here in Copenhagen.

I have found myself here in Copenhagen working on the communications plan with the UNFCCC Youth Constituency, the US Youth Delegation, and within SustainUS. This has kept me really busy but has been really rewarding as everyday there are new projects and events that we must respond to.

So here are some of the things I’ve done in a nutshell:

I arrived on December 4th, tired from finishing my exams a week in advance but very excited to finally be in Copenhagen. On December 5th the Conference of Youth began…

The first day of COP15 I participated in the handover of the 10 million TckTckTck petition signatures to Connie Hedegard and Ivo de Boer. We also stopped by Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathaai’s press conference and snagged a few photos with her.

As COP15 began SustainUS coordinated with the other American youth at the Bella Center to track policy and hold joint actions. Here we are meeting in the Bella Center listening to a policy briefing by an negotiator tracker…

On Wednesday and Thursday, December 9th and 10th we had a run in with the famously ridiculous climate change skeptic Lord Monckton, which resulted in SustainUS getting international news coverage when he began to call us “Hitler youth.” The incredibly hateful comments that have followed since then from climate skeptics have been discouraging. I cannot understand how anyone suspects that they will convince someone of their views by insulting them with such offensive names and refusing to engage them in a civil conversation.

Thursday December 10th concluded with an event that we put on with the Chinese Youth Delegation to bring us together and discuss opportunities for collaboration among fellow citizens of these two superpowers.

The Global Day of Action on climate change occurred on December 12th. I joined the march in Copenhagen with around 100,000 other people. I found myself in the group, which was incredibly fun and joyous.

We made the BBC’s video coverage during the march while singing “It’s Getting Hot in Here” (see time spot at 14 sec).

Bounding towards the UN

Published 12/9/09:

In just a short while, after finishing up my last final exam tomorrow, I will be getting on a plane to Copenhagen, Denmark. I’m headed to the Danish capital, as many of you know, for the United Nations climate change negotiations that are being held from December 7-18. Like many who will attend, this will be my first UN Conference. I am attending with the youth delegation of SustainUS: The US Youth Network for Sustainable Development. We have been preparing our plan for Copenhagen as a team since July and my anticipation for this trip has been building along with it. I will be attending to elevate the representation of young people and our voice at these historic negotiations. Youth have a lot at stake in these negotiations and as a result we are rising up to meet the challenge of our time–ensuring a safe, healthy, and secure future for us all.

In preparation for my attendance, I have been consuming articles about the negotiations, policies, and the international youth climate movement with rapt attention. I have also found myself sharing stages with mayors and speaking before crowds reaching over 300. I’ve given almost a dozen speeches and presentations in the past couple months, from the local Sierra Club to the Western NC United Nations Association. The amazing outpouring of support and enthusiasm I have received, initially caught me off guard. Quickly though, it has reaffirmed for me why advocacy for climate solutions is the cornerstone of my life and has help sustain a new level of personal commitment to this work.

I will do my best to keep you all updated on my view from the ground, as I find my place among it all. I’ll be working with the communications of the SustainUS delegation and the international youth delegation to coordinate communications on behalf of the youth present. This will likely involve writing press releases, holding interviews, and writing blogs about what we are doing throughout the two weeks. You can stay posted at the SustainUS blog, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube or you can also follow my personal blog and Twitter (if that’s your sort of thing).

As leaders ante up their climate commitments and demonstrations amplify, the eyes of the world are shifting towards Copenhagen. The UN negotiations will bring together world leaders and people from all sectors of society. This conglomeration of 15,000+ people in the UN conference (and many more outside) will make for an energized atmosphere where undoubtedly, great things will be accomplished.

Thank you all so much for continuing to inspire me and for your generous support in helping me get to Copenhagen!

All the best,