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Young negotiators inject 'new blood' into climate decision-making

People with painted markings on their hands and faces raise their arms in a crowd

Activists raise their hands during a sit-in at the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, Spain December 13, 2019. REUTERS/Susana Vera

What’s the context?

Young climate activists are moving from the streets to negotiating seats of power - but plenty find obstacles in their way

  • Young people are becoming formal climate negotiators for their countries
  • Governments, including Sudan and Switzerland, now have youth negotiators
  • But many struggle to cover costs or make a real difference to policy

By Laurie Goering

LONDON - At the last major U.N. climate change talks, in Madrid in December 2019, Marie-Claire Graf, then 23, led Switzerland's negotiations on efforts to boost the capacity of developing countries to cut emissions and adapt to a warmer world.

Graf, a sustainability and politics student, had studied the issue and was asked by the Swiss president's office to take on the role as the best-qualified person for the job.

But some senior negotiators were not ready to accept that someone so young could be trusted with the task.

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One asked Graf to put him in touch with the Swiss delegate in charge. "I told him that I am the Swiss negotiator leading on this matter," said Graf, now 24.

The European repeated his request, and when Graf said again she was the right person to speak with, "he just walked away".

"Clearly he couldn't get his head around the fact that a young woman could sit there and take decisions," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As a generation of young people passionate about boosting action on climate change begin moving from street protests into decision-making positions, they face a range of challenges.

Some, despite their expertise, struggle to be taken seriously or find themselves confined to advisory roles and photo opportunities. With much of their work still unpaid, the less-well-off have limited avenues to contribute their ideas.

And while young people have taken on climate negotiator roles with real power in countries from Costa Rica to the Netherlands and Sudan, many are still left out of other key decisions, such as how pandemic recovery funds are being spent.

When crises hit, "youth are often the first ones not allowed in the room anymore", said Aoife Fleming, a 23-year-old Dutch climate negotiator and law student.

But decisions on whether a generation's worth of borrowing is used to turn economies green - or shore up polluting systems - is exactly where young people most need a say, they insist.

"That's so much money and it has such a large influence on how the future will look," Fleming said.

Climate activist Marie-Claire Graf, 25, from Switzerland poses for a photo during the Youth4Climate pre-COP26 conference in Milan, Italy, September 28, 2021. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Climate activist Marie-Claire Graf, 25, from Switzerland poses for a photo during the Youth4Climate pre-COP26 conference in Milan, Italy, September 28, 2021. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Climate activist Marie-Claire Graf, 25, from Switzerland poses for a photo during the Youth4Climate pre-COP26 conference in Milan, Italy, September 28, 2021. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Taking a seat

Young people - who have an outsized stake in what a heating planet will look like in decades to come - have been seeking decision-making power on climate issues for many years.

Youth at the 2005 U.N. climate negotiations, for instance, issued a statement demanding "a seat at the table", saying "it's our future that you are negotiating".

But such seats remain few, even as youth representatives flood onto panels and events, particularly in the wake of high-profile youth-led protests in 2019, some inspired by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, which brought millions to the streets.

"Young people are everywhere - but on a consultative basis," said Graf. They get "two minutes" at the beginning or end of an event, she added.

"Everyone stands up and claps, and says how encouraging it is to listen to you – but then they don't listen, and take the decisions as they did before," she said.

Marcel Beukeboom, the Netherlands' climate envoy who has mentored his country's young climate negotiators and helped them win more power, said many are now real experts on climate policy, covering everything from agriculture to clean transport.

But this fact does not get enough recognition, he added.

Some initially were happy just to be included in discussions but Beukeboom told them that to keep their seat at the table, they would need to "add value".

Now "they are preparing themselves incredibly well – and they are being invited back," he said.

Their biggest goal these days is to get their interests taken onboard and begin helping set the agenda, in particular providing a longer-term perspective on what decisions made today will mean in the future, he added.

Nisreen Elsaim, a 26-year-old climate negotiator for Sudan, who has already attended six major U.N. climate summits and worked as a negotiator at three, said including young people in decision-making was crucial to speed lagging climate action.

Global temperatures have already risen 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, and a goal to hold warming to 1.5C could be lost within a decade without rapid transformation of the world's energy and other economic systems, scientists say.

"Having ... a new generation's blood in the negotiation makes things go faster," Elsaim said in a telephone interview.

Older generations are often reluctant to set their own achievements aside to try something new, said the young physicist, who has a master's degree in renewable energy.

But young people do not have a conflict of interest, she noted. "We don't feel so attached to things," she said.

In her country, where more than three in four people are farmers or pastoralists and already face growing losses from rising heat, crop failures and extreme weather, the need to act swiftly is clear, she said.

High costs

But while Elsaim's government and the broader African group of negotiators have paid for her to attend the U.N. climate talks and consistently supported her, she said, other youth from poorer countries have struggled to pay their own way.

Kassim Gawusu-Toure, 33, a Ghanaian negotiator, said his government would finance his travel to the COP26 summit in Glasgow this November, but others are not so lucky.

"It's a serious challenge young people from the continent are facing, raising funds to get themselves there," he said.

Graf, of Switzerland, said as youth slowly take up more decision-making seats, they bring two key fresh perspectives: a desire for action now and a big personal stake in what happens.

"We fear for our own lives and our own future," she said. "We have only a few years to completely shift and transform and change everything. We can't talk about doing something in 20 years. We want to see things done in six months."

That can frustrate some who "want young people there as long as they are not too demanding or annoying", she admitted.

But young negotiators are increasingly proving their worth, she said.

"They have the capability and understanding, and they can say, 'This is where we have to go'," she said. "They deserve to be there."


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