US and Canadian Youth Demand Generational Justice

The U.S. youth at the climate talks are making a big play for justice on behalf of their generation during the last days of COP 17, claiming that the U.S. negotiators are putting their futures at risk.

Abigail Borah, a student from Middlebury College interrupted lead U.S. negotiator Todd Stern’s concluding plenary speech on Thursday, pinpointing members of the U.S. Congress for impeding the progress of the summit. She also made a passionate plea to her government leaders to join the rest of the world in a fair and binding treaty.

Claiming that she was speaking on behalf of her country, Borah said that the negotiators themselves “cannot speak on behalf of the United States of America” because “the obstructionist Congress has shackled a just agreement and delayed ambition for far too long.”

Borah was ejected after completing her speech to voracious rounds of applause from the entire plenary of global leaders.

Ready for Change

Her actions, however aggressive, reflect the growing feeling of injustice among educated American youth who feel that their leaders have turned a blind eye to the facts at the expense of their own future on this planet. Afraid that each step of inaction will force them to suffer the worsening climate challenges that previous generations have been unable or unwilling to address, they are resorting to disruption.

Their list of complains isn’t restricted to inaction.

They also hold the U.S. responsible for foul play and claim that a few outspoken and misdirected Congress members, who continue to successfully hijack negotiations, are blocking progress. This has put off urgent pollution reduction targets until the year 2020, jeopardizing billions.

(Lack of) Public Activism

Some of them also believe that the American public is not outspoken enough. Mind you, these are kids seem to have done their homework: Overwhelmingly conclusive research shows that waiting until 2020 to begin aggressive emissions reduction will likely cause irreversible damage and suffering to the world they will inherit, including destruction of air and water, more severe weather patterns, worsening droughts, devastation to American communities, and a dismal outlook for the American economy.

“2020 is too late to wait,” urged Borah.

Earlier in the week, the head of the European Parliament’s delegation to the summit Jo Leinen expressed his frustration by the stalemate, also referred to by another official as a “ping-pong game” between the U.S. and China that is unacceptable and intolerable.

Leinen, who chairs the European Parliament’s environmental committee, noted that China had for the first time indicated that it might be willing to take on binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – but only after 2020. However, he did not see any such commitment from the U.S. “The one is not yet ready, and the other is not willing,” Leinen said.

On Borrowed Time

Todd Stern, U.S. special envoy for climate change, argues that “the Cancun commitments, and the ones made at Copenhagen (in 2009) cover 80 percent of global emissions and while they are not legally binding, they are politically and morally binding.”

Yet, the U.S. youth at COP17 claim that they are inheriting a big mess.

“An impossible burden is being put upon us,” says MJ Shiao, who is 26 years old and is a member of the youth delegation SustainUS. He thinks the U.S. operates on fear-driven politics rather than science and solutions.

“They are borrowing time at the expense of my generation. If we don’t peak our emissions in the next five years, what are we supposed to do? The main thing is that we just want to have a fighting chance by the time we are in positions of leadership.”

Canadian youth also made their presence felt at COP17 with several getting ejected earlier this week as Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent delivered his opening address. Just as Kent began his speech, six stood and turned away from the Minister revealing the message “Turn your back on Canada” prominently displayed on their shirts. These young people have challenged their leaders’ negotiation strategies, the close relationship between Canada’s climate policy and dirty fossil fuels, and the lobbying to lower fuel quality regulations to allow the expansion of the Alberta tar sands.

At COP 17, climate injustice is being addressed from all sides, including gender, race, geography, poverty, and the rights of nature itself.

The world’s youth are recognizing the magnification within their lifetime of all of the above, which is denying them the kind of world that has been enjoyed by those making — or not making — the decisions.

There might be hope. COP president, South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane assured that COP 17 would involve younger delegations. Already, more than 150 of them have been accredited. “The decisions we make today will not affect us, you will inherit that legacy,” she emphasized.

And the nearly 200 countries at COP17 have reached a deadline to broker a deal on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Connie Hedegaard, European climate change commissioner, says that countries unwilling to make commitments for the years to come are taking on ‘an almost unbearable responsibility’ for consequences that are sure to prove catastrophic.

Readers: Will the U.S. youth’s activism be enough to nudge the status quo?

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