Students and young leaders met for the first-ever U.N. Youth Climate Summit on Saturday to demand that world leaders “walk the talk” and “stop wasting time” in the race to save the planet from human-caused global warming.
A day after more than 4 million children worldwide ditched classes to protest climate inaction, more than 700 youth activists joined officials and entrepreneurs for the summit at United Nations headquarters in New York.
The goal of the daylong summit, much of it webcast live by the world body, was to urge bold, swift action by world leaders when they meet on Monday at a U.N. Climate Action Summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
“Imagine the power of the movement you have created. The leaders are now asking for a seat at your table,” said Jayathma Wickramanayake, a Sri Lankan diplomat and activist who serves as the U.N. secretary-general’s youth envoy.
Fijian climate change activist Komal Kumar said her nation was unfairly suffering from an ecological crisis largely created by others.
“Things are black and white for us. We are not insurance policies, we are human beings, we are communities. Is it too much to ask you to walk the talk, are we really looking forward to false hope?” she asked.
“We demand action. Stop wasting time,” she said in a message for world leaders. “We will hold you accountable. And if you do not remember, we will mobilize to vote you out.”
Building up pressure
The youth summit was billed as “a platform for young leaders who are driving climate action to showcase their solutions at the United Nations, and to meaningfully engage with decision-makers on the defining issue of our time.”
Some of the young attendees delivered brief talks about their proposed solutions such as 3D printing using plastic waste, data storage in plant DNA and accountability platforms for sustainable fashion. Molly Burhans, a U.N. Environment “Young Champion of the Earth for North America” who is digitally mapping the world’s largest land owners, said the audience also shared some of their “fantastic ideas” and food for thought.
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, who was described as a “keynote listener” at one of the panel discussions, hoped to capitalize on political will sparked by youth protests. He demanded that world leaders show up with real action plans — not more speeches — to fulfill the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
The youth-led demonstrations a day earlier implored world leaders to listen to — and follow — the best “united” science that is available, ensure climate justice and equity particularly for most vulnerable and prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose August 2018 protests in front of Swedish parliament sparked the Fridays for Future global movement in which students skip classes to attend demonstrations, was perhaps the most prominent young leader attending the Youth Climate Summit.
“Yesterday, millions of people across the globe marched and demanded real climate action, especially young people,” she said. “We showed that we are united. And that we young people are unstoppable.”
Another climate activist, 19-year-old Bruno Rodriguez of Argentina, said the human-caused rise in global average temperatures is the “political, economic and cultural crisis of our time.”
“Many a time, we hear that our generation is going to be the one in charge of dealing with the problems that current leaders have created, and we will not wait passively to become that future: the time is now for us to be leaders,” Rodriguez said, as Guterres looked on.
Guterres, in turn, told the youth activists they are already helping to make a real change in the world by causing “a change in momentum” ahead of the U.N. Climate Action Summit he planned to hold.
“Keep your initiative, keep your mobilization, and more and more to hold my generation accountable,” he told them. “My generation has largely failed until now to preserve both justice in the world and the planet.”