Youth Voices at the COP21 Climate Talks

Young activists remain hopeful as they push to be heard in Paris

graphic depicting a leaf with the silhouette of the Eiffel tower

Brower Youth Award winners Dyanna Jaye, Chloe Maxmin, and Ryan Camero are in Paris attending the COP21 climate negotiations. The three young environmental leaders are participating in the talks as part of a US youth delegation with SustainUS, an organization that empowers young people to engage in advocacy.

Jaye came to the climate movement through engaging with environmental battles in her home state of Virginia while in college. She joined SustainUS last year on a delegation to the COP20 climate negotiations in Lima, and is co-leading the SustainUS delegation to COP21.

Maxmin grew up on a farm in rural Maine and became involved with the climate movement when she was just 12 years old to protest a local development proposal. While at Harvard College, she co-founded Divest Harvard campaign. She is currently a fellow with The Nation and is working on a book on how the climate movement can become an effective political force.

Photo of Youth Activists COP21Photo by SustainUSCamero and Jaye at an event in Paris. Camero says it is essential for the youth voice to be considered in the climate negotiations, “not in theory, but in practice.”

Camero comes from Stockton, California and his journey as an activist began with addressing social justice at the community level by bringing people together through art and storytelling. He is currently working with Restore the Delta, a group building community resilience through preservation of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, and is designing an educational graphic to convey the story of the California water crisis.

The three took time out of their busy schedules to talk about their experience in Paris and about the value of global climate negotiations.

Do you have any hope that the world’s nations will reach a working, effective deal to curb climate change?

Maxmin: I have hope because the climate movement used COP21 as a moment to build momentum, power, and awareness that will last long beyond the day that the Le Bourget [Conference Center] closes in Paris. I don’t know what the text will be like, and I don’t want to speculate because there are some who are much more knowledgeable that I, like Dyanna. But the energy and dedication that I’ve witnessed youth give to this world over the past two weeks is proof to me that we will get where we need to go.

Jaye: This process is incredibly though. We don’t have high expectations for COP21, but we aren’t looking to the agreement being negotiated to solve the climate crisis. I expect some wins in Paris — the pieces are being set to push all countries to decarbonize and move toward a renewable energy powered world. But we know we’ll be left with a massive gap in ambition and action. This is where the movement comes in.

Camero: It is a necessity for me to hold hope. Given that this crisis is unfolding in endless ways, there is an awareness of shared impact, and therefore the stakes for us to come together are at an all-time high. For me, however, these negotiations are one piece of a much larger solution — top-down leadership and decisions made out of political privilege won’t hold. It will be the work of our entire society to solve the problems before us.

Do you feel like youth voices and the concerns they are raising have a place at the table?

Camero: Yes, it is actually essential for us to be considered — not in theory, but in practice. The concerns I’ve heard in this space are daunting. The youth delegations I’ve met are facing their islands sinking, their lands drying, waters being poisoned, too many heartbreaking stories to tell. When these negotiators talk about the future, they speak for us instead of listening. It is for these reasons I am making sure we’re heard and have equal impact on the talks.

Maxmin: Youth play a strategic role. We articulate the kind of action that is needed for a world in which our generation and all those on the frontlines of the climate crisis don’t just survive, but thrive. If we don’t push for this reality, then who will? The louder we are, the more powerful we become, the more likely our voices will influence negotiations. As I’ve expressed in my writing for the The Nation, I do not think that our movement has developed ways to translate young people’s concerns into real, concrete, ambitious political action. My project at the moment revolves around new ways to influence politics and hold global leaders accountable to our voices and their actions.

Jaye: Young people sit in a space of tension within these negotiations — we don’t have a seat at the table, yet the decision being made here will affect our lives much more than the lives of the decision makers. Even without a place at the table, I have found the youth voice to be incredibly powerful in the UNFCCC negotiations. This political process gets stuck in the weeds of the action that is seen as politically feasible. Young people don’t get stuck in the realm of the politically possible, but amplify what is scientifically necessary and morally just when it comes to action on climate change.

What do you find most inspiring about the event?

Maxmin: Ryan Camero! He unites people in a sense of community that reminds all of us that we are building a movement together. We run around all day, pursuing individual interests, following personal goals. Ryan reminds our delegation that we are the better world when we are together. His art and voice will stay with me long after COP21.

And Dyanna Jaye! She is a delegation leader for SustainUS. She has a complex understanding not only of the youth climate movement but also the negotiating process, the intricacies of the text, and the strategies to influence the outcome of these talks. Her mastery is inspiring to me.

It is the individuals of COP21, the conversations, the camaraderie, the late nights, the early mornings, the tired eyes, the crying eyes, the smiling eyes, the sparkling eyes — that’s what it’s all about.

Jaye: COP21 is a climate village. There are over 20,000 people who will come through the conference halls during the two weeks of negotiations. Beyond the government negotiations, media, and heads of state, there are also frontline activists, young people from around the world, religious leaders, and many more people from all walks of life. Although much of the negotiations are dry and negotiators use their own wonky UN policy language, there are times when the great spirit and diversity of this movement shine though and make this experience so meaningful.

Camero: For me, I think what gives me hope to continue on are the sparks and glimpses of the world we want to see at work. Intergenerational and cross-cultural understanding of fighting the real issues, and being genuinely honest about what’s at stake, keeps me going — being in spaces like Naomi Klein’s Leap Manifesto event in downtown Paris or Vandana Shiva’s International Monsanto Tribunal are the kinds of conversations that make me know we are moving toward our needed future. Knowing that I am only one voice in a constellation of youth across the world is affirming too — I’m not alone, and that is really healing to know.

What do you find the most frustrating about the process?

Jaye: The slowness of the process is incredibly frustrating. The timeline of the climate impacts and the timeline of the political responses are moving at vastly different speeds. We needed to have this agreement a decade ago. Negotiations over specific words on a document can feel incredibly disconnected from the climate impacts that continue to endanger communities around the world.

Camero: The policy text and the absolute lack of inclusivity these talks have are both frustrating. COP21 really is another world and carries another language and culture. The acronyms, organizations, mechanisms, and statements wrapped up in these proceedings have been extremely daunting to me as a grassroots organizer. Like I said, the political privilege is real — while frontline communities see the impacts, these talks are so far removed from being understandable to the average person. It is overwhelming to know these confusing words carry so much weight in deciding our direction as a society.

Maxmin: I am frustrated that our movement does not have mechanisms to influence politics directly and hold leaders accountable for their action and to our voices. We act with a hope that our words and message will influence politics in some way. But how do we follow through?

Do talks like these have any value at all?

Maxmin: I have never been to a COP before because my theory of change is rooted in the local. I wanted to be in Paris for COP21 because I was interested in how our movement attempts to pressure political actors to stand up for this planet and its people. I have learned invaluable lessons about political mobilization that will become an integral part of my book. I also see that mobilization, action, noise, and disruption are incredibly crucial to the COP process. If young people are not here to make their voices heard, to bring their concerns to the faces of negotiators, then who will? We must be here. I am honored and humbled to join young people at COP21. It truly has been an incredible experience.

Jaye: Yes, they do have value. But don’t be dazed — the real work starts at home. My avenue to climate activism was through fighting to protect the state and community that I love in Virginia. I do think we need international negotiations as one of the many pieces that must come together to build a just society with a stable climate. But this is just one small piece. I have learned a great deal from engaging with the negotiations over the last year-and-a-half, but I am eager to get back home to Virginia, dig roots, and continue the fight to push Virginia further along the way to a renewable energy future.

Camero: I feel confident that the talks do have value, but my opinion may vary from others in what type of value. The validity of this global crisis is reinforced by these talks, so for a lot of communities traveling here, this space provides an opportunity to lift local struggles to the international front. If not to share these specific and intimate circumstances, then COP21 is a way to draw parallels from place to place, and build understanding that our needs are more common than we realize. And for that reason alone — aside from the binding agreement, the discussions, and the decisions — I know in my heart that this space forms the makings of movement building on the global level.

The Brower Youth Awards are administered by Earth Island Institute. This interview has been edited for clarity.

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