Many of the fiercest climate activists attending COP 26 were young women, while many of the most powerful negotiators at the conference were older men, a demographic siloing that risks serving the interests of the fossil status quo.
“The two sides have vastly divergent views of what the summit should achieve. Indeed, they seem to have different notions of time,” writes the New York Times, pointing to the legions of young activists who were angry about the slow pace of the negotiations.
Illustrative of this imbalance at COP 26 were two reactions to the results. On one hand, 77-year-old U.S. climate envoy John Kerry declared midway through the conference that he was impressed at the progress they had made. “I’ve been to a great many COPs and I will tell you there is a greater sense of urgency at this COP,” Kerry told reporters.
That “sense of urgency” was not obvious to someone like 24-year-old climate activist Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, who, expressed her dissatisfaction with the summit towards its end. She demanded urgent action to cut emissions and support those being ravaged by the climate crisis.
“1.2°C is already hell,” Nakate observed, her views aligning with those of protesters outside the barricades who had declared the conference a failure. Nakate said the protesters were committed to keep up the pressure, “to continue holding leaders accountable for their actions,” the Times reports.
For Nakate and her fellow activists, the incremental approach advocated by most official climate negotiators forfeited its claims to credibility decades ago. The Times notes that “world leaders have been meeting and talking about the need to address climate change since before most of the protesters were born, with few results.”
It’s that failure, combined with the negotiators’ adherence to the same, slow path, that “makes the climate movement’s generational divide so pointed—and the fury of the young so potent,” the Times says.
The young activists are also very clear that they have science on their side, the Times story adds, beginning with the recognition that we have “less than a decade to sharply cut emissions to avert the worst climate consequences.”
World leaders are feeling the heat of young climate activists’ anger, in part because they fear being punished at the polls. A harbinger is Germany’s recent election, which produced the country’s youngest Parliament in history as well as a best-ever result for the Green Party.
In Glasgow, Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman says this was the first COP he’d attended where delegates were more scared of youth participants than they were of the media.
Feeling the heat, many heads of state at COP 26 made a point of insisting that young voices are being heard. Those reassurances were received by 24-year-old Philippine activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan as self-deluding hypocrisy, and by 19-year-old Kenyan activist Eric Njuguna as an exercise in “cognitive dissonance,” writes the Times.
Pushing back against the criticism, German environment minister Jochen Flasbarth urged youth to avoid painting all countries with the same fossil -soaked brush, and to understand that seemingly abstract goals with longer timelines are critical to ensure climate action actually happens on a global scale.
Responding to Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s dismissal of the COP at its half-way point as nothing but a “PR event,” 55-year-old climate scientist Michael Mann warned young people that to simplify climate politics plays into the hands of those who very much need a simplistic storyline.
“Activists declaring [the COP] dead on arrival makes fossil fuel executives jump for joy,” he tweeted. “They want to undermine and discredit the very notion of multilateral climate action.”
For 23-year-old American climate activist Daphne Frias, however, multilateral climate action—as it has been conducted for decades—has been thoroughly discredited by leaders who’ve forfeited their right to lead.
“We are the new leaders,” Frias said. “We are the ones who are going to make the decisions” from now on.