Geopolitics

How youth climate activists empower activists from countries that are hardest hit by global warming

GLadys Habu knows firsthand that devastating climate change is already visiting the world. The 25-year-old has vivid memories of Kale Island, a tiny island in the Solomon Islands archipelago, where she swam and barbecued on the white sandy beaches. Her grandparents also lived here decades ago.

But Kale Island no longer exists. It was declared lost in 2016 after being completely submerged in water, a victim of rising sea levels. She fears that more of her South Pacific home could share the same fate if global temperatures continue to rise at the same pace.

“In just decades, the map of my country has changed dramatically,” she says.

Habu and others who have personally witnessed the worst effects of climate change were the focus of a two-week summit for young climate activists. The virtual event was organized out of frustration when the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, was postponed. Dubbed the Mock COP26, the summit was attended by more than 350 delegates from 118 countries and featured speeches from activists and stakeholders from around the world, including the UK Minister of Government responsible for the original COP26. In a year marked by pandemic-related disruptions, the Mock COP26 could be one of the largest international meetings on the topic of climate change – even if it does not have an official status.

Continue reading: The leaders of these sinking countries are struggling to stop climate change. Here’s what the rest of the world can learn:

Another goal of the event was to raise the voices of those hardest hit by climate change. It is a conscious decision based on consensus among youth activists that people in developing countries and other marginalized voices are not represented in the climate movement, which has mainly focused on activists from developed countries – be it Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future or Extinction Rebellion that was founded in Britain

“The climate movement has often been inaccessible and is generally dominated by bourgeois whites in the global north,” says Aoife Mercedes Rodriguez-Uruchurtu, an activist with the UK Student Climate Network. “We cannot rise to this challenge without listening to the people whose voices matter most.”

In an effort to be more inclusive, the virtual conference has allowed more delegates to join the people and areas identified by the organizers as Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA), including Kenya, the Philippines and Bangladesh. These and other countries were allowed five delegates from most industrialized nations instead of three, giving them more time to speak. More than 70% of the delegates represented at the summit were from developing countries. Having more delegates also gave these countries more representation and expression in the wording of the final Mock COP26 declaration.

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Many behind Mock COP26 see this as a first step to change the focus of the youth climate movement. Several studies have shown that a warming planet will hit developing countries more than developed countries. The common climate movements, however, have often been criticized for failing to include the most vulnerable nations.

Earlier this year, Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist, was cut out of a photo in which she posed with four activists from Europe, including Greta Thunberg. “It felt like I had been robbed of my place,” Nakate told TIME in July. “If climate justice doesn’t involve the hardest-hit communities, then it’s not justice at all.” The photo was later replaced by the new agency that posted it.

“When we get everyone involved, you realize how many problems are occurring in each country,” says Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a 22-year-old activist from the Philippines who volunteered at the summit and is one of the speakers she represents Country. Tan has experienced extreme weather events in her hometown of Manila, with increasingly stronger typhoons occurring every year. She says activists like her, who have seen the life-changing damage climate change is already causing, can go beyond “just sad stories and statistics” and play an active role in creating a global solution.

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There is some evidence that this approach could lead to more effective measures as well. A 2019 report from the United Nations Development Program found that vulnerable developing countries are leading the world by making ambitious commitments on emissions and climate resilience. “So the story is not necessarily ‘We’re drowning, we need help,” “says Sameera Savarala, a climate policy expert at the United Nations Development Program. “But ‘Look how we saw the consequences and took fate into our own hands.’

Habu, the Solomon Islands activist, believes reinforcing stories like hers will help people understand that the climate crisis is already a reality for people in many parts of the world. “Hopefully, when people who don’t believe in climate change hear our stories, they’ll empathize and get involved,” she says.

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Write to Abhishyant Kidangoor at abhishyant.kidangoor@time.com.

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