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12/09/2011 03:45 PM

Young Activists in Durban

Rebelling Against the Climate Change Dinosaurs

By Christian Schwägerl in Durban, South Africa

Climate change will affect young people the most, but they are grossly under-represented at UN climate negotiations in Durban. A group of students from China and the US, however, is trying to challenge this with a shared vision for the future.

The youngest person who tried to have her say at the United Nations climate summit in Durban, South Africa was summarily thrown out of the conference center on Thursday. When 21-year-old Abigail Borah from New Jersey spoke up in a nervous voice at a high-level UN meeting, she was treated as an outsider interrupting the official proceedings. Police officers in blue uniforms led her out of the room and escorted her off the premises.

Borah had claimed in her brief intervention that official US negotiators "cannot speak on behalf of the United States of America" because of "the obstructionist Congress" that is blocking comprehensive legislation to curb CO2 emissions. But Borah couldn't claim to be speaking for the Americans either -- rather, she was there on behalf of SustainUS, a US-based non-governmental organization whose goal is to get more young people expressing their views as well as getting their voices heard in official talks about the future of the environment.

It would certainly hinder the proceedings if everybody claimed the right to interrupt them with impromptu statements. But the brief interruption highlighted a fundamental problem of the UN climate talks: The decisions taken here in Durban will affect the world's youngest people the most, yet the negotiators are mainly in their forties, fifties and sixties. There have been quite a few events in Durban where young people from around the globe were able to express their views and had a chance to talk to official negotiators. Yet many of the young activists gathered here do not think this is enough.

"They are negotiating about our future here," says Ellie Johnston, 24, from Ashville in North Carolina, who is the chair of SustainUS. "The younger somebody is the more affected he or she will be by rising temperatures and sea levels." A biologist by training, she joined the organization to increase the influence those aged between 13 and 26 have on decisions concerning the environment. Johnston is demanding that young people have a far more significant representation in the official negotiation process.

Bringing Young People Together

Perhaps the most important way SustainUS is trying to achieve this goal is not by interrupting meetings, but by linking up with like-minded young people from China -- members of the China Youth Delegation. The two superpowers are the world's biggest emitters of CO2 and other greenhouse gases and play the most important role in UN climate negotiations. "If we can bring young people from our two nations together and develop common views, perhaps that helps us to be heard," Johnston says.

And so, over the past few days, about 40 young people from China and the US have gathered here in Durban to talk about common ideas for the energy and climate policy of their respective homelands. "It's a very strong message if young people from the US and China speak out together," Johnston adds.

The project, called China-US Youth Coalition for Sustainable Development, was formed two years ago at the largely unsuccessful UN climate summit in Copenhagen. Johnston's Chinese counterpart, Yuan Cao, 22, says she felt strongly in Copenhagen that international climate policy does not serve the needs of the younger generation and that distrust between the US and China in particular was at the heart of the problem. "I sensed most of the problems were there due to a lack of mutual understanding," says Yuan Cao, an economics student from Nanjing in China who is currently enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania.

At the UN climate talks, which are taking place in the South African city of Durban until Friday night, official negotiators from China and the US keep blaming each other for a lack of progress. The Chinese claim the US is responsible for most of the additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and therefore needs to act first. The Americans counter that China's CO2 emissions are rising so quickly that a climate agreement without Chinese reduction targets is pointless.

"Ping Pong Blame Game"

"This ping pong blame game has been going on for too many years and it is not in the interests of the young generation," says Yuan Cao. "It needs to stop." To work against the stalemate, the China-US Youth Coalition has set up a workshop and public talks in Durban to develop a vision for the future that can be shared by young people in the US and China alike. "Only if young people in both countries become active in this topic together can they shape the way climate change will affect their lives over the coming decades," says Johnston.

The group has not produced a list of concrete demands yet, but its members all agree that the steps which are on the table in Durban do not go far enough in saving the world's youth from disastrous climate change. "It's clear that we're asking both sides to be much more progressive in Durban and to commit to binding CO2 targets well before 2020," adds Johnston.

Although Cao admits that Chinese participants from the China Youth Delegation attended briefings by government officials before traveling to the Durban meeting, she insists that they are not part of official government PR activities. "This is very bottom-up," she says. "We're not backed by the Chinese government, but act as individuals." SustainUS, meanwhile, is an "all-volunteer non-governmental organization," says Johnston.

The partnership, which is unique in Sino-American relations, had originally aimed to project the interests of young people into the official talks. But as the discussions in Durban unfolded, it became clear that joint activities should go beyond that. "It's obvious that it's not enough for us to meet once a year during climate negotiations," Cao says. "We want to build up a joint forum of young people in both the US and China and make young people ask themselves what they can do to solve the problem with lifestyle changes and political involvement." One plan that has emerged from the workshop in Durban is to take the climate debate to university campuses in both countries, involving students in developing "sustainable campus practices."

"In China, millions of young people are craving for a green lifestyle and for jobs in the green-tech industry," says Cao.

Both Johnston and Cao are eagerly waiting for the results of the climate summit on Friday night or Saturday morning. They are realistic that their joint activities have so far not had a major impact on the proceedings. But at the same time, they are optimistic that their voice could become strong enough in the years ahead to be heard properly. Yuan Cao says that on a fundamental level, she is very optimistic. "The green trend will definitely come, no matter how," she says. Ellie Johnston shares this optimism. "I remain hopeful because me and so many other young people are committed to stopping dangerous climate change," she says. For that to work out, Johnston wants her generation to be better represented at the negotiating table in the future, making interventions like the one by Abigail Borah on Thursday superfluous.

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