Climate Action

Activists meet in New York for UN Youth Climate Summit

On Saturday, the United Nations hosted its first-ever Youth Climate Summit, bringing together more than 700 youth climate leaders from around the world to voice collective frustration about government inaction on climate change and discuss climate solutions for the future.

“Change rarely happens from the top down,” said Argentinian climate activist Bruno Rodriguez, speaking at the summit. “It happens when millions of people demand change.”

The U.N. summit comes a day after an estimated 4 million people took to the streets worldwide, including 250,000 in New York, as part of the global climate strike movement. The strikes made national headlines, highlighting the power and spread of this youth movement in their unwavering demand for change.

“We showed that we were connected, and the young people are unstoppable,” Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg said in her message at the U.N., speaking to the success of the previous day’s strikes.

Three climate activists – Rodriguez, Wanjuhi Njoroge and Komal Kumar, the latter two from Kenya and Fiji, respectively – joined Thunberg onstage to open the youth climate summit. The four were joined by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

interior of un
More than 700 climate leaders gathered at the U.N. Youth Climate Summit Saturday. Photo credit: Inma Galvez-Shorts

With the U.N. Climate Action Summit Monday and U.N. General Assembly following, Guterres served as a bridge between the youth climate movement and U.N. global leaders. To that end, Guterres flipped the traditional paradigm of his role, serving as a “keynote listener,” rather than speaker. The Secretary-General listened to the activists voice their frustration with national and global leaders’ inability to tackle climate change.

“Is it really too much to ask you to stop wasting time and walk the talk?” said Kumar.

Straight talk has been a theme of the youth climate movement, inspired by the frank statements of Fridays for Future founder Thunberg, who has directed her ire at policymakers in several speeches over the last year.

While world leaders have consistently dragged their feet on issues of climate change, youth are taking to the streets to demand change, impatient and intolerant of platitudes and excuses to delay climate action.

“This is not the time and place for dreams. This is the time to wake up,” said Thunberg, speaking on Tuesday to U.S. Congress.

Guterres meets climate activists
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres meets with youth speakers prior to the opening of the youth summit. From left to right: Bruno Rodriguez, Wanjuhi Njoroge, Komal Karishma Kumar, Greta Thunberg and Guterres. Photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Joining the youth leaders onstage for half an hour, Secretary-General Guterres appeared receptive to the young panelists, embracing his role as a keynote listener.

“That is the problem with world leaders — they talk too much, and they listen too little,” said Guterres to a room of applause. “I believe that what the youth is doing today, what grassroots movements are doing today, is absolutely essential for [change] to happen.”

Climate change is a challenge on a global scale: Individual leaders can make a dent in their own country’s carbon emissions, but without international agreements to compel unprecedented global action, greenhouse gases will continue to spill into the atmosphere. And if that happens, the world will descend into a much warmer — and more unjust — world.

“Climate change and huge disasters are causing more harm, war, strife, suffering, migration — that has created more climate refugees,” said Kehkashan Basu, 19, founder of the Green Hope Foundation, in an interview with Earth Day Network. “That has [led to] other problems that include exploitation and abuse of women and girls, even more than usual.”

people sitting at panel
Climate leaders sit on a panel at Saturday’s Youth Climate Summit at the U.N. in New York City. Photo credit: Inma Galvez-Shorts

“We need to act,” Jamaican climate leader Dainalyn Swaby, 27, said in an interview Saturday. “We are ready as the next generation of leaders, because we understand the responsibility that we have.”

Secretary-General Guterres concluded his talk at the summit by reflecting on his generation’s failure in the face of climate change. The world has warmed, and little has been done to curb the consequences of this warmer world, but the fight is not over, the U.N. head argued.

“My generation has largely failed, as you know, to preserve both justice in the world and to preserve climate,” he said. “My generation has a huge responsibility. It is your generation that must make us be accountable to make sure that we don’t betray the future of humankind.”

Yesterday’s recent strikes and today’s youth summit suggest that this younger generation is up for the challenge. But the question remains: Will the world — and its leaders — rise up to meet it? Monday’s U.N. Climate Action Summit will begin to answer this question.

Image at top: UN Staff members stand outside the SDG Action Zone on the lawn of U.N. Headquarters. Photo credit: UN Photo/Laura Jarriel