UN climate summit failure worries young people

The placard of a protester attending the Madrid climate conference currently taking place says, “The climate is changing. Why aren’t we?” So far the UN summit has been bogged down in technicalities, as each of the wealthy countries tries to manoeuvre into a position that reflects its own aspirational ‘commitments’ sung so eloquently at the 2015 Paris summit. You may recall Justin Trudeau’s enthusiasm prior to that conference when he declared, “Canada is back!” This was meant in part to be a pledge to work diligently with the rest of the world to vigorously lower greenhouse-gas pollution after Stephen Harper’s anti-science agenda. Canada has failed miserably to reach its climate goals, both for individuals and as a government. Will the government exacerbate this situation by approving the proposed open-pit tar sands development that would cover an area as large as the city of Vancouver? 

December 13 is the final day of the Madrid summit, and ministers from the world’s governments arrived in Madrid only a few days previously to negotiate where this 25th UN meeting will lead us. These global conversations have been going on for a long time, yet we are still no closer to stopping a rise in global temperature of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius—or more probably a catastrophic increase of 3 degrees. The aspirational concoctions laid out in the Paris summit have led us nowhere. The pledge of US$100 billion yearly for a decade in 2009 to help the poorer nations to adapt and manage in the face of climate change still hasn’t materialized, apart from a mere trickle of valid commitments. Meanwhile, to the utter shame of the Spanish government, the Madrid conference is being sponsored by the very corporations that have contributed most to our ecological crisis: the oil and electric companies and the banks that finance them. Foxes welcomed into the hen house? As sponsors, they go on to influence the negotiations taking place. The ultimate greenwash?

Although half a million people came out in Madrid to protest about the slowness of negotiations, individual countries are loath to pledge to push forward an authentic agenda that will tackle the emergency and stabilize the Earth’s climate. At the same time, scientific reports and disasters are documenting daily the unfolding catastrophe. Major Australian fires, ecological tipping points and expanding oxygen-depleted dead zones in the oceans head the list this week.

Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! has been following the situation in Madrid and speaking with young climate activists attending an alternative conference called the Social Summit for Climate. She pointed out that the International Monetary Fund estimates that globally governments subsidize the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $5.2 trillion annually. During her conversation with activists from Chile (where the conference was to be held until that government cancelled) and Uganda, it became apparent from their testimonies that unprecedented droughts and floods are causing huge suffering. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg addressed the people in Madrid’s streets, saying, “The change we need is not going to come from the people in power as it is now. The change is going to come from the masses, from the people demanding action. And that is us. We are the ones who are going to bring change. The current world leaders are betraying us, and we will not let that happen any more.” She went on to express her frustration by commenting on the unparalleled rise in carbon emissions since 2015. The school strikes have done nothing, she lamented, to bring down emissions, and she vowed to do more. Young people want real solutions, and tragically governments have capitulated to corporate interests.

The celebrated British Nature writer Robert Macfarlane wrote in his recent book Underland (which can be borrowed from the Lennoxville Library), “We find speaking of the Anthropocene…difficult. It is, perhaps, best imagined as an epoch of loss—of species, places and people—for which we are seeking a language of grief and, even harder to find, a language of hope.”

In these articles I have mentioned non-violent civil disobedience and groups like Extinction Rebellion as the avenues for hope that more and more young people are looking to in their frantic search for biodiversity/climate stability and resilience. The connection between young people and those who in previous times were valued as elders because of their wisdom and leadership has been shattered. Young people realize they must now fend for themselves, and Greta Thunberg is expressing their anger. Whether that trust can be restored is now in question. Can we change course?

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