Young people will spend their lifetime dealing with an overheated world if bold climate action is not undertaken. Heat waves, floods, and hurricanes are killing hundreds and devastating communities across the world. Climate change is already a deadly reality. Governments met for the UNFCCC climate talks (COP24) in Poland from December 3–14, and despite the latest stark warning from climate scientists that we have only 12 years to reverse course, progress had been disappointing. A recent landmark study commissioned by the UN on the impact of 1.5°C warming on the planet encourages “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to reduce global temperature increase to at least 1.5°C. A key measure in reaching that goal is a 45% reduction of global emissions by the year 2030.
Behind the rhetoric of a socially responsible energy transition, increasing numbers of activists are wondering: Where is the action? What use is it learning facts if adults ignore them? That’s why 15-year-old Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg diagnosed with Asperger’s and ADHD, and more than 20,000 students around the world are walking out of school to teach politicians a lesson in leadership and that members of the youngest generation are not content to sit idly by as their future is threatened by inaction in the face of climate change.
Addressing world leaders as the climate conference kicked off, Thunberg said, “We have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future… We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge.” After two dozen years of conferences and conversations that have failed to produce a decisive solution to address the impending environmental crisis, it is clear that fresh perspectives and ideas are needed. Enlisting a new generation to participate in the effort is a significant measure to turn new eyes on what is becoming an old and ever-more-pressing problem. If a new generation of minds is needed to contribute ideas for workable solutions to the challenges presented by climate change, there are many young people up to the task.
“As young people, we have a unique stake in the global dialogue on climate change,” UN Envoy on Youth Jayathma Wickramanayake told youth delegates. “We are the ones who will live with the outcomes of this process.” The youth at COP24 are dynamic and constructive in their engagement and have no appetite for complacency.
“Diversity is a strength, not a weakness,” said indigenous youth delegate Richard Muñiz from the Philippines, who wanted to call attention to a “world-wide synthesis of youth research, recommended policy and action on Climate Change.”
Formal discussions about combatting the effects of climate change are often framed in terms of big players: governments and corporations. Yet it is individuals and communities who stand to feel the immediate impacts of climate change. There are not many forums for citizens to use their voice with the hope of being heard, however. As such, initiatives like the People’s Seat are valuable in their efforts to encourage a spirit of openness and inclusiveness.
The complicated process of multilateral negotiations offers a reminder that challenge and opportunity often occupy the same space. It can be difficult and frustrating to see different parties approach common concerns from fixed positions and inflexible perspectives. That is the challenge presented by cooperative efforts on an international and multicultural scale. Yet opportunity coexists with that challenge. Bringing diverse people together for dialogue and negotiation can make differences clear, but it also reveals common ground. Nationality, culture and socioeconomic status all take second place to being human. Master Sheng Yen, the founder of Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association, always spoke about “Respecting diversity and finding commonality.” At this unprecedented dialogue and historical moment, we bear witness to humanity’s effort and expanding understanding that by including all stakeholders in the conversation can we save the human species.
The clock is running out and immediate, decisive and cooperative effort is not simply desirable, but a necessity. There is not one easy solution and strong political will is essential. One fact is clear, if bold action is not taken, it will be left in the hands of our children.
Commentary by Chang Ji,
Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association.