Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

COPENHAGEN — Students, youth environmental advocates and other “YOUNGO” interests are busy here this week, pressing world leaders and delegates to reach a real deal to protect their future against climate change.

YOUNGOs in Copenhagen“YOUNGO” activists in Copenhagen.IYCN Pictures via FlickrMore than 1,000 young people from over 100 countries are attending the UN Climate Summit to call for bold climate leadership.  They have spent the past ten days tracking down powerful players in the COP15 process and reminding them that there is no time like the present to ink an international agreement on strong emissions reduction targets and fair financing for the developing world.

Unfortunately, access to the conference center is now severely limited, and most NGO delegates have been blocked from participating in the process – forcing thousands to take their frustrations to the streets in largely peaceful protests. 

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But their voices were heard inside the halls of the Bella Center until things took a turn for the worse, and youth made a powerful impression on key players here.

“Today’s youth will live their lives with the decisions made in Copenhagen, and our governments have a moral responsibility to deliver a fair, ambitious and binding deal,” said Prisca Randriamampihavana, a 20-year-old youth delegate from Madagascar. “We want to ask world leaders, how old will you be in 2050?”

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By the time 2050 rolls around, these young advocates will be the world leaders, so they have a strong incentive to make sure quick action is taken to set the world on a course to a clean future. Christina Ora from the Solomon Islands had a thing or two to say to world leaders descending on Copenhagen this week as well.

“I was born in 1992, the year you started negotiating.  Since then, my home island is now in danger of disappearing.  You have been negotiating my entire life.  The time for talking is over.  We need action now,” Ora said recently.

Taking their message straight to the top, YOUNGOs were – until the shutdown of access – tracking down major figures in the halls of the Bella Center and throughout downtown Copenhagen. 

Consider youth like Holly Jones, an American youth advocate who has met with top U.S. officials so far this week at COP15.  Holly is wearing multiple hats here as a delegate with the Will Steger Foundation and as the Chair of the National Executive Committee with the Sierra Student Coalition.  She talked one-on-one with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Tuesday about the impacts that climate change has on agriculture and the opportunities for Ag interests to play a major role in solving the climate crisis. She spent time with the Chinese delegation too, and was featured on Chinese TV.

Sign Up for More News from GristHolly also joined a group of 14 youth leaders who met with chief U.S. delegates Todd Stern, President Obama’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, and deputy envoy Jonathan Pershing.  She described the meeting as “emotionally draining,” and said it drove many of the youth to tears afterwards, realizing that concrete progress out of Copenhagen is a long shot. 

“It was just incredibly frustrating, but we all came out of the meeting more determined than ever to figure out how we can get our leaders to actually lead, and how we can get even more youth involved back home in order to make an actual impact. We need to get a treaty signed here, and also work to get a bill passed in the Senate as soon as possible.”

Holly holds out some hope that President Barack Obama might find time to meet with young people when he arrives on Friday.  I asked her what she would say to President Obama if they do get a meeting with him.

“We as youth fought to get you elected and worked really hard, and we’re here to support you.  But the time has come for you to step it up and really show leadership in our country and internationally as well.  This isn’t the time to step back and wait for other countries to take the lead, because failure is not an option,” she replied.

While the Senate is the primary culprit blocking action on climate change, the youth are also aware that the President still holds a powerful pen, and has a mandate from the voters who sent him to Washington to use it.  With time running out and optimism waning here in Copenhagen, young leaders hope President Obama receives the message and brings his A-game to the negotiating table Friday.

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