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At Paris Climate Talks, Young Activists Share What Dystopia Feels Like

As officials hash out a climate treaty at COP21, youth activists from developing countries feel the effects of climate change on a more personal level.
December 8, 2015, 7:30pm

The climate talks in Paris have been called a circus, and to be fair, Sustain-a-Claus did just walk by in his red velvet suit. Earlier in the day I watched a couple dressed as penguins stroll the halls of this convention center on the edge of Paris, inviting onlookers to adopt a penguin. Such activism can be cloying, but they mean it.

Emotional work however, is present in many different ways at the conference of parties (COP21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Many youth activists who have lived with the effects of climate change in more immediately apparent and personal ways use the language of "care," "protect," "love," and "save," with directness and ease. During Youth and Future Generations Day, they assembled at Le Bourget—the conference site on the edge of Paris—to talk with journalists, policy-makers and other activists, often sharing their feelings and traumatic personal stories of loss.

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It's hard not to contrast the convention center's cute plastic animal sculptures and geometric mobiles hanging from the ceiling—branded one-world positivity—with the instrumental pathos and grinding optimism youth activists must rely on, and notice a revealing dissonance between the diplomats and the people.

As a white journalist from the North, the setting made me uneasy. It also made me wonder how some young people face the effects of climate change in their own lives—and what it's like to constantly employ their personal feelings in their fight for the climate.

Be happy, say the climate talks. Images by the author

For most of the activists I spoke with, turning climate change into a problem of "care" was their most effective method for getting governments to listen to, and possibly empathize with, their concerns. Marinel, an 18 year old from the Philippines, is an activist for PLAN International. She and her family survived a typhoon, and she tells people about it. "Being able to talk about your feelings is kind of your strength," she said, because so many people are afraid to. "For me, it's knowing that people are really listening to me. And at the end of the day really, I can say that I did something today, I accomplished something important today."

For UNICEF youth ambassador Andosile, an 18-year-old Zambian, conveying these feelings from "on the ground" is that they show the impacts are borne by young people and children. "I was trying to bring in that feeling, so that they know how it feels to be on the streets."

"You hope that maybe listening to your story, that might inform or influence their actions."

Adekunle, an Action Aid volunteer from Nigeria, says what he wants is sincerity. A period of severe hunger when he was 10 years old—floods had destroyed local food supplies—drew him to activism. He told me that when he first applied for a French visa to come to COP21, he was rejected. That was "so painful," he said. "Is it because I'm Nigerian, they think I will see—oh here, the trains are running, and when it rains people are not panicked—I will not want to leave?"

Grace, 26, is a social media coordinator from Uganda who works for ActionAid in Nairobi. For her, the emotional pleas are tiring. "We're also not happy about all the problems, you know, we talk about people with malaria or dying of HIV. So many problems, people dying of hunger. Why is it us? And we also ask ourselves, why us? Is it that our forefathers fucked us up around colonialism?"

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Nevertheless, she said, there is hope in sharing these stories. "Whereas like a normal human and stranger interaction, you would think your home is sacred, so a visitor that knocks on your door is a person to whom you extend gratitude and welcome into your home. But these are people who may not necessarily really care about your home.

Youth activists forming a human chain in Paris. Image: Grace Atuhaire

"You hope that, in solidarity they do," she said, "and you hope that maybe listening to your story, that might inform or influence their actions."

Given doubts about the moralizing and sentimentality of environmentalist arguments, how compelling is this kind of activism, especially to Americans? The American context matters because here, the U.S. is largely seen as the developed country leading the discussion on the issue of "Loss and Damage," a financing and compensation mechanism pushed by the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Agreed upon by all countries after a vigorous debate at the 2013 climate summit in Poland, Loss and Damage provides financing and technology to help poorer countries handle effects of climate change happening now while rich countries make ambitious emission cuts. But the U.S. has insisted on limitations. In an informal proposal put forward by Washington before the Paris talks and obtained by India's Business Standard, poor and vulnerable countries would give up any future rights to demand compensation or create any form of legal liability for developed countries.

Via YouTube / ClimateConference

"My fear is surviving and not holding the principles or the human values that are very dear to me."

Every activist said they were hopeful that something positive would come from COP21, in spite of the skepticism observers have about the ability to reach a legally binding agreement. A draft agreement announced in Paris on Saturday addresses deforestation, food security, poverty and other issues, with a focus on how developed countries can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a yet to be determined level by 2050. One line in the document says, "Developed countries shall provide developing countries with long-term, scaled-up, predictable, new and additional finance, technology and capability-building."

When I asked them how they face the dark horizon the climate science predicts, the activists' language was all about action and future plans, not feelings.

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"My point with other young people," Andosile explained, "is like, okay, they've been holding these conferences for years now, but what's really going on? This is what I bring here, that we need tools as young people, we need something to work with. So I'm here to collect the tools. If I don't start something now, I don't think that I can start something in the future. I don't think I will be able to in the future."

Another UNICEF activist, 16-year-old Celia from France, said she plans to move from international work to focus on personal changes in her daily life. "How can I change myself to make the world change?"

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Grace described the danger of being pushed to the edge—the possibility of survival without life. "My fear is surviving and not holding the principles or the human values that are very dear to me. To me, that's my everyday fear, but the hope that makes me wake up every morning is connecting with other people in the same situation I am in. To be able to talk about it and actually find humor in it, to me, you know, that's good."

"So I don't have a road map for my five years out," she added, "but every day the people define it for me, and I'm embracing that right now."

How much can one be compelled to use their trauma to make political impact? Is it a problem of caring among the audience? A key assumption the activists have all bought into—Grace called it "trust"—is that if people knew what was happening, and they knew a line of responsibility could be traced to them, that they'd want to do something.

At the Doha climate talks in 2012, the representative from the Philippines famously grew emotional during his speech. "I appeal to the leaders from all over the world to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It's about what's demanded of us by 7 billion people. I appeal to all—please, no more delays, no more excuses." Then at Warsaw a year later, after another super typhoon wreaked havoc on the country, the Philippines cried again. At negotiations with such a heightened sense of theatre, the mobilization of tragedy is queasy not because it's disingenuous. Just the opposite: it somehow appears to be what the North requires to simply come to the table.