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Hundreds of young climate activists watched as Oona Castilla Chaplin, the actor who played Robb Stark’s wife, Talisa, on "Game of Thrones," took the stage during the afternoon session of the United Nations Youth Climate Summit. They attended the Saturday event at the governing body’s headquarters in Manhattan in hopes of having their thoughts on the climate crisis heard by world leaders.
Instead, they listened to a celebrity talk in vague, almost spiritual terms about humanity’s relationship to the planet.
“If we can pay attention to the cycles of life, we can pay attention to the cycles of death and just re-familiarize ourselves with that,” said the actress, who was introduced as Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter. (The summit also later featured a panel of famous athletes, including skateboarder Eric Koston and snowboarder Chloe Kim.)
“I don’t know how that relates to the climate crisis, but I think there is something about the cycles that is relevant today,” Chaplin added. She then started talking about the autumnal equinox.
“Now they’re cutting to that 'Game of Thrones' actor? What the — ,” said Isabell Fallahi, a 16-year-old from Indiana who attended the summit. “Actors don’t have any political power.”
She wasn’t alone in feeling that way. Many of the young activists at the summit told VICE News the U.N. had used them for a photo op and pandered to what might interest them. The schedule was full of sessions about using social media to shift the conversation around climate change. “Instagram on Purpose” and “Viral Video Masterclass” were two of the workshops offered.
“I went into a session, and it was essentially, like, teaching us how to make an iMovie,” Fallahi said. “Our generation has been doing that since we were like, what, 10?”
The activists did, however, find some of the workshops useful, particularly one on climate finance. But at the end of the day, they still felt the U.N. had left them with little opportunity to speak to the powerful adults who will convene at the U.N. for the Climate Action Summit on Monday. A group of young activists even floated the idea of filing a list of grievances, in U.N. resolution–style, but ultimately decided against it.
“We had a useful discussion, just not through the U.N.,” said Shiv Soin, a 19-year-old at the summit who also helped organize New York City's arm of the Global Youth Climate Strike Friday. “And nothing here produced anything tangible that could be handed to our world leaders on Monday from the youth movement.”
According to the U.N., 1,024 young people — ranging in age from 13 to early 30s — showed up at the summit. World leaders were there too: the prime minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven; the environment minister of the Maldives, Hussain Rasheed Hassan; and the president of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen, among others. But most of the youth didn’t get much face time with them. And the young activists had pitches prepared.
“A carbon fee and dividend system simply does not work,” Fallahi said about a policy to send carbon tax revenue directly to households in an effort to reduce emissions. “You’re just benefiting the same industries. And that’s probably the same B.S. that the adults are going to be pitching on Monday.”
For its part, the U.N. acknowledged some of the issues the young activists pointed out.
“We had a short forum, one day over just six hours,” U.N. Envoy on Youth Jayathma Wickramanayake, who helped organize the summit, told VICE News. “That makes it really difficult to go into the actual substance of some of these topics that we’re talking about, so I can to some extent understand this frustration.”
Some of the kids under 18 were also frustrated that, per the U.N.’s rules, they needed a chaperone to get onto the grounds in midtown Manhattan.
“Why would you need a chaperone for a youth climate summit?” said 16-year-old Spencer Berg from New York, who was wearing a suit. “We’re all professional children.” (More than one person under the age of 18 was handing out business cards at the summit.)
There were logistical problems, too. Several of the kids said they had to wait as long as two hours to get onto the U.N. grounds. The office that issues the passes was swarmed, they said. As a result, some activists missed the morning session, where 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg spoke. She’s widely credited with sparking the youth climate movement, the reason many of the activists were there.
“It was mainly adults in the room in the morning, and kids lined up for hours outside,” Soin said.
And even the adults at the conference caught onto the empty gestures.
“Events like this are great, but what are they really doing at the end of the day? Raising awareness, maybe?” said Priti Patel, 31, who works with a U.N.-affiliated organization that encourages young people to explore green careers. “There weren’t that many people from actual governments. I find that very, very strange.”
To some, the timing of the conference felt like a blow, like they had been relegated to the literal kids’ table. They’d rather have met during the week when about 100 heads of state are expected to attend the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit. But only a handful of the young activists at the summit on Saturday were invited to address them.
Once the young activists realized that the adults facilitate the conversations they wanted to have, they took it upon themselves to discuss the intricacies of climate policy and network with each other.
“We sat down in the hallway outside of that conference room and just started having the discussion on our own,” Soin said.“I hope that if this happens again next year, that we get to come back and do this differently.”
But the young activists know they’re running out of time to tackle the climate crisis. The U.N.’s own scientists, after all, recommended that global emissions be cut in half before 2030 to avoid some of climate change’s most catastrophic consequences.
“As much as I want them to fix their mistakes from this year’s summit, we don’t have much time left,” Fallahi said.
Cover image: Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, right, shakes hands with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, during the Youth Climate Summit at United Nations headquarters, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)