As wildfires burn, as temperatures rise, as the last remaining old-growth forests in Poland are logged, world leaders are in Katowice to negotiate the implementation of the Paris climate agreement. To outsiders, UN climate talks may seem like a positive step. Unfortunately, this is COP24. For 24 years, world leaders have annually talked at each other instead of to one another in hopes of reaching an agreement on how to mitigate the climate crisis. In all that time, they have barely scratched the surface of an issue that the world’s top climate scientists say we now have 12 years to stop – and that is an optimistic estimate. There’s an urgency in my heart being here in Katowice, knowing that this negotiation process is supposed to protect my generation and ones thereafter. I am afraid of the lack of accountability in the space, knowing that the people with power will be patted on the back for simply coming together without making meaningful policy commitments. When the news stories come out about successful negotiations, we forget about when leaders pushed to leave “human rights” out of policy wording, or stood on the floor advocating for fossil fuels as a solution (hint: they’re not), all to placate to their own interest in power and maintaining it. They are voluntarily blind to the suffering their decisions cause. Homes will be lost, families will be torn apart by displacement and at borders, and the sea will encroach upon whole societies, exterminating cultures and livelihoods. Developed countries like the US, corrupted by fossil fuel interests, are to blame.
UN negotiators have been trying to solve the climate crisis since before I was born. When will global leaders admit that this is a broken and dysfunctional charade instead of burying the reality under false solutions and jargon? What will be the catalyst for people in power to do what is right? Do millions of people have to be displaced? Do we have to be stealing a liveable planet from people not even born yet? How many millions of people will have to die from climate damage such as drought, famine, superstorms and wildfires before world leaders commit to implementing real solutions to defeat this crisis? I’ve been doing this work for five years and have given up a lot to do the things I know are right. I’ve given up personal finances, friendships, a normal adolescence and more to get up on the global stage. I’ve taken breaks from school, failed a few classes. Youth activists everywhere make personal sacrifices every day in order to protect the world we’ll inherit and our governments can’t do the same for us. The institutions meant to protect me don’t seem to care as much as I do and it’s a burden I carry everyday.
I watch my government and governments around the world trade my future for profit. A future my mother fought hard to secure through sacrifice, when she made the journey to immigrate to the United States. There’s a lot of anger and depression inside of me because of this, but I found happiness and reward in seeing the solutions, power and love in the climate movement. Though political institutions have fallen short, being on the ground here does offer hope: it proves the strength of people power. Politicians will never be the core of this movement. We need to highlight and uplift genuine grassroots movements that properly address the lived experiences of the people they protect. We need to turn our attention and our energy into communities that are helping themselves in the best ways that they can. The marginalized communities on the frontlines know what it actually means to sacrifice in order to uphold future generations and young people. They understand giving up their own comforts to protect lives.
We have called on our political leaders to demonstrate a similar understanding. But resilience can’t be taught, and it doesn’t come from a president, minister or monarch: it comes from the adversity you have faced. This is why, to fight the powers that hand away pieces of our environment for profit, we must enlist the people who have lived on the margins of society. People power will always be stronger than the people in power.
Credit: Victoria Barrett for The Guardian, 14 December 2018. Victoria Barrett is one of the 21 plaintiffs, aged 10 to 21, in the high-profile Juliana v the United States lawsuit, which faulted the US government for failing to protect its citizens from climate change. She represents marginalized voices at international conferences and has addressed the United Nations general assembly on the topic of youth involvement in its sustainable development goals.