GLASGOW – The week started with over 130 presidents and prime ministers posing for a group photo in a century-old baroque red sandstone museum. Less than 10 were women. Their median age, as their climate summit host UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson reminded them, was over 60.
The week ended with a noisy demonstration of thousands in the streets of Glasgow. It was led by young climate activists, some barely of voting age in their countries. They accused world leaders of wasting what little time they have left to safeguard their future.
These bookends from the first week of this international climate summit in Scotland reveal a growing divide that threatens to widen in the weeks and months to come.
Those with the power to make decisions about global warming over the next few decades are mostly men. Those most angry with the pace of climate action are mostly young people and women.
The two sides have very different views on what the summit should achieve. Indeed, they seem to have different notions of time.
At the summit, leaders set goals for 2030 at the earliest. In some cases, they set goals for 2060 and 2070, when many of today’s activists will reach retirement age. Activists say the change must come immediately. They want countries to abruptly stop using fossil fuels and repair the climate damage that is now being felt in every corner of the globe, but which particularly punishes the most vulnerable in the Global South. For them, the middle of the century is an eternity.
“The time has come. Yesterday was the time,” Dominique Palmer, 22, an activist for Fridays for Future International, said during a panel discussion at the New York Times Climate Hub on Thursday. “We need to. action now. “
Social movements have almost always been led by young people. But what makes the climate movement’s generational divide so stark – and the youth’s fury so powerful – is that world leaders have come together and talked about the need to tackle climate change since before most of the protesters were born. , with few results.
In fact, greenhouse gas emissions have risen sharply since the first international climate summit 27 years ago. Now scientists say the world has less than a decade to dramatically cut emissions to avoid the worst climate consequences. This emergency animates the demonstrators.
Or as a banner at Friday’s protest read, “Don’t mess with my future.”
World leaders are sensitive to this criticism. Their public and private remarks in Glasgow were mixed with both hymns of youthful passion and a hint of anxiety. They will have to face young voters at home; many of these leaders have already done so, with climate action becoming an important electoral issue, at least in some countries, notably the United States. In Germany, voters elected their youngest parliament, with the Green Party recording its best ever result and putting climate change high on its agenda.
Mr Johnson, for his part, warned his peers about their legacy. Future generations, he said in his opening remarks, “will judge us with bitterness and resentment that eclipses all climate activists today.”
The conference organizers took care to include young speakers in the official program. One after another, the Heads of State and Government took the podium this week and assured participants that they had heard the demands of young people.
It didn’t impress Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a 24-year-old climate activist from the Philippines to Glasgow. “When I hear leaders say they want to listen to our generation, I think they are lying,” Ms. Tan said in an interview on the eve of the Friday protests.
If they really listened, she continued, “they would put people first over profit.”
“Cognitive dissonance” is the verdict of Eric Njuguna, 19, from Kenya. “We expected serious commitments at COP26 on climate finance and climate change mitigation. The commitments are not strong enough.
There is a huge gap between how leaders and young activists view the summit.
John Kerry, the 77-year-old US climate envoy, marveled at the progress made at the summit on Friday.
“I have attended a lot of COPs and I will tell you that there is a greater sense of urgency at this COP,” Kerry told reporters.
He recognized the complexity of global negotiations. Diplomats are still shaping the rules for global carbon trading and discussing how to respond to demands for reparations from countries that played no part in creating the climate problem but suffered its most acute effects.
Yet Mr Kerry said: “I never, in the early days, counted so much initiative and so much real money, real money put on the table, even though there are some points of concern. ‘interrogation.’
Jochen Flasbarth, Germany’s energy minister, cited three areas for progress: a global agreement to reverse deforestation by 2030; a commitment to reduce methane emissions, also by 2030; and a coal phase-out plan endorsed by three dozen countries, but not its biggest users.
“I understand that young people are trying to push very hard to see concrete implementation and not abstract goals,” Flasbarth, 59, said on Friday. “However, we need these goals.”
But it was when the leaders spoke away from the cameras that it was clear that the anger of the young people was rising under their skin.
In a closed-door meeting with fellow ministers, Mr Flasbarth was heard expressing concern that activists were painting all world leaders with the same broad brush, portraying them as protectors of the fuel industry. fossils.
“Let’s tell young people that there are differences, not all politicians, all countries are on the same side,” he said. “Progress is possible, and this is the progress group.”
At the same meeting, which was attended by a bloc of countries called the Coalition Haute Ambition, the French Minister for the Ecological Transition, Barbara Pompili, declared that she recognized herself in the youth. She too was once an activist, she told fellow ministers.
But then, she continued, she chose another path. She chose to work inside the system. “I chose to be a politician,” she said. “I chose to try to act.”
The differences between the decision-makers inside the summit and the protesters outside the barricades extend beyond age to gender. While world leaders and heads of state are predominantly male, the streets of Glasgow are filled with young women.
Girls and young women around the world have become the most passionate climate activists, arguing that many of those most vulnerable to drought, water scarcity and other climate disasters are low-income women. with children to feed. As a result, the climate movement has a common mission with efforts to educate girls in developing countries.
The young activists found brotherhood and a sense of empowerment in the protests, marches and climate campaigns. The inspiration for many of these young women is Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, whose school climate strikes that began solo in 2018 have turned into a global movement.
Ms Thunberg, 18, became so influential that on Wednesday, when she criticized carbon offsets – offsetting carbon emissions in one area by paying for emission reductions elsewhere – a company that verifies carbon offsets felt obliged to defend the practice.
Ms Thunberg appeared before a cheering crowd of thousands in Glasgow on Friday to declare the summit a failure.
“The COP has turned into a public relations event, where leaders deliver fine speeches and announce fanciful commitments and goals, while behind the curtains, governments of the North still refuse to take drastic climate action “she said.
This prompted Michael Mann, the 55-year-old climatologist, to warn that negotiations between hundreds of countries are complex and that the politics around climate policy is not as straightforward as it seems. “The activists who declare him dead on their arrival make the leaders of fossil fuels jump with joy”, he tweeted, referring to the top. “They want to undermine and discredit the very notion of multilateral climate action.”
On Saturday, the young protesters intended to return to the streets, joining a coalition of other groups on a global day of climate action.
Vanessa Nakate, a 24-year-old Ugandan activist, said the protesters were determined to keep up the pressure, “to continue to hold the leaders accountable.”
Daphne Frias, a 23-year-old climate activist from New York City, winked at the inevitable: generational change is coming.
“We always say our leaders let us down,” she said. “We are the new leaders. We are the ones who will make the decisions for the future. “