GLASGOW — The week began with more than 130 presidents and prime ministersA group photo taken in a century-old Baroque Museum made from red sandstone. There were fewer than 10 women. Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister, reminded them that their median age was over 60.
The week ended with a boisterous protestHundreds of people marched through Glasgow. It was led by young climate activists who were barely old enough to vote in their respective countries. They accused world leaders and other leaders of wasting their time in securing their future.
These bookends to this week’s international climate summit in Scotland show a widening gap that could grow in the coming weeks and months.
Most people with the power to decide how much the world will heat in the next decade are older and male. The majority of those who are the most upset about climate action’s pace tend to be young and female.
Both sides have very different views about what the summit should accomplish. They seem to have very different views of time.
Leaders at the summit are setting goals for 2030 as soon as possible. In some cases, they’re setting targets for 2060 and 2070, when many of today’s activists will be hitting retirement age. The activists insist that there must be immediate change. They demand that countries immediately stop using fossil fuels and repair the climate damage that is currently being felt all over the globe, but is particularly affecting the Global South’s most vulnerable citizens. They consider a few years an eternity.
“Now is the time. Yesterday was the time,” is how Dominique Palmer, 22, an activist with Fridays for Future International, put it during a panel discussion at The New York Times Climate Hub on Thursday. “We need action right now.”
Social movements have almost always been led and led by young people. But what makes the climate movement’s generational divide so pointed — and the fury of the young so potent — is that world leaders have been meeting and talking about the need to address climate change since before most of the protesters were born, with few results.
In fact emissions of planet-warming gasesSince the first international summit on climate 27 years ago, they have risen dramatically. Scientists now say that the world has less than a ten year to prepare. sharply cut emissions to prevent the worst climate consequences. Protesters feel this urgency.
Or as one banner at Friday’s demonstration articulated, “Don’t Mess With My Future.”
World leaders show a willingness to listen to criticism. Both their public and private remarks in Glasgow were full of both praises for the passion of young people as well as a hint anxiety. They’ll have to face young voters back home; many of these leaders have done so already, with climate action emerging as an important election issue, at least in some countries, including in the United States. Germany voters elected their youngest ParliamentThe Green Party recorded its highest ever result and placed climate change at the top of its agenda.
Johnson for his part warned his peers about their legacy. Future generations, he said in his opening remarks, “will judge us with bitterness and with a resentment that eclipses any of the climate activists of today.”
The conference organizers took care to include youth speakers into the official program. This week, heads of state or government rose to the podium and assured the attendees that they had listened to the needs of the youth.
This did not impress Mitzi Jonelle, a 24-year-old climate activist from the Philippines who came to Glasgow. “When I hear leaders say they want to listen to our generation I think they’re lying to themselves,” Ms. Tan said in an interview on the eve of the Friday protests.
If they are really listening, she went on, “they would be prioritizing people over profit.”
“Cognitive dissonance,” was the verdict of Eric Njuguna, 19, who had come from Kenya. “We were expecting serious commitments at COP26 on climate finance and climate mitigation. The commitments aren’t strong enough.”
There is a vast difference in how leaders and young activists view the summit.
John Kerry, a 77-year old U.S. climate envoy. marveled on FridayThe progress made at this summit.
“I’ve been to a great many COPs and I will tell you there is a greater sense of urgency at this COP,” Mr. Kerry told reporters.
He acknowledged the complexity of global negotiations. Diplomats are still working to establish the rules of global carbon trade and to discuss how to respond to claims for reparations from countries who have suffered the most severe consequences of the climate crisis.
Still, Mr. Kerry said, “I have never in the first few days counted as many initiatives and as much real money, real money put on the table, even if there are some question marks.”
German energy minister Jochen Flasbarth cited three areas for progress: a global agreement to reverse deforestation by 2030; and a commitment not to reduce methane emissions, also by 2030; a coal exit plan that was endorsed by three dozen countries, even though it is not the biggest user of the resource.
“I understand young people are trying to push very hard to see concrete implementation and not abstract goals,” Mr. Flasbarth, 59, said Friday. “However we need these goals.”
But it was when leaders spoke to one other without the cameras that it became evident that the youth were getting under their skins.
Flasbarth expressed concern at the activists painting all world leaders as protectors of fossil fuels in a closed-door conversation with his fellow ministers.
“Let’s tell young people there are differences, not all the politicians, all the countries are on the same side,” he said. “Progress is possible, and this is the group of progress.”
Barbara Pompili, the French minister of ecological transition, stated that she recognized herself in the young people at the meeting. She shared her experience with her fellow ministers that she was also once an activist.
She decided to take a different path and continued her journey. She chose to work within the system. “I chose to be a politician,” she said. “I chose to try to act.”
The differences between decision-makers at the summit and protesters on the streets extend beyond gender. The world’s leaders and heads of states are predominantly male, but the streets of Glasgow have been populated by young women.
The most passionate climate activists are young girls and women from all walks of life. They argue that the majority of people most at risk of drought, water scarcity, and other climate disasters, are unskilled women who have children to support. The climate movement has a shared mission that aims to educate girls in developing countries.
Young women activists have found a sisterhood, empowerment and camaraderie in the climate marches, protests and campaigns. Greta Thunberg is the inspiration for many of these young activists. Her school strikes for climate in 2018 began as an individual effort. Today, they are a worldwide movement.
Ms. Thunberg, 18, has become so influential that on Wednesday when she criticized carbon offsets — making up for carbon emissions in one area by paying for the reduction of emissions somewhere else — a company that verifies carbon offsets felt compelled to defend the practice.
Friday saw Ms. Thunberg appear before thousands of Glasgowites cheering her on. pronounce the summit a failure.
“The COP has turned into a P.R. event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action,” she said.
Michael Mann, a 55-year-old climate scientist, warned that negotiations between hundreds of countries can be complex and that politics surrounding climate policy are not as easy as it might seem. “Activists declaring it dead on arrival makes fossil fuel executives jump for joy,” he tweetedReferring to the summit. “They want to undermine and discredit the very notion of multilateral climate action.”
The young protesters planned to return to the streets on Saturday, joining a coalition with other groups in a global day of climate action.
Vanessa Nakate, a 24-year-old activist from Uganda, said the protesters were committed to keep up the pressure, “to continue holding leaders accountable for their actions.”
Daphne Frias (23-year-old climate activist, New York City) gave a nod towards the inevitable: Generational change is coming.
“We always say our leaders have failed us,” she said. “We are the new leaders. We are the ones who are going to make the decisions going forward.”