GLASGOW — The week began with more than 130 presidents and prime ministersGroup photo taken in a Baroque museum made from red-sandstone. We had less than 10 women. Boris Johnson, British Prime Minster, reminded them that their average age was more than 60.
The week ended on boisterous protestOn the streets of Glasgow, thousands marched. On Friday, young climate activists marched in Glasgow, some of them barely old enough for their country’s elections. They accused world leaders of wasting precious time to secure their future.
These bookends reveal a widening division that threatens growing in the weeks and even months ahead of the international climate summit in Scotland.
Most of the people who have the power to decide how warm the world will get in the coming decades, are male and older. Most people who are most angry about climate action’s pace are young and female.
The views of the summit are vastly different between the two sides. They have divergent notions about time.
Leaders are setting goals for 2030 at an early stage of the summit. 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. They see mid-century as 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 believe the world has less time than a decade. sharply cut emissions to prevent the worst climate consequences. This urgency motivates the protesters.
Or as one banner at Friday’s demonstration articulated, “Don’t Mess With My Future.”
World leaders show sensitivity towards criticism. Their remarks in Glasgow, both public and private, were filled with both apologies for the passion of young people as well as a hint or 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 warned his peers about the 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 Jonell Tan, a 24-year old climate activist who had arrived from the Philippines. “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 involved in global negotiations. Diplomats are still working to establish the rules for global carbon trade and discussing how to respond to claims for reparations from countries who have not been directly involved in the creation of the climate problem but have felt its most severe effects.
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 its largest users.
“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.”
It was only when leaders spoke to one another away from the cameras that it became clear that the youth’s anger was getting under their skins.
Flasbarth, in a closed-door meeting with his ministers, expressed concern that activists were painting all world leaders with the same broad brush and portraying them as fossil fuel industry protectors.
“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 also used to be an activist, she shared with her fellow ministers.
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 the summit decision makers and protesters outside the barricades go beyond age. They also include gender. The world’s leaders and heads of states are predominantly male, but the streets of Glasgow are populated by young women.
Young women and girls around the globe have been the most passionate climate activists. They argue that low-income women with children to support are the most vulnerable to drought, water scarcity, and other climate disasters. As a result, the climate movement is united in its efforts to educate girls in developing countries.
Young women activists have found a sisterhood in the climate marches, protests, and campaigns. Many of these young women are inspired by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist. Her 2018 school strike for climate change began as a single effort. It has since grown into a global 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, was prompted to warn that negotiations among hundreds are complex and that the politics around climate policies are not as straightforward as it may 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.”
Saturday saw the return of young protesters to the streets. They joined a coalition with other groups for what organizers called a global day for 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.”