Reflections from South Korea

Sitting in a conference room in South Korea with eight hundred youth from 110 different countries drafting a statement to our leaders on climate change was both exhilarating and perhaps, entirely futile.

Exhilarating in the sense that we were a small part of something bigger, shaping a declaration that would be delivered to ministers and presidents before the upcoming conference on climate change in Copenhagen. We were part of a growing movement of youth people tired of our leaders playing fast and loose with our planet and our future.

And yet, my excitement was dampened by the nagging recollection that the United Nations Environment Programme’s Tunza International Youth Conference was not the first international environmental gathering and it is unlikely to be the last.

The Rio Summit of 1992 was the first prominent international environmental conference and is where many of the current annual high-level meetings, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, Commission on Sustainable Development and the Climate Change Convention, got their start.

Recently, a lot of these conferences have been encouraging youth participation, recognizing our generation as the “voice of the future.” I’ve personally attended a few of these meetings and although I’ve enjoyed all of them I often wonder if they are worth it. The cost—whether you measure it in terms of carbon, time or money—is always high and the results often intangible.

At the most recent UN Commission on Sustainable Development over a hundred youth attended to push our governments to put the sustainability back into “sustainable” development. The entire youth caucus spent long hours drafting statements and meeting with our respective country’s delegation leaders. The result: a non-binding treaty that looked eerily similar to previous treaties with the usual agriculture subsidies, tariffs and empty promises to help Africa.

But what of the low-carbon alternative? I could have spent my summer in Walla Walla living in a tent entirely off the grid, planting trees and praying that those darn politicians get something done in Copenhagen.

Yet a recent study by a Swedish economist showed that even if everyone in Sweden adopted the most extreme behavioral changes in favor of green consumption this would only bring a maximum of a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions. If you apply this study to the Western world in its entirety, it highlights the need for policy change.

At the same time, these conferences will only be effective if there is grassroots momentum for them. As easy as it is to complain of the money, special interests and corruption that play a role in our political system, that is no excuse not to get involved.

During the recent vote in the House on the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), many Congressional members reported receiving hundreds of calls urging them to vote against the bill and only a handful of calls supporting ACES. For the first comprehensive piece of legislation on climate change to receive so little support in the age of eco-everything is absurd.

I’ve often heard people my age, especially at Whitman, complain that our leaders—especially Congress—need to “wake-up.” I don’t believe that they ever will. In a very real sense, the representative nature of much of the world’s governments means that most world leaders are reactionary, not revolutionary. Even President Obama, who I believe is one of the most activist politicians to have ever lived, ran a campaign that was very much a reaction against eight years of the Bush administration.

If we want our leaders to legislate a world where sustainability is put ahead of systematic extraction, we need to show them that it’s possible. It’s not so much that we need the world to “wake up”, it’s that we need to show them a new dream.

That dream starts with our own lives but doesn’t end there. We need to live green while making sure that we make our voices heard. This year is one of the most exciting times in history to be an environmentalist. The climate bill will soon be put to a vote in the Senate and then the entire world will gather in Copenhagen to come up with a post-Kyoto treaty. This is our moment—let’s seize it.

I wrote this column for the Whitman Pioneer so it can be seen there as well