Youth at climate talks frustrated yet defiant

Milan (AFP) –


"Is our voice so scary?"

For representatives of the next generation, who fear being saddled with a lifetime of climate misery, three days of events designed to have their voices heard hardly seem sufficient to address their concern.

Four hundred youth activists were chosen out of nearly 9,000 applicants by the UN to attend the event in Milan meant to give a platform for young people to speak their minds about the climate crisis -- and the lack of action from leaders to address it.

But having been invited from around the world specifically to express their views ahead of the vital COP26 climate summit in October, many participants in Milan did not feel they were being listened to.

On Thursday, when Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi took to the lectern, a small group of protesters held up placards and began chanting: "The people united will not be defeated."

They were promptly escorted from the premises by security.

"I think it's weird that they are scared from a bunch of young people, just because we were protesting and don't agree with the greenwashing," Rikke Nielsen, a 20-year-old activist from Denmark, told AFP.

"It's ridiculous we cannot speak up our mind, we have to stay within the format they created."

Youth activists, including Greta Thunberg, tell Italian PM Mario Draghi of their frustration at inaction on climate change
Youth activists, including Greta Thunberg, tell Italian PM Mario Draghi of their frustration at inaction on climate change Handout Palazzo Chigi press office/AFP

Ahead of the now-weekly youth climate strike on Friday, which Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is expected to lead, the youth were defiant.

- 'They cannot divide us' -

"We won't stop striking until we see change for real, until these things don't happen anymore," said Italian activist Martina Comparelli.

"Until they understand they cannot divide us into delegates and non delegates, as activists who can talk to prime ministers and activists that cannot talk to the prime minister, activists who are stopped because they raised a piece of cardboard."

Comparelli said that the officials gathering for the pre-COP discussions found young people's voices "scary".

"Maybe it is because it is the truth and the truth is always a bit scary."

Asked about what he had heard during the three-day youth gathering, COP26 President Alok Sharma, said:

"There are three feelings I got: it was inspiring, secondly they spoke very, very frankly, and third they spoke the truth, we need to do much more, much faster."

Activists protest in Milan ahead of the vital COP26 climate summit in October
Activists protest in Milan ahead of the vital COP26 climate summit in October MIGUEL MEDINA AFP

The youth delegates agreed on several key messages for ministers, including increasing climate finance to developing nations and a green energy transition by 2030.

Above all, "young people are not only asking to be heard, they also want their part as equal partners", said one of UN chief Antonio Guterres' youth envoys, Jayathma Wickramanayake.

"It's clearer and clearer the mistrust between young people and governments is increasing more than ever, there is a lot of frustration among young people around the world, especially about the climate crisis."

- 'Greatest threat' -

Some delegates spoke positively about the opportunity to exchange views with government representatives in Milan, especially after the pandemic curtailed a groundswell in youth climate events.

"Today's event was such a great opportunity for so many people, and so many underrepresented people," said Reem al-Saffar, a delegate from Iraq.

Climate change caused by humans
Climate change caused by humans Eléonore HUGHES AFP

However the general mood among activists on Thursday was one of frustration at being invited but not really listened to.

"It's not a format designed by young people for young people, but by the UN to suits the UN way of working," said Salina Abraham, 26, from Eritrea.

"Unfortunately it's not perfectly matched with our ideas, and energy and spirit."

Speaking to journalists in a nearby park, where dozens of youths had moved to after the morning's ejections, Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate was undaunted.

"I and other activists will continue speaking, will continue striking, will continue demanding climate justice."