US Youth Steal the Show at the UN Climate Talks in Durban

marc kjerland/CC BY 2.0

This guest post was written by Alex Stark who is reporting from the UN Cimate Talks in Durban, South Africa, as part of the Adopt a Negotiator program and TckTckTck.

Tensions are rising rapidly in Durban, even as the negotiations continue on (in theory), somewhere behind closed doors. Normally the final days of the COP are a swirl of frenetic activity, as ministers run from meeting to meeting and rumors change direction by the minute. But Durban is starting to feel like a zombie COP: as Liz Gallagher of E3G put it in an interview with OneClimate, "I think at the moment we're sleepwalking into a particularly bad outcome."

The frustration is being expressed most overtly by NGOs and activists here, who may be gearing up to take desperate action before the week's end. Already, one particularly brave young American woman gave many observers goosebumps this morning: as US negotiator Todd Stern was called to the platform in plenary to give his address, Abigail Borah's voice rose from the back of the room, to speak "on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot," highlighting that "the obstructionist Congress has shackled a just agreement and delayed ambition for far too long." The plenary of leaders from around the world filled with applause, even as Borah was led away by UNFCCC security.

Her courageous action shook the normally poker-faced US negotiators. Todd Stern instantly moved up a press conference that was scheduled to start hours later, and in his opening remarks responded directly to Borah's statement, tetchily referring to "a misconception running around and kind of gaining currency… suggest[ing] that the US is proposing that we delay action until 2020." He remained adamant on this point, that "it's also not accurate to describe the US as blocking a legally binding agreement."

But US youth were on fire this afternoon, calling attention to the US's position here as a climate laggard. At a press conference called by SustainUS, a US youth organization advancing sustainable development, Marielle Remillard countered that "the US stance lacks urgency and ambition," and "it is almost farcical that we are asking for another scientific review between 2013 and 2015…we don't need another scientific review, we need action now."

Ethan Case of SustainUS called attention to the fact that US negotiators here are largely hamstrung by Congress: "a minority within Congress has consistently stalled progress on climate change." But he also criticized the White House administration, saying "decisions about climate are consistently kicked down the road by US leadership," on everything from the Tar Sands pipeline decision to international climate policy. He also shared the often-expressed disappointment with the Obama administration's lack of courage on climate policy: "we ask ourselves a lot as youth if we've been duped by [Obama's] message of change."

In response to a question from Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, a clearly agitated Todd Stern said this afternoon that "what the US has been doing over the past 2 years, with all due respect, is showing the leadership necessary to try to drag this process into the 21st century."

Mr. Stern, I respectfully disagree. Today, US youth did their best to drag the United States from its pariah status back to a leadership position in the international community. I hope the White House administration was listening.

Read more about youth activists:
How a Young Activist Revived a Stagnant Legislature
10 College Students Making Green Headlines
Lord Monckton Calls Youth Climate Activists "Hitler Youth" (Video)

Tags: Global Climate Change | Global Warming Science | Global Warming Solutions

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