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Copenhagen's Conscience: The Youth Climate Movement Won't Settle

Youth activists are playing an important role in Copenhagen: refusing to allow the smallness of politics to stand in the way of the fair and globally-binding deal that our generation demands for survival.
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COP-15 Youth Dance, screenshot

It's Hot, It's Hot, It's Hot in Here :: Video: Before the summit's first plenary, young activists decided to inject some energy and passion into the proceedings.

One of the most common themes on the Obama campaign trail was that sometimes the people are far ahead of the game, ready for change and waiting for their leaders to step up and represent them effectively. As I arrived in Copenhagen yesterday and stood in line with 20,000 members of the international NGO community to enter the Bella Center, there was no question in my mind that this is the case with fighting climate change. The people of the world are ready, and this city is so primed for bold action—if only our leaders can come to the table with a real commitment to progress.

With President Obama's trip to the summit pushed back to next week, the activity here is quickly changing from frenetic initial enthusiasm to discerning skepticism regarding how serious the United States is about delivering the change that our climate and energy crisis necessitates. While some are convinced that this gathering is little more than a vehicle of green-washed lip service, I see many compelling reasons to be optimistic about our prospects for substantive movement on these issues in early 2010.

Foremost was a call I received yesterday afternoon from Lisa Jackson, our fearless EPA administrator, who was energized by her agency's endangerment finding announcement and commitment to regulate greenhouse gases. On the heels of the youth climate movement's first meeting with President Obama's top White House officials last week, it was a "Pinch Me" moment to celebrate her news while standing in the lobby of a Copenhagen hotel, in the shadow of 192 countries and their delegates finally making some headway on an issue that has been disregarded for nearly a decade when we already had no time to waste. I was particularly moved that Jackson recognized the efforts of the member organizations of the Energy Action Coalition, and that she would take the time to thanks us for our hard work, our refusal to settle, and for keeping the pressure on when backing down might have been easier or more politically convenient.

On the ground in Copenhagen, I was also proud to see youth climate leaders making our voices heard among the other activists, delivering our uniquely urgent perspective to the dialogues taking place. I spoke on a panel with Department of Energy Representative David Sandelow and Former President of Cost Rica, José María Figueres as a part of the Global Observatory effort here at COP-15. I made the strong declaration that for the world's youth, everything is on the line. We will be the ones who shoulder the repercussions of insufficient action now. We refuse to allow the smallness of politics to stand in the way of the fair and globally-binding deal our planet so desperately needs, and that our generation demands for survival. Just as we told White House officials last week, I was clear with Mr. Sandalow that while I'm thrilled and proud to be representing the United States' notably improved accomplishments, we simply cannot settle for gestures in the right direction. We need solutions that follow science, and we need them now.

Climate Action Training Camp, photo by Matt LeonardClimate Justice Movement Breaks Through :: As the urgency of the crisis grows, so does the strength of the movement for change.

These developments—the EPA announcement, Obama changing his travel plans, our presence in Copenhagen—are all very significant and cannot be overlooked. Specifically, our role as the youth climate movement cannot be overlooked. We have the eyes and ears of the decision-makers on the world's stage, and it's up to us to prove "the fierce urgency of now."

Fortunately, our visionary president is on his way to back us up and tell the world where we stand. Will it be enough? It can be, if we take action and hold ourselves accountable.

The pressure is on all of us. I've been anticipating this trip all year, and suddenly it just got a lot more real. Headed back to my hotel to reflect on what could come out of these negotiations, I decided I would not submit to the skepticism. Rather, I felt a renewed sense of optimism. It wasn't just the Hopenhagen posters that have wallpapered the city, either. It was a sense that our administration is very serious about action, and earnestly believes in what needs to come out of these next two weeks. They will not destroy our inheritance: The planet we all love will prevail.


Jessy TolkanJessy Tolkan serves as the Executive Director for the Energy Action Coalition, a coalition of 50 leading youth organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada that leverages the power of young people to organize on college campuses, high schools, and in local communities to build models of the clean energy future.

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YES! Magazine's ongoing coverage of the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen.

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