The Young Climate Diplomats Fighting to Save Their Countries

They grew up witnessing damages from climate change in Rwanda and Ethiopia and are calling on wealthy countries to fund adaptation and pay for losses already suffered.

Demonstrators join the Fridays For Future march on Nov. 5, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Demonstrators join the Fridays For Future march on Nov. 5, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

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The youngest diplomats at COP26 are around the same age as the conference itself. They were born into the climate crisis, and are hyper-aware of the ways their countries have already suffered its impacts.

While their activist peers protest in the streets, Eva Peace Mukayiranga of Rwanda and Yared Abera of Ethiopia are in Glasgow negotiating as part of the “least developed countries” bloc. They are pushing for more money to go toward developing countries’ adaptation efforts. And they want a separate pot of money that would compensate countries for losses and damages from climate change.

As of Friday evening, the official draft negotiating text from COP26 acknowledges these countries’ demands, but only makes incremental steps toward meeting them. 

Nobody is expecting miracles as the talks wrap up, but Mukayiranga, 25, and Abera, 27, have at least helped advance their issues farther than ever before. They’re showing that slowly and painstakingly, youth are gaining influence inside the halls of power as well as on the streets. 

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There’s still a disconnect, however, in urgency between youth activists on the outside and the mostly older officials on the inside. “Negotiations are a little bit slow,” said Mukayiranga. Countries might spend a whole discussion session going back and forth over one word, she said, adding, “I think when you’ve been too much in the negotiation itself, you tend to think that’s how it goes.”

The slow progress of COP26 is in stark contrast to the increasingly furious pace of climate change. In 2016, an unusually strong El Niño weather pattern caused a severe drought in Ethiopia, leaving millions of people without livelihoods or enough food. That was when Abera realized just how bad the climate crisis was. 

“This is a climate emergency,” he said. “However, I can’t see that kind of emergency sense in the meeting room.”

As global warming continues, rainfall in Ethiopia, Rwanda and many other parts of the world is becoming less and less predictable. The flip side of drought is rain that comes in short, infrequent but increasingly intense storms, causing floods and widespread economic damage. 

In Rwanda, most people are small-scale farmers who depend on the land for income. “If you’ve planted and you hope to sell,” said Mukayiranga, farmers can be left with nothing in the wake of floods. “Everything gets washed away,” she said.

While many developing countries are putting in a good-faith effort to adapt as much as they can, they need more resources to do so effectively. That’s why Mukayiranga is working to ensure a pipeline of long-term financing for adaptation efforts. Wealthy countries have already pledged $100 billion per year from 2020 to 2025, but are late in making good on the promise. Friday’s draft text noted this failure “with deep regret,” and called for developed countries to start doubling the collective adaptation funds they hand over by 2025.

But in the end, some climate impacts are so extreme or so final—like the worst storms, or large-scale desertification, or sea level rise—that nations simply can’t adapt enough to prevent all losses or damages, Abera pointed out. In those situations, financial compensation is needed on top of funding for countries’ proactive climate efforts, he said. 

So far, Scotland is the only government to earmark this kind of money. On Thursday in Glasgow, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged $2 million for developing countries’ losses and damages, saying it was not an act of charity, but “an act of reparation.” This money alone, however, is a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of billions needed.

At COP25 in Madrid in 2019, governments did agree to start something called the Santiago Network, a group that would provide technical assistance to countries dealing with loss and damage. This year, Abera and other negotiators discussed getting the Santiago Network up and running, trying to work out details of what it would be responsible for, and who it would report to. In addition, Ethiopia and other developing countries wanted to see the establishment of a new facility like the Green Climate Fund to gather and distribute funds like those Scotland just pledged.

Friday’s text also included somewhat confusing language saying that the Santiago Network would be supported by “a technical assistance facility to provide financial support for technical assistance.” This does not, however, refer to the facility for actually distributing new funds that developing countries proposed this week, explained Tasneem Essop, the executive director of Climate Action Network International, during a press conference. That line became one of the biggest points of contention drawing out talks into the weekend.

Youth Are Gaining Influence, but Progress Is Still Too Slow

Since 1992, when countries first signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the U.N. has slowly included more youth voices. 

Eduarda Zoghbi, a 28-year-old from Brazil, attended her first COP in 2009, when she was just 16 years old. She couldn’t get inside the actual conference in Copenhagen. Instead, the Brazilian teenager was one of just a few youth outside the venue, protesting what many came to see as a failed COP.

Today, Zoghbi is a graduate student in international public affairs at Columbia University in New York, and is attending COP26 as part of a group of academic experts from her university. She also participated in a youth conference organized by the U.N. and the government of Italy ahead of COP26 as a platform for young people to give their recommendations.

Things have changed a lot over the years in terms of inclusion, Zoghbi said. For one thing, there’s simply more young people involved in the climate movement, pressuring world leaders through massive demonstrations and public shaming. “After Greta, now, governments and world leaders want to have you at the table,” she said.

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In addition, the U.N. framework on climate change now has an official youth constituency called YOUNGO, which world leaders are obligated to listen to. In 2015, the group was able to convince governments to put a line about climate education into the Paris Agreement. This year, the youth recommendations were broadly in line with what developing countries are asking for, with a big focus on immediate financing for adaptation.

Young people also have the ear of U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Nathan Méténier, 22, is a French graduate student who serves on the Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, which is comprised of seven young people from seven different countries. They meet with Guterres regularly to help him shape his own climate strategy, and to bring in recommendations from others in the youth climate movement.

These formal opportunities to engage with world leaders are more than just symbolic, said Méténier. “Often decision-makers just talk, talk, talk and never listen to us,” he said. But in meetings with Guterres, and at meetings like the pre-COP youth conference in Italy, important decision-makers are “trapped” in the same room as youth, he said, adding that “they had to listen, and that was quite powerful.”

Still, just listening won’t do anything to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Individual countries, especially the biggest and wealthiest, need to act on their promises, and quickly. “Developing countries are tired of fake commitments,” Méténier said.

This is certainly true of Rwanda and Ethiopia. Young people like Mukayiranga and Abera are now at the negotiating table. But they still face the perennial hurdle of convincing the bigger, wealthier and more polluting countries sitting across from them to take serious, urgent action. The agreement that emerges from COP26 will ultimately be just a document calling on countries to voluntarily do more. “I also want to see actions coming out of it,” Mukayiranga said.