What a difference a year makes for climate change activism.
Twelve months ago, thousands of young campaigners worldwide converged on Copenhagen to pitch protests against the global political failure to tackle global warming.
They disrupted summit meetings with non-violent civil disobedience to air demands of climate justice. Scores were arrested. Naomi Klein, the writer and activist, said at the time that it felt as though "progressive tectonic plates are shifting."
But a year later — with the start of the next big climate-treaty conference in Cancun, Mexico, days away — activists appear to have dramatically changed their emphasis from confrontation to cooperation.
"There are certain times when it's useful to take a more critical tone and times when it's useful to take a more collaborative tone," said Michael Davidson of SustainUS, an all-volunteer climate action group.
The two meetings "are extremely different," he noted. For one, the eyes of the world were on Copenhagen as 120 heads of state attended, garnering gobs of global media coverage for the summit — and youth-led protests.
But few government heads are expected in Mexico, meaning that a majority of advocates' influence will be behind the scenes, not in front of the camera.
A Model for Progress
In lower-key Cancun, one of the main goals of young people will be to set an example of progress for quarreling climate negotiators, Davidson said.
"Youth have cooperated within negotiations in an extremely intricate way — in some ways much more than other civil society participants," he said. "We're trying to present a model for what delegates should be doing in order to push forward solutions."
"We're not giving up on trying to get countries to actually cooperate," Davidson continued.
Beyond that, SustainUS announced this week that they will use Cancun to fight for a legally binding deal to curb climate-altering emissions — their ultimate goal — and will make the strong link between carbon-cutting clean energy development and job creation.
They also want to stress that vulnerable populations would suffer disproportionately if climate change is ignored — including themselves.
"We're doing this because our future is at stake," Marcie Smith, co-chair of SustainUS, told reporters on a conference call detailing their strategies.
Activists, who align themselves with developing-country governments, suffered defeat at the negotiations in Copenhagen last December, after the 194 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change failed to deliver a post-2012 pact to slow warming.
Agreement is still far off.
The Nov. 29 – Dec. 10 Cancun talks are expected to make progress on some issues, such as green technology transfers and slowing deforestation, but will not a produce a new treaty to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
U.S., Chinese Youth Join Forces
Disputes between the U.S. and China, the two biggest emitters of global warming gases, have stymied progress on a global climate deal.
Recognizing that, youth from both nations launched an unofficial collaboration a little over a month ago called the U.S.-China Youth Climate Exchange.
Members of the partnership will carry out workshops and shared actions in Cancun.
"Sino-American relations have been characterized by mistrust," said Jared Schy of the Cascade Climate Network and the new U.S.-China exchange. "We hope to strengthen trust between our countries by growing our own trust. We hope ... to show the world in a more visible way that China and the U.S. are working together now."
Influencing U.S. Policy from Cancun
Reed Aronow of SustainUS said activists will lead a "series of creative actions and campaigns" in Cancun centered on getting both meaningful treaty text and climate change legislation in the United States.
Their biggest Cancun campaign, run in conjunction with the Energy Action Coalition, will be the grassroots Rapid Response Network. Organizers will enlist a crew of U.S.-based "climate responders" who will be called on to take action at home when big developments happen in Cancun.
"We're hoping through the ... network to build up media pressure back home," Davidson said.
The goal is to draw 25,000 participants, Aronow said.
Their other tactics may ring a more familiar note. Among planned protests, youth activists, dressed as penguins, will hold signs that read, "Save the humans," in what they're calling the "March of the Penguins."
Davidson said he is "not aware of any actions to shut down the talks."
(Photo: Copenhagen Climate Demonstration, courtesy Greenpeace International)