Youth Take Over the UN for Climate Action Summit

Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks to reporters at the U.N. on Sept. 21, 2019. (Amanda Ottaway/CNS)

UNITED NATIONS (CN) – The Swedish teen traipsing around the lawn at the United Nations headquarters in New York Saturday morning in jeans and sneakers, trailed by a gaggle of eager grown-ups, embodied an unusual circumstance: adults following a child.

But as 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and over 700 youth leaders from around the world declared at the first-ever Youth Climate Action Summit this weekend, perhaps all adults should be following them. That’s why they walked out of school by the millions on Friday, and gave up a sunny Saturday in New York City to make their case at the UN for drastic action on the climate crisis.

“We showed that we were united and that we young people are unstoppable,” Thunberg said Saturday of Friday’s strike. She has repeatedly implored world leaders to take action on climate so she can stop striking and go back to school.

Thunberg wasn’t the only big name Saturday. Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim, multiple Disney Channel television stars, “Game of Thrones” actor Oona Chaplin, and 17-year-old climate activist Jamie Margolin all made appearances. UN Secretary-General António Guterres was invited, too — not as a keynote speaker, but as a “keynote listener.” He will head the UN’s Climate Action Summit on Monday, at which Thunberg is also set to speak.

Despite the consensus from every speech and panel that the planet is facing a climate emergency, the mood Saturday was largely cheerful and enthusiastic, with handfuls of Gen-Zers posing for selfies in front of a “Climate Action Summit 2019” backdrop.

“This is the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Chaplin told the crowd.

Befitting this generation of digital natives, social media activism was built into the conference. Instagram influencers appeared on a panel about the Amazon rainforest, and the media company Hashtag Our Stories led a viral video master class.

“I think the general public right now looks at climate change as this sort of abstract idea,” said 18-year-old Luke Mullen, activist and actor on the Disney Channel series “Andi Mack.”

“There’s this disconnect between the public and the scientists right now. That’s why I think social media is such an important tool, because it bridges that gap between hard facts and entertainment.”

In a separate panel, 29-year-old Colombian model and television personality Laura Tobon echoed the sentiment.

“We need to make a change, and if we can do it through our social media, through images, through videos, I think we can actually get there,” she said. “I think we can make a difference.”

Wearing a T-shirt that said “There is no Planet B,” the Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, encouraged attendees to use the hashtag #ClimateAction as she opened the day’s events.

“The UN is just creating a platform,” she said. “The leadership has already been given by the young people.”

Lesein Mutunkei is a 15-year-old soccer player in Kenya who founded Trees for Goals, where he plants and tends ten trees for every goal he scores on the field.

“Today I came to the Youth Climate Summit because I want to make sure that all leaders around the world know that us youth care about the environment, and also want them to know the majority of the young people care about the environment,” he said in an interview.

In brief remarks with her colleagues at the Zero Hour movement, Margolin accused adults of trying to solve climate change with the same issues that helped cause it: colonialism, inequality, oppression, and the patriarchy.

“Stop treating the climate crisis like it’s in this silo away from all other issues,” she said. “The climate crisis is intersectional to all of these issues.”

The summit included an intergenerational town hall at the end of the day, in which youth activists got to pose their questions directly to heads of state from around the world. Nche Tala Aghanwi, a 25-year-old from Cameroon, asked how best to address both poverty and climate change at the same time.

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen took the microphone in response, suggesting a tax system for gasoline and other products that create greenhouse gases.

“But for me the most important thing of the last 12 months was you got attention,” Van der Bellen continued. “You get public attention. Politicians can’t ignore you.”

Van der Bellen also credited social media as a crucial tool for climate activism.

“If Greta Thunberg says something in public, the media will listen and report,” said Van der Bellen. Now thanks to the youth climate movement, he said, “the politicians feel the pressure.”

Nineteen-year-old Kim, who snagged a 2018 Olympic gold medal in snowboarding, expressed a mix of emotions in an afternoon panel of elite athletes whose sports are impacted by a changing climate.

“I am so inspired by my generation for fighting for change,” Kim said. “But I’m so terrified that one day when I have a family, my kids are gonna be like, ‘What’s snow? Is that like when the dinosaurs were around?’”

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