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COP24: Sitting down to take a stand for real climate action

UN Secretary-General António Guterres applauds Greta Thunberg, Swedish youth climate activist, for her efforts to combat climate change. Image by by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.

  • Greta Thunberg, 15, has captured worldwide attention and sparked a youth movement with her no-nonsense demands for world leaders to finally start taking meaningful action to combat climate change.
  • Thunberg accuses the current generation of leaders of sacrificing the future of today’s youths, and says that change is coming, whether they like it or not.
  • Her protests and presence at the U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland, have inspired young people in countries around the world to take a similar stand for climate action.

KATOWICE, Poland — It’s noon on a Friday in the city of Katowice, Poland, and a teenage girl with her hair braided in pigtails is sitting alone on the floor of the Spodek conference arena, site of this year’s United Nations climate talks.

Nearby, thousands of government officials are busy negotiating the future of the planet by trying to agree on a single guideline to implement the Paris Climate Agreement, a historical global pledge signed by 195 countries in 2015 to combat climate change.

That they still haven’t been able to agree over how to move ahead with a pact they signed three years ago grates on Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old from Sweden.

“I think I’m doing more good sitting here than being inside the negotiation room,” she tells Mongabay.

Despite her diminutive stature and shy demeanor, Thunberg has captured the world’s attention at the U.N. talks here in Poland, formally known as the 24th Conference of Parties (COP24). She’s been sitting in an act of protest against politicians and policymakers who she says have failed to act swiftly to humanity’s greatest threat, and says they’re “behaving like children.”

Her protests didn’t start at COP24. Thunberg began cutting class back home to sit outside the Swedish parliament to protest against what she saw as a lack of ambitious climate actions by her government. This year, Sweden experienced its hottest summer since records began 262 years ago, with heat waves and wildfires roiling the country.

“I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future,” read the leaflets that she handed out during her school strike.

Thunberg says she believes that developed countries like Sweden should be held accountable for burning fossil fuels to grow their economies and bear more responsibility for tackling climate change compared to developing countries.

“We have higher emissions, we need to reduce emissions,” she says. “We need to do that to give a chance to developing countries to improve their standard of living. For example, buildings and infrastructures. How can we expect developing countries to care about climate change if we, who already have everything, don’t care?”

The frankness of her arguments has inspired school strike movements around the world, with more than 20,000 students joining in, from Australia, Britain, Belgium, the United States and Japan. It’s also resulted in Thunberg being named one of the most influential teens of 2018 by Time magazine.

“I’ve learned that you’re never too small to make a difference,” she says. “And if a few people can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we all could do together if we really wanted to.”

Greta Thunberg, the founder of the school strike movement, sits in protest on the final day of the U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

It’s a message that Thunberg says the leaders and policymakers gathered in Katowice need to hear. This year’s climate talks have been dubbed the most important since the Paris summit in 2015. They come on the heels of a U.N. scientific report that warns there are only 12 years left to halve global greenhouse gas emissions to have a chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to avoid catastrophic climate-induced disasters.

Thunberg says she didn’t make the 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) trip (by electric car) to beg the COP24 delegates to take action. Instead, she says, she’s here to tell them that change is coming, regardless of what they do.

In her speech at the conference’s plenary session on Dec. 12, she didn’t mince her words when she told world leaders that she had zero belief in them to save the planet from catastrophic climate change.

“We have not come here to beg world leaders to care,” she said as reported by Democracy Now. “You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. You have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know changes are coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”

She also demanded that they stop ruining the future of young people.

“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” she said in her speech.

And as the climate negotiations entered their final day on Dec. 14 with a deal over the Paris Agreement guidelines still not in sight, Thunberg has called on other students to follow her in her footsteps.

“We are week two of negotiations here, and as of now, there are no sign of commitments to climate actions,” she said in a video that had been watched more than 130,000 times on Twitter as of Dec. 14. “This Friday, Dec. 14, I am calling for an international climate strike. Please strike with us to let them know we demand climate action.”

The call was heeded, with students from 16 schools in Poland and from 14 cities in Germany striking on Friday. Thirty students from schools in Katowice were granted special access to enter the U.N. talks and carry their message to the delegates and Polish government: with only 12 years left to get the world off fossil fuels, leaders must act now.

A group of students from Katowice stages a protest inside the Spodek conference venue during COP24. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Małgorzata Czachowska, 15, was among those who joined the protest. She said she was inspired by Thunberg to hold politicians accountable for their inaction.

“I’m here to support Greta because what she did was amazing,” she said during the protest. “She inspired many people, she’s very brave and she’s an example that one person could do a lot.”

But unlike Thunberg, who is skeptical that the climate negotiations will yield any results, Małgorzata says she’s crossing her fingers that the negotiations don’t fail. If they do, then “I will watch how we destroy our world,” she says. “Some people, maybe those from poor countries, will die, and with them, their cultures will die as well, including many species.”

Young people like Thunberg and Czachowska symbolize a growing youth movement to combat climate change, with young people having a greater presence than ever at this year’s climate talks. The third day of the talks was called Youth and Future Generations Day, dedicated entirely to showcasing children- and youth-focused climate action. Young climate activists spoke at press conferences.

It’s this kind of pressure from a wider cross-section of society that many say was missing at past climate negotiations.

As her movement grows around the world, Thunberg implores young people to keep up the momentum and be even more vocal in their demands for action.

“I think it’s great that they’re making their voices heard and we need to continue like this,” she says. “We need to get angry and hold the older generation accountable for the mess they have created. We must say that this is enough, stop risking our future.”

Even for seasoned delegates, an event like COP24 is a grueling experience, with its late nights and constant negotiations. Thunberg has been more than a match, for them, addressing the U.N. secretary-general during the first week of the conference, speaking at a panel hosted by the World Bank, and being shuttled from one event after another. She hasn’t had time to explore Katiwice, she says.

“Of course it’s exhausting to do all of this,” she says with a yawn. “It comes with a price and you just have to take that because the climate is more important.”

Banner image of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres applauding Greta Thunberg, a Swedish youth climate activist, at COP24. Image by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.

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