Last month, I moved through the same halls of power that world leaders are accustomed to walking through. I brushed shoulders with the likes of Frans Timmermans and Pedro Sanchez and I witnessed more free alcohol being handed out than anywhere else previously in my life.
As a 17 year old climate activist, it’s been strange. I decided to attend COP for a few different reasons – the primary one of course being to have my voice heard. However, I would be lying if I told you that I wasn’t curious as to how the whole thing worked.
Having found out, I now know a little bit more of what the problem is.
I’ve been a school striker and FFF Ireland organiser since last January, and I strike every week alongside my sister in front of our local council office. We do so because we are deeply frightened at the state of our world, and at the continued inaction of world leaders in response to it. At COP, I met fellow school strikers from every continent except for Antartica. Some of the most passionate, intelligent and driven young people on the planet gathered in Madrid, and on the 6th of December over half a million of us marched through it’s streets. I have never felt more proud of my peers, of my generation, of the movement that I am a part of as I did when I was at COP.
However, standing in stark contrast to this uplifting feeling of passion and solidarity, was the grim reality of the COP itself. Although on the surface it is beautiful, there is a dark and depressing side to the world’s largest climate change conference. Over the first few days I will confess that I got a little bit lost and caught up in the glitzy nature of the place. 100,000 square metres of shiny pavilions with free handouts, meeting rooms with comfortable chairs and fancy microphones, a plenary chamber where VIPs would take the stage to announce the exciting new developments in climate policy, free coffee courtesy of the German Federal Government, what more could one ask for? I mean, obviously climate action, but we were just getting started! Surely this was just around the corner, once the negotiations started in earnest?
Wrong. Seeing important looking people in suits discussing where to put the brackets in a complex, technical document which would amount to a grand total of nothing, or whether they should call the meeting they were currently in a “multilateral”, a “bilateral” or to invent an entirely new word would be comical, were it not for the gravity of the situation we are currently in. The COP25 took place less than a month before true crunch time for climate. The IPCC Special Report on 1.5º tells us that emissions must peak by 2020 if we are to have any chance of staying below the critical 1.5 degrees of warming. We’re already over a week into 2020 and I’ve seen no sign that we will achieve this goal. We are currently on track for somewhere between 3 and 6 degrees of warming by the end of the century, and all the while our leaders argue over minutae of the highest level of irrelevance. I must confess to a certain amount of disbelief at the way in which proceedings took place. It was as if I had been transported to an alternate reality, I kept expecting to be hit in the face with a wet towel and to wake up to the real COP, where the parties were doing…anything.
On the morning after the British elections, my friends woke me up at about 1am and said “it’s bad”. If I were asked to sum up the entire COP, I think I would use those words. The COP was bad. I had no expectations and I was nonetheless disappointed. The only truly important things that happened were the actions that we as FFF organised: we stormed the stage of the main plenary chamber in an unauthorised action which had security telling us that “this was not the plan”.
Here are a few other things that aren’t the plan: 6 million hectares of Australia burning, new temperature records being set day after day, Arctic permafrost melting 70 years before predicted.
We marched, half a million strong, through the streets of Madrid. We held hands and sang and chanted. Was it enough? No. And that’s why we will do more, not because we want to, but because we cannot afford not to. In a year, this movement has given a voice to seven and a half million young people. We’ve occupied the halls of power and we’ve fundamentally changed the climate conversation forever.
But we haven’t even really gotten started. 2020 is the year when we change everything.
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