Not literally, of course. The action was part of the die-in organized by the Youth NGOs (YOUNGO), a constituency group that represents the interests of young people at the UN climate talks. It aimed to highlight youth participation at the negotiations. It was one of many events scheduled for the Young and Future Generation’s Day, an official day at the conference.
Although many youth organizations are playing a vital role at the local level, their influence at the global negotiations is far more marginal. This is true for civil society in general, but youth groups in particular are taken less seriously due to their perceived inexperience and lack of authority. YOUNGO faces unique institutional and internal challenges that hinder its ability to engage to its full potential at the conference.
While we cannot speak to the internal workings of YOUNGO, we can provide an outsider's perspective. There is an obvious power dynamic that favors well-established constituencies and undervalues youth representatives, despite their depth of knowledge and passion. Most YOUNGO members are also unpaid volunteers who have to balance activism with other full-time commitments, leaving them at a disadvantage.
In recent years, they have been leaders in social media movements to raise public awareness about the COP. This strategy is based on sound logic: many YOUNGO members do not have access to the official space and are forced to work from the outside. Thus, their best chance of affecting negotiations is to gain media attention that can permeate into negotiating rooms.
In addition to their social media presence, YOUNGO does directly engage with negotiators and suggest concrete suggestions. One of their unique demands is for the inclusion of an intergenerational equity provision, which would prevent the discounting of future generations. However, their official positions on the status of the climate agreements are not center stage.
The sensationalism of social media campaigns can be effective for garnering attention, but also risks widening the divide between youth and officials at the conference. This is not to discount the validity of youth frustrations or to dismiss the importance of these progressive voices, but to suggest that a better balance is needed between their provocative rhetoric and clear demands.
As students and youth activists ourselves, we believe YOUNGO has an important role to play in the climate movement. But as we participated in Youth Day, we were disappointed at the lack of focus given to their innovative solutions. YOUNGO has incredible potential, but they could benefit from a new approach.
It is clear that YOUNGO aims for a cleaner and safer future, but it is sometimes unclear how this vision should be achieved. The group has some concrete and coordinated recommendations, but they need to work on their public persona. There seems to be a disconnect in their internal workings and how they present themselves to the public, which can detract from their perceived legitimacy.
Despite YOUNGO’s engagement with the current UNFCCC process, more could be done to make it more inclusive. The UNFCCC needs to structurally empower youth further within the COP. However, the responsibility to create a more inclusive process falls on YOUNGO as well. As for the COP leaders, they must work to level the playing field for youth.
As Appadurai noted in her speech, “If not given the space to organize and build collective power, we will grow up to be the same bureaucrats who are talking their time away over the last 20 years in these halls of power.” As outsiders, we believe YOUNGO must back up its sensational language with more visible and actionable recommendations to avoid being accused of the same “all talk but no walk” predicament that has plagued the negotiations. YOUNGO has the potential to be the leaders of today but only if they better communicate their plans for tomorrow.
Crystal Avila, Mili Mitra and Sujay Natson are members of Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab. The opinions in this article are the sole responsibility of the authors.