“There is room to strengthen our collective sense of purpose”
Climate emergency, youth activism, inclusive multilateralism – Those are some of the main issues addressed in my interview with Marie-Claire Graf and Heeta Lakhani, YOUNGO Global Focal Points, in the lead up to International Youth Day 2021. YOUNGO is the official Youth Constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This means YOUNGO is the officially mandated global mechanism that involves youth in the UNFCCC process and beyond. YOUNGO consists of over 10,000 individuals and about 1000 organizations. It is the oldest and largest youth constituency in the United Nations. YOUNGO envisions a climate positive and just society living in harmony with nature and the planet as well as an empowered youth generation, who is driving meaningful, impactful and positive change and a UN where youth is sitting at the decision-making tables and is taken seriously. Hence YOUNGO focuses on the following areas: Awareness, Knowledge and Capacity Building; Collaboration, Cooperation and Network; Policy, Lobby and Advocacy as well as Youth Action. Heeta & Marie-Claire were elected by the constituency at COP25 in 2019 as Global Focal Points. While YOUNGO focal points are usually appointed for 1 year, they have been playing that role for 2 years, given the current context.
My name is Noella Richard and I am the Youth Global Programme Manager at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in New York. Part of the exciting work I lead in UNDP consists in opening up channels for young people to be valued and heard to enhance youth leadership in development and peace processes. At UNDP, I have been fortunate to engage with a broad range of young activists and youth practitioners, including young climate activists from YOUNGO, since 2013. Since 2019, I have contributed to shaping and implementing the UNDP Climate promise, leveraging our youth expertise and broad global network of young champions, collaborating with the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) Support Programme, participating in the broader UNDP Climate task force and engaging with other United Nations entities and partners. Together with my youth and climate colleagues, we have co-convened timely events and consultations with YOUNGO partners, for instance the online consultation on youth4climate on meaningful youth engagement in NDCs and the workshop on Accelerating youth leadership in climate ambition and action with the Danish Youth Council, YOUNGO, the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth, or in the context of the annual ECOSOC Youth Forum. Earlier this year, I led the development of the Joint Commitment by Heads of United Nations entities on Child and Youth participation in decision-making in relation to climate action and climate justice, in response to the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights which identified the rights of future generations as a key priority.
It is urgent that we recognize young people as leaders and join forces to drive ambition. I hope that you enjoy this conversation with Marie-Claire, who connected from a train in Italy, as she was leaving the United Nations Food Systems Pre-Summit in Rome, and Heeta, who joined from Mumbai, India. I also hope that you will get inspired to make the world a better, fairer, more inclusive and greener place! For more information on UNDP’s work: www.sparkblue.org/youth and to read more about YOUNGO: http://youngoclimate.org
1. Could you tell me about yourself and how you got into climate activism?
Heeta – Ever since I was a child, I wanted to do something related to the environment. I therefore chose to do a master's in environmental studies & resource management from TERI University in India. I participated in the international climate space for the first time at COP21 in 2015. At that time, I was working as a German translator. I joined the COP, driven by my curiosity and supported through my mentor. My participation in COP21 had an immediate impact on my life: coming back home in India, I decided to resign and started volunteering with a newly formed youth-focused organization. I was introduced to YOUNGO at that point as well, joined the mailing list and started engaging formally with the constituency.
Marie Claire – In my case, my engagement is deeply rooted in my exposure to and appreciation of nature, mostly through hiking, in my mountainous country, Switzerland. Seeing how fast the glacier wonderland is disappearing made me realize how precious our world is and how much irreparable damage we have done already. I started following national and international climate policy processes and through Swiss Youth for Climate got the chance to attend my first World Climate Conference, COP23 in Bonn. Despite my intense preparation I left lost, confused, and overwhelmed, but the inspiring and determined youth advocates in YOUNGO inspired me and made me stay.
2. What motivates you to do what you are doing with MGCY/YOUNGO?
Heeta – A few different things motivate me. Despite many talks and youth activism, the preoccupying level of inaction is still to be deplored. While we observe the effects of the climate crisis and emergency every day and deplore dramatic socio-economic disparities in country such as mine, many people still do not connect the dots between issues – for instance disasters, extreme poverty, and urbanization; in my city Mumbai, slums and high-rise buildings co-exist; needless to say, the poorest always suffer the most when floods hit the city. Engaging with children and youth is fundamental and I have chosen to focus on climate education.
It is a known fact that young & future generations will face the consequences of the decisions made today. YOUNGO tries to ensure that youth voices are heard when such decisions are made.
Marie Claire – As a young woman, I quickly realized that we needed a major transformation and effective collective work to address the climate crisis. YOUNGO is a key mechanism that allows youth to push for this urgently needed global transformation. While many of these spaces are very exclusive, YOUNGO is universally accessible at no cost. This is essential to harness the richness of experiences and solutions by young people from grassroots’ movements, in particular. I am motivated by the vast amount of already implemented solutions and crazy ideas driven by young people. If engaged meaningfully, we can change the course of things.
3. What is your role and what is your biggest achievement in MGCY/YOUNGO or beyond?
Heeta – I feel a strong responsibility to ensure that youth representation is not tokenistic, is meaningful and adds value. In YOUNGO, we work hard to ensure that the space is increasingly open and remains free for young people to engage in working groups that have quite a lot of autonomy and we ensure that we do not centralize decisions. I contribute to making this space welcoming of diverse backgrounds and to ensuring youth do not feel alone in fighting a good climate fight.
Marie Claire – It is extremely easy to get lost and frustrated in the climate space, and on top of that, young people face a lot of prejudices. Hence, I see myself as a supporter to motivate and enable more youth to unfold their potential in the climate space to ensure that a diversity of youth voices influence policy processes. I am particularly proud of our inclusive youth-led processes. YOUNGO has been running the Global Conference of Youth for 16 years, this is the only youth-led conference on climate which can directly inform the United Nations climate negotiations. To complement this global conference, we provide support to run local, regional, and virtual conferences of youth. All voices culminate in a global demand paper which guides us in the UNFCCC negotiations.
4. What setbacks or challenges have you experienced?
Heeta - Ensuring that YOUNGO remains an open and safe space and making change happen are challenges in themselves! Keeping the space entirely youth-led and limiting bureaucratic rules in this space can also be difficult.
Marie Claire – Indeed, we continuously need to defend our open space and the fact that young people need to be perceived and treated as right holders. Decision makers often neither want to hear critical and demanding youth voices at the table nor have an incentive to transform according to science. In YOUNGO, we experience difficulties in accessing frontline communities, conflict zones etc. and we often juggle between defining common positions to influence policies in a strategic and timely way and ensuring inclusive participation and doing justice to the many young voices expressed. Additionally, YOUNGO is run by volunteers and thanks to our grassroots democratic approach and strong principles it is generally challenging to access financial resources.
5. What has kept you going during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Heeta – Mainly the feeling that we need to ensure continuity! The climate crisis has neither paused nor been solved during the pandemic. Urgency is what keeps me going every day!
Marie Claire – For me, it has been the realization that our world and humanity are so fragile and vulnerable. If we do not respect planetary boundaries and if we do not change fundamentally how we see and value nature, I am convinced that we will fail. I hope that the pandemic has been a wake-up call!
6. Do you trust multilateralism and what is the number one thing you would like to change in the world?
Heeta – I do trust multilateralism but also feel that we are sometimes stuck. Multilateralism is certainly the solution -getting together, working beyond silos-; however, we tend to be too process-driven and get caught up in the details. I would wish a multilateral system in which we focused much more on the larger picture and on making progress.
Marie Claire – I agree that the multilateral system is necessary, and that we should not waste time entirely reinventing it. Yet, there is room to strengthen our collective sense of purpose. We should make more efforts to face each other as human beings beyond titles and national interests and should focus more on solutions. Additionally, youth engagement is trendy, but again we are right holders and need to be involved meaningfully at the table where decisions are taken and not in the backseats.
7. What are your concrete expectations from COP26?
Heeta –Act on the crisis with the urgency that is needed. One of the biggest issues at COP26 is on Article 6 – I hope that we can move forward from the discussions at the virtual SBs earlier this year and not go back or start from scratch. My expectations are not too high but just that we move on and complete the Paris Rulebook, which was supposed to be completed at COP24 in 2018.
Marie-Claire and I will also participate in the #Youth4Climate summit to be convened by Italy. We hope the outcomes of the summit are treated with the seriousness needed. We look to the leadership of the host country to ensure that they not only include the outcomes at COP26, but also call on other countries to do so. There is an opportunity to meaningfully support youth leadership. We hope that youth priorities and demands will go beyond side events and inform the formal UNFCCC COP negotiations.
Marie Claire – YOUNGO is co-organizer of the global movement to build support for the IPCC 1.5C Special Report through the SC1.5NCE NOT SILENCE campaign. After being blocked from being formally welcomed at COP24 and COP25, it is critical that world leaders and governments adopt the IPCC 1.5C Special Report at COP26 in Glasgow. With the Action for Climate
Empowerment initiative led by YOUNGO, we demand Parties to finally implement all six elements. Additionally, I expect greater focus on agriculture via the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture; the food sector, a major contributor to the climate crisis – could also be our biggest solution. Both Heeta and I are in the advisory committee of the Italy-convened #Youth4Climate conference. I agree with Heeta that the outcomes need to feed into substantive matters at COP and concrete policies as otherwise it is a lost opportunity and tends to be a youth washing event. Also, from the COP26 host county substantive efforts still need to be made to ensure young people’s meaningful engagement at COP itself.
8. How do you think the role young people play in decision-making in climate action could be meaningfully enhanced? How do you see UNDP’s role in supporting young people’s leadership?
Heeta – The first step is to make this happen is to trust young people. Young people have to be given a chance, the space and the resources they need to be able to engage meaningfully. Being an activist often means unpaid and volunteering work. Beyond financial resources, network and access are key ingredients for success. UNDP has demonstrated its ability to help in convening partners and building bridges between governments and civil society, in particular youth. This needs to be continued in even more countries across the world and it is essential in particular in context where government’s doors might be closed to dialogue.
Marie Claire – While the formal mechanism for observer engagement via constituencies was set up 30 years ago [youth have been engaging with the UN over the past 30 years and YOUNGO was established 10 years ago], we still spend a lot of time defending our space. Additionally, very few young people have the chance to participate in negotiations with a formal role. We need to value and strengthen independent youth mechanisms and encourage more consultative processes as youth is not a homogenous group. Young people should be seen as rights holders and leaders, beyond target groups or victims of the climate crisis. UNDP plays a key role in implementing the Paris agreement through its NDC work and the Climate Promise in 118 countries. We look forward to continuing to engage regularly with UNDP as we connect commitments to action on the ground.
9. The theme of International Youth Day this year is Transforming Food Systems – would you say that young people have the potential of driving innovation for human and planetary health? How so?
Heeta – Certainly, youth do have that power! Many young people realize that they hold that potential to drive innovation and solutions. YOUNGO has indeed taken steps to advocate for a transformation of food systems with young people at the helm, by establishing a working group on agriculture and convening events on food systems. While a focus on fossil fuels is essential, we should not ignore or be forced to ignore the agriculture sector. Young people already demonstrate they craft new solutions at community level, through technology, championing policy change etc. across the spectrum, right from how food is drawn to when it is wasted.
Marie Claire – I have been attending the UN Food System Pre-Summit in Rome from 26 to 28 July 2021 where my youth colleagues and I have been presenting our demands and actions. Many youth-led solutions and processes have been shared and most of them are linked to fighting the climate crisis such as ending industrial animal farming, supporting agroecology and adding a food systems in the NDCs.
10. Any message(s) to young people who would like to become activists and make a difference in this world?
Heeta – Young people often ask about steps to take to become an activist. In my opinion, the most important is to start small, find an issue you are particularly passionate about, be persistent and keep pushing! We need a better planet for all of us and need everyone on board for that! While engaging for change truly matters, I would also advise young people to make sure they take time off to take care of their physical and mental health and their relationships as well! This is critical for themselves and to ensure the sustainability of our impact!
Marie Claire – Additionally, I think it is good to have a community who supports and cares. Also do not feel intimidated by long titles and fancy events... as most of the impact can be achieved by approaching people as human beings and talking from your heart and what matters most to you. And my last advice is finding your ‘why’. Why do I want to be active and why does it matter? There are countless reasons for giving up along the way but if you know your way you will succeed.