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After a 'Disappointing' UN Climate Summit, California Youth Activists are Back to Work

COP26 Coalition Protestors Take Part In The Global Day of Action for Climate Justice
Tens of thousands of protestors gather for the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice march on November 6, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. | Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images
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It’s not easy for Isaias Hernandez to sum up his experience at COP26, the annual United Nations (UN) conference on climate change. The 25-year-old environmental educator, known as the Queer Brown Vegan to more than 100,000 followers, received a coveted badge from the Youth Climate Lab to attend official events. Listening to other young activists like Vanessa Nakate take the global stage to speak about the health dangers of a heating world motivated him; he was inspired to see activists push international leaders to adopt stricter climate change mitigation policies.

But Hernandez admits he left Glasgow feeling a bit defeated. The final pact presented by the nearly 200 countries in attendance was a "disappointment," he said, a reaction echoed by many of his peers. Greta Thunberg, one of the leading voices of international youth climate activism, described the COP26 agreement as watered-down "blah, blah, blah" to BBC Scotland.

While it has been celebrated for including the first mention of limiting fossil fuels, Thunberg and others have criticized the COP26 agreement language as being "very, very vague." As written, it also fails to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, a key threshold countries recognized in the 2016 Paris climate accord. And many of the top-polluting nations currently lack the concrete policies and plans to reach their emissions goals.

"We need world leaders to show us this is how we're going to actually, tangibly, boots-on-the-ground tackle this crisis," said Shreya Ramachandran, an 18-year-old Stanford University student who watched the conference unfold from California.

Ramachandran is the founder of the Grey Water Project, a nonprofit that advocates for safe reuse of "grey water," or the water used in household sinks, showers, laundries and baths. She tuned into COP26 to learn how politicians planned to mitigate future effects of climate change and foster resilience in areas already being impacted. While she was encouraged to hear drought and water access solutions discussed, she felt it ended there, with words rather than actions.

"If you don't have that implementation plan in place, then telling us net zero by X, Y, Z date is not really going to be enough," Ramachandran said.

Ramachandran says she was hopeful, though, to see a large youth coalition in attendance. Thousands of young people went to Glasgow for COP26, many spending significant time on the streets in protest. Nineteen-year-old Sophia Kianni, founder of Climate Cardinals, a nonprofit that translates climate materials to make them more accessible, attended as the ​​United States representative on the U.N. Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. While the Stanford University student said she was grateful for the opportunity to engage in conversations with people like the U.N. Secretary General and the President of COP26, she recognized that few of her peers were given the same sort of access.

A group of youth advisors pose for a photo with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres
Nineteen-year-old activist Sophia Kianni (third from left) stands with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres (front row, second from right) and the U.N. Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.

"A lot of young people only had observer status and were shut out of meeting rooms and negotiation spaces," Kianni explained.

According to Hernandez, there was a lot of bureaucracy and red tape keeping many young people from being able to fully engage with officials. The COP26 Coalition, which represented a number of environmental justice-focused groups, organizations, and individuals, called the conference the "least accessible climate summit ever." The restrictions and costs, as well as COVID-19 requirements, were particularly limiting for participants from "Global South, marginalized and Indigenous populations," the Coalition said in a statement.

"There are power dynamics and gender imbalances around who gets to be platformed, so it's really important to be in these multiple protests and to stand in solidarity with people," Hernandez said. He added that the protests were "therapeutic," offering a space to connect with like minded activists and center the voices of people disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.

Isaias Hernandez smiles towards the camera as protesters march behind him
Environmental educator Isaias Hernandez marches in the COP26 climate strike in Glasgow. | Isaias Hernandez

Before the final agreement was presented, many young people expressed their frustration with the conference’s empty rhetoric and lack of inclusion. Hernandez participated in a youth walkout during one of its final days. Thunberg and other youth leaders, including 16-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor from California, filed a legal petition with the U.N. Secretary General during the conference to request he declare a "system-wide climate emergency" to heighten the global response. This could have resulted in aid being directed to countries most at risk of climate change effects—something that, while agreed to in the Paris Accords, has since proved to be a sticking point in negotiations. This year’s COP pact calls for an increase in this funding, but funds contributed remain below the initial $100 billion pledge made in 2016.

"It almost seemed like, regardless of what we wanted to champion and discuss, the countries are very set on the goals that they want to have, and these are the only commitments that we can do at this time," Hernandez said.

Back in his home city of Los Angeles, Hernandez says his experience at COP26 has caused him to rethink what it means to create change, inspiring him to focus his efforts closer to home.

"At COP26, what is often presented as a good or a better idea is if the product or the program is scalable," he said. But, "coming back into my community in Los Angeles," he noted, "there's so much ongoing injustice and resistance that I think localizing solutions and localizing your actions and work is essential for this movement. This is what builds stronger solidarity and networks of mutual aid."

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