Why the People's Climate March will matter at the United Nations

As youth delegates from SustainUS, we work to represent the youth of the US climate justice movement within the United Nations' debates on climate change. In this capacity, we travel to the UN climate change negotiations every year. There, we aim to make change both in the outcome text of the negotiations and in the media narrative surrounding international climate policy. This December, we will attend COP20 in Lima, Peru, and we’re already full of ideas for what we’d like to see. Ask any one of us and we can tell you what we’re hoping for on a personal level. Our list of demands in these negotiations is as diverse as our personal backgrounds, the immediate needs of our communities, and our hopes for a more just, sustainable shared future.

But every year, progress is slow, and watching the ideas you care about called into question again and again is discouraging. And when the negotiations completely fall apart, like they did at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, it can be utterly heartbreaking. Whether you’re in the talks or watching media coverage back home, watching your home country’s negotiators often produces the same reaction: How could they do something like this?

The answer to that question is one of the reasons the People’s Climate March matters. There’s nothing wrong with the individual people representing the United States in the room at COP. They aren’t evil people, or climate deniers seeking to actively undermine the talks. They’re decent human beings just trying to do their jobs. They’re trapped in a world of severe political constraints, because everything they agree to in the context of the UN must be something that can survive back in the United States. That’s the sticking point. For the vast majority of US politicians, climate change is, at best, an issue to be avoided, and at worst, something to deny to win quick political points.  

But there’s a misunderstanding on their part. The people who represent you, at the UN and in Congress, think you don’t care about climate change. And until US politicians truly believe their constituents care about climate change, the US will remain unambitious in UN talks. Continuing the current state of affairs means more precious time is passing without international action on one of the most critical issues of our time. Every day that goes by with politicians believing that their constituents don’t care how they act on climate means another day negotiators are bound by a lack of political will when they travel to COP. Without a change, political gridlock will continue to prevent US leadership on climate change.    

This is why the People’s Climate March is so important. Action at the UN will not happen without outside pressure. Americans, and especially youth, who will feel the impacts of climate change more acutely than any other generation before us, must apply that pressure. We must demonstrate our commitment to this issue, and build a broader stronger movement than ever before to call for climate justice and a better world.

Come to New York and show the people who represent you how much you care about acting on climate change. Members of Congress, State Department officials, and President Obama: By the time we’re done marching, they will not doubt what we value, or question how strong our convictions are. Come if you are able, follow the March on social media, and tell your friends and family. The impacts could be global.  

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Emily Nosse-Leirer is leading the SustainUS delegation to COP20. You can follow the delegation at @SustainUSAgents and sustainus.org, and find her at @EmilyRNL.

Women in power

At the beginning of this conference I held the belief that , as a high school student, there wasn't anything I could contribute in terms of tangible experience. Now don't get me wrong here; I consider myself pretty well-informed about many of the issues that are being talked about at the side events. My school and personal interests resulted in some knowledge in topics like reproductive right, trafficking, education, female genital mutilation, the use of alternative fuels for women's benefit, discrimination, and the gross lack of representation of women in important decision making processes. I was happy to chip in helpful arguments and facts in certain discussions. But that was all a matter of research. I could never imagine myself speaking in this conference with the same intensity and passion that civil society members with experience in direct humanitarian projects and governmental officials did when they spoke of issues they witnesses first-hand. Quite frankly, it also felt like people wouldn't take such a young person as seriously either.

Today was the first time where I spoke about something more personal in a panel discussion. The side event was sponsored by several of the government officials of Kenya, and they explained the aspects of their new constitution that helped secure seats for women in the decision-making process. Quotas and guidelines were mentioned; one rule in particular said that no one than 2/3 of the seats in their legislature could be occupied by one gender, basically guaranteeing that at least 1/3 of the seats would go to women. Even more interesting was a point a South African legislator brought up about how some politicians will give seats to women and not allow them to actually do anything, only so they can tell the voters that women are bad leaders. I thought it was interesting how common quotas were among other nations, since I grew up in a country where quotas are illegal. I spoke out about how, despite having affirmative action programs that don't even go as far as allowing quotas, affirmative action still had the potential to cause backlash since the very people who are meant to be beneficiaries of affirmative action often have their achievements and merits undermined; one of the hardest working people I knew at my high school got accepted into University of Pennsylvania and some of my classmates claimed it was because of her race. Similarly, when an alumni from my school who was known for having an amazing work ethic got a prestigious internship at Goldman Sachs, a few boys I know complained about how much easier it is for women to get jobs in finance. I talked about how these experiences lead me to believe that people need to be more informed of why these "reverse-discrimination" programs are needed in the first place.

My high school is a "blue ribbon" institution with a successful civics program. Yet even in advanced level classes, I know students who truly believe racism and sexism are no longer prevalent in the workforce. To my surprise, when the panelists were answering all the questions brought up by the audience, one of the Kenyan government officials went out of her way to get my name so she could personally address me; she told me about how in college, the only positions women held in her clubs were treasurer or social affairs manager and agreed that progress needed to be made about the social attitudes people had towards affirmative action. Another panelist echoed the sentiment, emphasizing the need for quality in the programs they chose to implement. Although I still have much to experience and learn as a high school senior, it was empowering to know that I could still provide personal insight and experiences from a youth perspective that helped move the dialogue along.

CSW 58: A lesson and an inspiration

As I leave NY back to college after an unbelievable week at CSW with the SustainUS delegation, I look at the UN humbled by everything it taught me during the week, but also excited about someday going back, and as a UN diplomat, making a significant impact in international development.

If I had to describe this week in a few words they would be learning and inspiration.

Through the different sessions, I was able to gain so many new perspectives on gender equality that I had not even considered before. Although I have always been passionate about development,  there were so many aspect of gender equality that I had never explored in detail before, such as the abuses of reproductive rights, or child marriage. Coming to the conference, I believed I knew most of the important issues around these topics, but as I got to talk to the speakers, and listen to their presentations, my perspective widened and I realized there were so many different challenges, and to such large extents that I had not even considered.

For instance, in a meeting about child marriage, the representative of Canada stated that only 1% of global development funding targets adolescent girls, and it was later mentioned “66% of girls in Bangladesh are married under 18.” This statistic remains stuck in my head, as the magnitude of this problem is something I had never been aware of. As I heard more about early and child marriage, I came to realize how much more I still had to learn, how many people these problems affect all around the world, and how this affects each individual involved and the people that surround them.  Through the different committees, I got to learn about experts in each field, about people who are passionate about these issues, who have done research, and who are making an impact in helping solve them. I came to understand that gender equality has so many different faces to it, that although a lot of progress has been it clearly is still a pressing problem in the international community, and that I still have so much more to learn.

Also, a unique part of this experience was getting to meet international diplomats in such a welcoming environment, getting to share our points of view and gain advice from them one-on-one. In the smaller committees, as well as after or before the bigger sessions, getting to speak to the diplomats, heads of delegations, and accomplished entrepreneurs in certain fields, enriched my experience in ways I couldn’t have imagined. One of the delegates that had a critical impact in my experience in CSW was the Head of the Argentine Mission to the UN. Every time she spoke at a session, gave a speech, or talked to me as I approached her, her motivation, passion and genuine belief in what she was doing filled every word she said, and every time I finished talking to her, I too was inspired and shared the belief that I could change the world. She was also the one who inspired me to give a speech at the ECOSOC Council, about the role of parliaments and other measures to improve gender equality. As I heard her speak, I realized this was an opportunity to speak in the council I had so many times simulated and researched in school, to get my voice be heard in front of diplomas I admired, and to share my point of view with people who might add it to their perspectives, and take action on them.

The first day when we had our delegation meeting, Emilie told us the importance of being there, and how SustainUS had brought us here because they believed we would benefit from interacting with other delegates; how anyone could watch the videos of the sessions online, but we were given the opportunity to actually have conversations and share ideas with these accomplished speakers. This is something that stuck with me throughout the week, and I think is something that drove me to approach speakers I was really interested after sessions, and ask them about their views on specific subjects, as well as sharing my solutions and thoughts on these gender issues. I couldn’t be more thankful for that advice, as by speaking to these diplomats and organizations leaders, I got to discuss different perspectives on such issues, and unique ways that each one had thought of to tackle them. For instance, the UK starting a STEM ambassador program and hosting different fun scientific activities to encourage girls to get involved in STEM, Peru creating an educational theme park to encourage staying in school, or the Haitian government using technology and the internet to empower women and reduce poverty and violence. Hearing about the speakers’ experiences and projects as they shared their passions and motivations with me was one of the most valuable aspects of the conference.

This week not only taught me so much about gender issues and inspired me to take action and do more, but I also got the opportunity to absorb the environment of the UN, an organization that I have simulated so many times in Model UN and looked up for so many years. On my first day at the UN, as I saw the diplomats interact with each other, passionately discuss their personal interests as well as their goals for the conference, and be genuinely eager to talk to everyone, the word that kept popping in my head was “celebration.” A celebration of cultures, of different points of view, a celebration of solutions, of the potential to improve the international community. And as they spoke excitedly about the coming days, a celebration of hope.