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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Gen Z is Demanding to be Heard at COP27, But Are We Listening?

Gen Z activists are taking center stage at COP27 in Egypt, and they don't want to hear about net zero or carbon credits: They're demanding action.

A group of Gen Z attendees gather at one of the many sessions last week during COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt

Young activists are making their voices heard at COP27 — calling for accountability as the clock ticks down to 2030 with the world off track to reach conservation and emission reduction goals. Elevating Youth Voices – a panel hosted by the National Geographic Society and the Nature Conservancy – featured two young activists who highlighted the need for a global loss and damage fund in addition to adequate funding for conservation and sustainability initiatives. Notably, neither of the panelists mentioned carbon markets or net zero ledgers as necessary for salvaging the planet. Likewise, if world leaders want to effectively limit climate change, they would be wise to listen to these voices, including those from Gen Z, over those who see the crisis as yet another market opportunity to gamble on.

“We know that young people hold this key to a sustainable future for a thriving planet,” Ian Miller, the Chief Science and Innovation Officer at National Geographic told audience members. Together with the Nature Conservancy, National Geographic supports young activists through their externship program which provides “Explorers” aged 18 to 25 with career development, marketing and media training, conservation skills and getting their voices heard.

According to Jennifer Morris, CEO of the Nature Conservancy, the program currently serves 400 young people in 90 countries, with 20 youth-led projects sprinkled around the globe. The NGO’s goal is to expand to 5000 youth and 500 youth-led projects.

“Looking at it through my perspective as an Iranian American, this is a particularly significant COP because we are in the Middle East right now where temperatures are rising more than twice the global average. And Iran, where my family is from, is among the most climate-vulnerable nations in the entire world,” Sophia Kianni, a National Geographic Explorer who is studying climate change at Stanford University, said in regard to her impressions about the COP27 climate summit as a young activist. “Iran is responsible for just over one percent of global emissions while the United States, where I’m living, is responsible for 25 percent and yet we are not experiencing the same impacts.”

Indeed, the climate crisis is not affecting everyone equally — with the worst offenders facing the fewest consequences so far. According to reporting from the U.N., youth activists flooded COP27 on Thursday. Armed with signs and megaphones they cited facts and made their demands for damage and loss funds clear. Their point, as spoken by an unidentified African activist, couldn’t be any more profound: “Our futures are being stolen from us! This is an injustice!”

Kianni also advocated for the creation of a loss and damage fund, saying that countries like the United States have a responsibility to cover the costs of mitigation and adaptation in the developing world. She cited another activist’s call to action as getting to the heart of the matter: “If you break it, you have to pay for it.”

Likewise, Explorer and panelist Eyal Weintraub, who is studying international relations, called out the lack of effective action by world leaders during and before COP27. “In order to enact change speeches and words are very fine and necessary, but at the end of the day we need you to show us the money.”

He went on to say that loss and damages are basically historical reparations. “It’s recognizing that the development of industrialized countries and the higher quality of life in the Global North was paid for with the resources and blood, sweat and tears of the Global South. And that the same way that the Global South has a financial debt with the Global North, the Global North has an environmental debt with the Global South and we need to start recognizing that and paying up.”

While corporate leaders and their talking heads tout carbon trading and finance as their primary solution to the climate crisis, the youth at COP27 have been clear that they expect real action in the form of mitigation and climate justice. Weintraub pointed to initiatives and movements all over Latin America that are ready and willing to take climate action but lack the funds to do so. Speaking of loss and damage as well as adequate funding for community-based conservation initiatives, he asked world leaders to step up, saying — “We need to have people to champion us and introduce us to those people who can help finance our initiatives, who can open doors so we can really scale up and accelerate the rate of change because we don’t have time to do anything else.”

Truly, the planet does not have time to continue business as usual while gambling on carbon markets. But there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, as Kianni pointed out — people are beginning to have a better understanding of the intersectionality of the issue. She noted that the climate crisis is also a human rights crisis and a human health crisis, with marginalized communities suffering the most and the vast majority of climate refugees being female.

“We often hear the term ‘the youth are our future,’ but we know the youth are our now,” Morris said, bringing home the point that elevating voices like Kianni and Weintraub is imperative to solving the climate crisis. “Nine out of 10 Gen Zers are actually making an effort to correct the environment,” she said. “I can tell you that was not true in my generation. So, the fact that we have this upswelling of effort by Gen Z is absolutely incredible.” But the question remains — will we hear them in time to change?

Image credit: UNFCCC via Flickr

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

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