Climate Change Negotiations Exclude the Most Impacted: the Young and the Poor

November 23, 2015

Next week, global leaders in industry, government, and finance will descend on Paris for the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). With a significant focus on private sector innovation, more than 25,000 delegates will aim to produce the first legally binding agreement on industrial greenhouse gas emissions, as well as financial incentives for more efficient models of sustainable growth. While it remains to be seen whether international leaders can achieve the lofty goal of legally binding yet ecologically sound carbon emission standards, what is clear is that UNFCCC forgot to invite an entire generation to this discussion table.

In response to growing pressure from the younger generations to make significant, inclusive, and environmentally necessary decisions, COP21 will be hosting an open forum for the general public to participate in climate discussions, education workshops, and exhibition shows. Providing an external platform for millennial voices, however, does not erase the severity of excluding millennials from the negotiation table. While expertise is necessary, millennials, their values, and their innovative ideas would give the negotiations a desperately needed sense of urgency.

Including millennials in key discussions and negotiations would allow negotiators to leverage their values and strengths to resolve an economic, ecological, financial, and political situation too often viewed as unsolvable. A recent Pew Center report found that American millennials are more upbeat about their economic futures, more likely to be ethnically diverse, and more likely to be tolerant and open-minded to new ideas, peoples, cultures, and concepts. As the impacts of climate change entangle themselves in all aspects of our lives, it is important to bring the most invested, most innovative, most motivated, and most optimistic thinkers to the stage.

Millennials aren’t the only ones excluded from negotiations. Despite the fact that climate change disproportionally impacts lower socioeconomic classes in both financial stability and political agency, the social injustice of climate change is silently dismissed at industry-influenced COP conferences. People capable of using wealth as a cushion do not fall prey to fluctuating crop prices or suffer from undue communal risk during storms. Drought and other climate change-driven calamities directly affect the financial and political stability of countries globally. As global climate change fans the flames of already tenuous situations—as we’ve seen in Syria—the already vulnerable working classes are increasingly at risk. Poverty, refugee crises, and security conflicts will continue to persist with or without global climate change, but it cannot be denied that the unpredictable nature of global climate change destabilizes food, economic, and political systems.

The uncomfortable truth is that the victims of global climate change will be disproportionally poor, socioeconomically vulnerable communities, often ethnic or class minorities within their countries. Vulnerabilities may stem from socioeconomic class, age, education status, or legal and immigration status. Another uncomfortable truth is that climate change negotiations, policies, and implementation are largely constructed by the wealthy and privileged. Wealth allows the privileged to move to neighborhoods outside of flood ranges or pay high insurance fees; wealth blinds the privileged to the impact of the destabilized market prices of staple crops, which can affect how and whether less fortunate families eat. Wealth in the U.S. has blinded many of our policy writers and decision makers to the harsh realities of the ecological, economic, and security effects already burdening many of our developing neighbors to the south.

The exclusion of vulnerable communities and millennials—two groups with significant overlap—is not only reflective of the industrial and financial bias of COP21 but also threatens to undermine the successful implementation of any COP21 agreements. How can oligarchical committees expect buy-in without the inclusion and reflection of working class and millennial concerns, values, and priorities? The Paris leadership delegation and UNFCCC should actively make COP21 more class- and generation-inclusive. We must engage the generations and communities most at risk from climate change impacts in order to build a comprehensive, realistic, and values-driven climate agreement.

Hannah Locke is a teacher and resident of Houston and an alumna of the Roosevelt network.