By Erica Nickels
Since I arrived home in December, people have been asking me about my experience as a Canadian Youth Delegate to COP16, the sixteenth round of climate change negotiations at the United Nations. The conversation usually starts off with them asking, “did you have fun in Mexico?” After all, they reason, I had just spent two weeks in Cancun, the land of white sand beaches, exclusive resorts and all-night dance parties. How could I not have had fun? The first couple of times this happened, I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Did I have fun in Mexico…did I meet a lot of interesting people? Definitely. Did I learn more in two weeks than I ever thought was humanly possible? Without a doubt. Was I glad that I went? Absolutely. But did I have fun in Mexico? No, not really.
Participating in COP16 – the lead up, the conference and the aftermath – has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life. Before the conference, I struggled as part of project that, like the youth environmental movement itself, is vastly underfunded and overcommited. During the conference, I witnessed the colossal slowness of the bureaucratic megatron that is the United Nations. I sat through self-congratulatory speeches and formulaic pleasantries and painfully technical debates on punctuation, and got up close and personal with Canada’s diplomatic evasive maneuvers. I spoke with country representatives who could only afford to send 2 negotiators to a conference where 15 negotiating tracks occur simultaneously, and developing countries are behind before they’ve even started. As the conference drew to a close, I felt the like the real reason we had all come together had somehow been lost, and that for another year, hundreds of thousands of people would continue to lose their lives and livelihoods to climate change, while we threw up our hands and said, “oh well, better luck next year”.
Over the past month, I have struggled to find a way to adequately explain my experience at the United Nations that is simultaneously honest and hopeful. Because, even in my darkest, most difficult of moments, I never lost hope, not entirely. I have to believe that we can, that we will do better – it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. But I’m also a great believer in following my passions, and I have recently realized that I am not, in fact, passionate about the United Nations. There is still important work to be done at the U.N. climate change negotiations, and young people have an important role to play in that process; However, the single most important thing we can do as young Canadians is to work to shift the ideological, economic, and political landscape here in Canada. Until Canadians recognize the moral imperative to take action on global warming, realize that climate change adaptation and mitigation present unparalleled opportunities for domestic economic growth, and make climate change a central election issue, we can sign as many international treaties as we want, but our politicians will never champion legislation that seriously addresses climate change.
So where do we go from here? There are tonnes of organizations here in Canada that are doing excellent education and advocacy work when it comes to public outreach, issues-based campaigns and green jobs, but there’s one thing in particular that we can do that would drastically transform Canadian policies: vote! We know that if more youth showed up at the polls, our country would look a whole lot different than it does right now. In fact only 37% of youth voted in our last election, compared to 68% of Canadians over the age of 65. Imagine what we could accomplish if we got more youth to show up the next time around! Rumours are flying that we could have an election as soon as this spring; we have the opportunity to make climate change an election issue, and to encourage more young people to exercise their civic right and responsibility to vote.
There are a thousand ways that we can take action on climate change – I for one am going to be heading to the polls, and bringing everyone I know with me.