Sierra Student Coalition, Summer 2009
College graduation is a tremendous transition. On the brink of this major change in my life, I began to reflect on an important part of my life — the youth climate movement. I haven't written much about or followed up with anything pertaining to COP15 Copenhagen, the climate negotiations that happened this past December.
After returning from the conference, I was physically and mentally exhausted for nearly four months. When I think of Copenhagen I think of everything we cannot do, and how we are incapable, and how a climate treaty seems impossible. The photos remind me of utter disappointment. In fact, just to write "Copenhagen" or "COP15" makes me feel a little unsettled, a little sick.
Copenhagen extinguished the fire
When we began putting together the Sierra Student Coalition
youth delegation it was like there was a fire inside of each of us. We saw an opportunity to shape a pivotal moment in history. We felt Copenhagen would mean something (this was before Obama announced a treaty would not be reached). We thought governments were finally going to recognize the terrible, unjust and unsustainable way we are treating our planet — how climate change disproportionally affects developing countries, indigenous people and, specifically, women.
At some point during the conference, I think my fire was extinguished. Most of the time I felt useless. I felt out of place among a majority government leaders (almost all men) in suits rushing between meetings. No matter where I was or what I was doing, it felt like I wasn’t where I needed to be. I constantly felt like I was missing something very important.
We didn't reach a treaty
. And many activists, environmentalists and hopefuls went home frustrated with the inaction of the United Nations and our government leaders.
I believe in people, not profits
We do not only measure progress in numbers, figures or signed documents. We have already accomplished so much. We are incredible. We are the 2,000 youth from around the world who fundraised their way to be at the conference. Not to mention the thousands of youth organizing, planning and engaging in actions in our communities to make change. We are the people who have stopped a majority of new coal power plants.
We went to Copenhagen because this is our future — the future of our grandchildren and of our planet. I fought to be there — often standing hours in the cold when they denied civil society admission.
I look back on the conference and realize why it is so hard for me to cope with the complete failure and helplessness I felt coming away from the conference. I saw Copenhagen as a way to influence the change-makers, instead of realizing that we are the change-makers.
Everything qualifies us for this task
I've begun to think of the youth climate movement not just as a means for getting what we want, but also as an end in itself. From the way we run our meetings by consensus decision-making, to developing community bike-share projects, to getting green funds on our campuses, to electing government officials who listen and act in the interest of the people. We are changing the way we live and the way the world runs.
All of this comes from a place of possibility. We are capable of kicking coal off our campuses. We are capable of developing green jobs that not only nourish the planet we live on but also the people who work those jobs. To quote Rainer Maria Rilke, “We are the transformers of the Earth, our entire existence, the flights and plunges of our love, everything qualifies us for this task.”
Fuel for the fire
How do we tackle the world's biggest problems and stay strong, inspired and positive? This is not about showing up at a rally and holding up a sign.
What if we could sustain that feeling after a really productive meeting — where everything that needed to happen happened, and everyone left with a feeling of accomplishment. Or produce over and over again the momentum after a really inspiring action — where even if the target wasn't moved, the people participated full-heartedly with conviction.
I want to remember the urgency, the fire within that drives us. The critical moment that causes us to act, the feeling or sense of being part of something much larger. How we can fuel the fire with the good, positive support — the same empowering, impassioned fuel that created the fires within us in the first place.
What we're doing is huge, it's exciting, and it's difficult. It cannot be accomplished from short bursts of excitement followed by long stretches of burnout. Disappointment is inevitable, but what's important is how we deal with that disappointment. How we support each other when our fires begin to diminish. How we nourish ourselves. Because once you feel the movement, the energy, and see what we can do together, there's no turning away. I'm here for the long haul. I hope you are, too.