Youth and the Duality of the United Nations

Students are blogging about topics that interest them for Applications in Climate and Society, a core spring class.

Noel Coenraad, C+S ’19

What do you get when you mix ambition, young people and multilateralism? You get the United Nations (UN) Youth Economic and Social (ECOSOC) Forum, a melting pot of ideas, good intentions and at times poor execution. I had the opportunity to attend this year’s forum in April and got to understand the role of young people when it comes to political discourse and climate action.

Noël Coenraad in the Trusteeship Council during the Climate Action closing ceremony

Youth climate advocates are taking over news headlines and demanding action from decision makers. However, they have yet to get policymakers to meaningfully address climate change. That made this year’s Youth ECOSOC Forum perfectly timed since it focused on reviewing Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13, which deals with climate action. I felt that the conditions were perfect for raising my concerns about international climate inaction and for developing solutions with my fellow youth leaders. My intuition was half right as the UN indulged the former but ignored the latter.   

The forum took place over two weekdays in early April, but I spent the weekend preparing with the organization I would be representing, the UN Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY). I wanted to know why the youth movement lacked political traction and what UN officials would suggest young people do to get more traction. Hence, the following question was at the forefront of my mind: How do we create political legitimacy and maintain the momentum of the collective action undertaken by young people and turn them into policy and laws? However, MGCY suggested that if I really wanted to contribute to the discourse, I should end my statement with my recommendations. The most practical and concise ideas that came to mind where practicing collective accountability (for example, naming and shaming polluters) and encouraging young people to vote.  

Armed with my statement, I entered the forum ready for an opportune moment to bring it up in what was pitched as interactive sessions. After the first morning, it became clear to me that the UN has a different definition of interactive; most of the discussion were scripted, which made the dialogues feel more like lectures ranging from member states sharing experiences with youth-lead positions to advocating for more meaningful climate action. Thankfully, the breakout sessions gave participants the floor, immediately allowing for more in-depth discussions on subjects like overcoming lack of political will and championing climate activists. Moderators and UN officials responded to these discussions by suggesting young people should be “co-creators of climate action.”

I found the duality in the term “co-creators” dubious because it recognizes that youth should be involved in the finding a solution for climate change, but also takes some accountability away from the current generation and places it on the next generation to develop solutions. For example, when a youth delegate asked which mechanisms were in place to ensure countries followed through on their promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the response was “that no is better placed to hold [nations] accountable than young people.” On the one hand, this was very inspiring and gave youth concerns legitimacy. On the other hand, the panelists never identified what they were going to do or how young people could hold their nations accountable.

I was puzzled by why the UN would bother organizing this event if they were not going to develop policy together with youth. I came to realize that I had misinterpreted the intention of the forum; it intended to galvanize future leaders to take action, and to show young people how to voice their opinions effectively; not to develop groundbreaking legislation. The UN was showing us how to sit at the grown-ups table, but not offering us a seat just yet.

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