Young activists bemoan climate inaction, demand more say

Youth climate activists Vanessa Nakate and Greta Thunberg chastized global leaders Tuesday for failing to meet funding pledges to help poor nations adapt to a warming Earth and for delivering too much "blah blah blah” as climate change wreaks havoc around the world.

They even cast doubt on the intentions behind a youth climate gathering where they were speaking in Milan.

Four hundred climate activists from 180 countries were invited to Italy’s financial capital for a three-day Youth4Climate summit that will send its recommendations to a major United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, that begins on Oct. 31. But participants are demanding more accountability from leaders and a bigger official role for young people.

"They invite cherry-picked young people to pretend they are listening to us,” Thunberg said. "But they are not. They are clearly not listening to us. Just look at the numbers. Emissions are still rising. The science doesn’t lie."

"Leaders like to say, ‘We can do it.’ They obviously don’t mean it. But we do," the Swedish activist said.

Nakate, a 24-year-old activist from Uganda, said pledges of 100 billion euros ($117 billion) a year to help countries particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change have not materialized, even as wildfires in California and Greece and floods in Germany and Belgium show that "loss and damage is now possible everywhere."

"In fact, funds were promised by 2020, and we are still waiting,” she said. "No more empty conferences. It’s time to show us the money. It’s time, it’s time, it’s time."

Nakate dramatically underlined how climate change is affecting Africa, "which is ironic given that Africa is the lowest emitter of CO2 emissions of any continent except Antarctica."

Just last week, she said she saw police taking away a body that had been washed away by violent storms in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, while others searched for more victims. Her mother told her that one man dragged off by the water had been trying to protect the goods he was selling.

Nakate collapsed in tears after her emotional speech, getting comfort from Thunberg, who followed her to the podium, which was too tall for her small stature.

Thunberg, who coalesced the global protest movement Fridays for Future, said it wasn’t too late to reverse climate trends. But she has clearly heard enough from leaders, whom she said have been talking for 30 years while half of all carbon emissions have occurred since 1990, one-third since 2005.

"This is all we hear from our so-called leaders: words. Words that sound great but so far have led to no action. Our hopes and dreams drown in their empty words and promises. Of course we need constructive dialogue, but they have now had 30 years of blah, blah blah. And where has this led us?" she said.

Saoi O’Connor, an Irish activist in the Fridays for Future movement, said the youth meeting in Milan was orchestrated by governments who chose the participants and drafted the document that the delegates will "edit.” As a result, she said, the closing document will not represent "what the strikers want."

"They have people in the rooms who are watching what we say. The topics we have been split into have been decided for us,” she said.

The three-day Youth4Climate Summit will be followed by a two-day pre-COP meeting before Glasgow aimed at finding common ground on sticking points among countries, which range from the world’s big carbon emitters to developing nations that are lagging both economically and technologically.

Hopes for a successful Glasgow summit have been boosted by announcements from the world’s two biggest economies and largest carbon polluters. Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country will no longer fund coal-fired plants abroad while U.S. President Joe Biden announced a plan to double financial aid for green growth to poorer nations.

In addition, Turkey has said it would adhere to the Paris protocols and South Africa announced more ambitious emissions targets.

"These are good steps,” said Italy’s minister for ecological transition, Roberto Cingolani, who is hosting the Milan meetings. "They mean that they are moving in the right direction. … I never expect quantum jumps in this gigantic operation on a world level. But the indicators are all good."

Cingolani said he agreed with the criticism that many promises had been broken, including for financing climate change adaptions, but that he also saw a convergence in the sense of urgency. "It’s true, we have to work harder," he said.

He also clarified a previous reference he made to "radical chic" activists, saying he was not referring to climate protesters but to those who will not make sacrifices to have renewable energy facilities in their neighborhoods.

The youth delegates were trying to maintain realistic expectations for the meeting.

"What we can do is hope for the best,” said 16-year-old Zainab Waheed of Pakistan, who is campaigning to include climate in the national school curriculum. "But looking at the past, and relying on the science of deduction, and learning from history, we have seen even ministers from COP26 countries not keep their promises."

Rose Kobusinge, a 27-year-old Ugandan with a master’s degree in environmental change and management from the University of Oxford, said the Glasgow meeting needs to come up with concrete action if fighting climate change is to maintain any credibility. She also thinks the youth delegates should be invited as participants — not just to send a message.

"Let it not stop from negotiations in Glasgow. If it stops, then I guess COP won’t be necessary anymore because what is it? Just coming and discussing and go back to your countries?" she said.