‘Inheriting a broken planet:’ The twenty-somethings headed for COP28
1st December 2023

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Dubai: Manal Nadeem still recalls the rolling coverage of Australia’s 2019 Black Summer bushfires that dominated headlines where she lives in the United Arab Emirates more than 10,000 km away.

More recently it was images of Canadian wildfires and the 2023 European summer heatwave that beamed across news bulletins in Sharjah, where the 22-year-old has lived her whole life.

COP28 youth delegates Kupakwashe Matangira, Mohammed Al Taher and Manal Nadeem.

Friends still talk about Australia and Canada’s fiery climate catastrophes. Less so, Pakistan’s 2022 floods, despite the disaster submerging a third of the country, displacing millions and killing more than 1700 people.

“I think, in this part of the world, whether that’s the UAE or Pakistan … sometimes we can be complicit in only reproducing narratives from the West,” said Nadeem, who is of Pakistani origin.

“We have a responsibility to take ownership of our own histories, to emphasise our agency and not just turn to certain countries to lead us in this conversation.”

That conversation is the global climate crisis, which is bringing more than 70,000 delegates, world leaders and lobby groups to Dubai this week for the COP28 UN climate summit, King Charles among them.

Canada is still feeling the effects of wildfires during its summer.Credit: AP

The two-week talks in the UAE fall at the end of what has been the Earth’s hottest year on record, and will mark the first global stock-take of commitments first made by nations under the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, while aiming for a cap of 1.5C.

Addressing world leaders at the conference on Friday, King Charles on Friday urged nations not to pass up an “unmissable opportunity” to change course.

“We are taking the natural world outside balanced norms and limits and into dangerous, uncharted territory,” he told the opening ceremony of the World Climate Action Summit at COP.

“We are carrying out a vast, frightening experiment of changing every ecological condition, all at once, at a pace that far outstrips Nature’s ability to cope…how dangerous are we actually prepared to make our world?”

While the futuristic petro-state is anxious to promote its credentials transitioning away from fossil fuels – oil exports account for less than 30 per cent of GDP – its hosting of the climate summit has attracted criticism. In particular, the appointment of the country’s state-owned oil company chief executive Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber as conference president has stoked fears industry will have an outsize role at the talks.

Nadeem is just one of 100 youth delegates chosen to represent developing nations and indigenous groups at the conference, where she hopes to give voice to some of the most vulnerable people as a representative of Pakistan.

The third-year university student gripes at critics of a major oil-producing nation hosting a climate summit, insisting “no country is exonerated of blame” when it comes to the climate emergency.

“For us to criticise a particular country for hosting COP is to then imply that there are certain countries that occupy a perfectly blemish-free position,” Nadeem said, adding that she saw value in oil having a seat at the table.

“If it’s just people getting together, and acting as sounding boards for each other, that’s not a climate negotiation. That’s an echo chamber.”

In the run-up to COP28 youth delegates gathered for their own Conference of Youth, or COY18, in Dubai on Sunday. More than 1000 young people gathered for the three-day conference which combined advocacy with policy development training led by Harvard and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to prepare young people to participate in the upcoming negotiations.

Australia does not have an official national youth delegate for COP28. However, more than 80 youth representatives will travel to Dubai, including nine backed by the federal government and the Australian Youth for International Climate Engagement.

“We have a responsibility to take ownership of our own histories… and not just turn to certain countries to lead us in this conversation.”

Among them is 22-year-old Kupakwashe Matangira from NSW’s Hunter Valley, who will advocate for countries like Australia to do more to financially assist countries feeling the worst impacts of climate change, particularly in the Pacific.

Matangira, who has worked with rural communities across NSW following fires, floods and drought, said young people needed to be taken seriously at COP28.

“I hate the thought of youth delegates being used as a tick box for saying ‘we have the youth voice’, I want youth opinions to be more than a token,” she said.

In Samoa, 27-year-old Nicollo Meono-Alaiasa counts his community as one of the most vulnerable, where many primary school-age students have experienced three or four cyclones before the age of 10.

The engineer, who is currently completing his PhD on renewable energy systems for small islands, said, if nothing else, COP28 needed to reach consensus on the long-awaited loss and damage fund – a financial scheme for wealthier nations to buttress developing countries against the impacts of climate change.

“Currently decisions are made for us, without us. We are calling for fair, equitable and effective solutions that can build resilience,” Meono-Alaiasa said.

Delegates representing global youth at the talks will be led by UAE minister Shamma Al Mazrui, who was this year appointed the UAE’s Youth Climate Champion. Mazrui, who became one of the world’s youngest ministers at 22 in 2016, has led young people in negotiation training and simulations for COP28.

She said her mission was to open the climate process for young people to represent the 4.3 billion people across the world below the age of 35, with a focus on equipping youth from the developing world with the skills to engage in negotiations.

“Small island developing states, least-developing countries and climate vulnerable communities are severely under-represented. Over 70 per cent of the organisations that come [to COP] are from the USA and Europe,” she said.

Mohamed Al Taher, a 23-year-old UAE youth delegate, said the consequences of decisions made at the conference would fall to younger generations, “which makes us a key stakeholder in the conversation”.

Among her peers, Nadeem said there was consensus that young people were “inheriting a broken planet,” but that many retained hope in the power of their collective voice.

“When you’re a young person there is a liberty to confront power structures. You’re not bound to the same courtesies that a policymaker is bound to … where they say everything and say nothing at the same time.”

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