Making youth heard

Guest post by Angel Hsu, Yale University

In April, chinadialogue reported on the failed attempt of the Chinese and US youth delegations to Copenhagen to release a joint declaration.

But dissillusioned youth from China and the United States decided not to let this be the last the world heard (or didn’t) of them. They decided that – if they expected their respective governments to cooperate on climate change – dialogue first needed to happen among themselves.

One idea to spring from the ashes of Copenhagen was an undergraduate conference that would bring together students from China and the United States, not only to learn about the complicated issues of climate change and sustainable development but to begin to understand why their two countries took such opposing and, at times, controversial positions in the talks.  

Jiakun Zhao, a third year student at Washington University(Wash U) in St Louis who is originally from China, and a few other students formed the Washington University Students for International Collaboration on the Environment (WUSICE) group. They then selected 11 students from Fudan University in Shanghai and 11 undergraduates from Wash U through a competitive application process and hosted a five-day conference in early November to discuss climate change and sustainability from the perspective of the world’s top two greenhouse-gas emitters.  

Guest lecturers gave a series of talks on subjects from the science behind global warming to specific clean-energy technologies to address its impacts.  The students also assumed the roles of negotiators from the US and China, in some cases stepping into the other country’s shoes, to debate the key issues that deadlocked the two countries last year, including mitigation actions and commitments, financial support for developing-country adaptation and mitigation measures, and the controversial measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of Chinese emissions.  Their charge?  To find common ground on these hot-button issues to draft a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that Zhao plans to present at the UN climate summit in Cancun.

“We challenged the 22 delegates with a task that most countries could not complete, to come up with innovative solutions to climate-change issues while staying true to their country’s stance,” said Jeremy Pivor, a sophomore and one of the conference organisers.

The task proved to be more challenging than most of the conference delegates had originally envisioned.  Finding a balance between domestic priorities – which included an emphasis on economic development for both countries – and commonalities on issues that inherently divide the two countries in the real-world talks was easier said than done.

Chang Liu, a junior at Fudan University studying chemistry and economics, said: “Sometimes it’s hard to decide, especially on the issue of environment, whether you should be a politician standing for the benefit of your own country or an environmentalist contributing to the common good of the world. That balance isn’t easy to strike.”

The students also discovered many areas of common ground, however.  Michael Craig, a graduating senior who studies ecology at Wash U, said that the mock negotiation revealed that “Despite any rifts and differences between our nations, [we] ultimately have very similar concerns and goals.”

In the end, after a half-day’s deliberation, concluding around midnight, the student-delegates came up with a five-page MOU that reaches beyond current positions in some respects and reveals persistent challenges in others.  For example, in debating whether the two countries could make deeper climate mitigation commitments, the current lack of domestic climate legislation in the United States caused the students to wonder how much further US action could stretch.

“There was almost nothing the United States could offer to encourage my country [China] to accept any long-term emissions target.  Likewise, the US team stubbornly refused to act without any Chinese participation. Yet, by examining the climate change challenge from a global perspective, we were able to agree to actions that would prevent catastrophic climate change,” said Adam Hasz, a junior majoring in ecology and urban studies at Wash U and the vicepresident of the Missouri Student Environmental Coalition.

Other issues, such as MRV, were more difficult to see eye-to-eye on. The students assigned to deliberate this issue found it impossible at times to move past fundamental disagreements, particularly on questions of whose actions would be subject to international scrutiny, what mechanism would oversee verification, what types of information should be included and who would fund such endeavors for cash-strapped developing nations.  Sound eerily familiar?

Despite these challenges, the resulting document represents a novel, collaborative effort that aspires to demonstrate points of common ground between China and the US that negotiations have thus far failed to achieve.  Zhao will officially reveal the MOU in Cancun during the launch of a more long-term, youth-led cooperative effort called the US-China Youth Climate Exchange.  Through this initiative, young people who attended the climate talks in Copenhagen last year are intent on keeping the conversation going and planning to broaden the scope to other major developing countries like India.  

They hope that their persistent presence at these big international meetings will signal to governments that young people – who will be most affected by the impacts of climate change in the future – care about the issues and mean to stay engaged in the process.