Decision Makers and Activists at Climate Summit Perceive ‘Urgent’ Differently

At the Glasgow climate talks, the world leaders are mostly men over 60. The protesters outside were led by mostly young women.,

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GLASGOW — The week began with more than 130 presidents and prime ministers posing for a group photo in a century-old Baroque museum crafted from red sandstone. Fewer than 10 were women. Their median age, as their host at the climate summit, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, reminded them, was over 60.

The week ended with a boisterous protest of thousands on the streets of Glasgow. It was led by young climate activists, some barely old enough to vote in their countries. They accused the world leaders of wasting what little time remains to safeguard their future.

These bookends to the first week of this watershed international climate summit in Scotland reveal a widening divide that threatens to grow larger in the weeks and months ahead.

Those with the power to make decisions about how much the world warms in the coming decades are mostly old and male. Those who are angriest about the pace of climate action are mostly young and female.

The two sides have vastly divergent views of what the summit should achieve. Indeed, they seem to have different notions of time.

At the summit, leaders are setting goals for 2030 at the earliest. In some cases, they’re setting targets for 2060 and 2070, when many of today’s activists will be hitting retirement age. The activists say change must come immediately. They want countries to abruptly stop using fossil fuels and to repair the climate damage that is now being felt in all corners of the globe but is especially punishing the most vulnerable people in the Global South. For them, mid-century is an eternity.

“Now is the time. Yesterday was the time,” is how Dominique Palmer, 22, an activist with Fridays for Future International, put it during a panel discussion at The New York Times Climate Hub on Thursday. “We need action right now.”

Social movements have almost always been led by young people. But what makes the climate movement’s generational divide so pointed — and the fury of the young so potent — is that world leaders have been meeting and talking about the need to address climate change since before most of the protesters were born, with few results.

In fact, emissions of planet-warming gases have risen sharply since the first international climate summit 27 years ago. Now scientists say the world has less than a decade to sharply cut emissions to avert the worst climate consequences. That urgency drives the protesters.

Or as one banner at Friday’s demonstration articulated, “Don’t Mess With My Future.”

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Dominique Palmer, center, an activist with Fridays for Future International, during a panel discussion Thursday with the Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, left, and Mya-Rose Craig, a British-Bangladeshi ornithologist.Credit…Craig Gibson For The New York Times
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Boris Johnson, the prime minister of Britain, said that future generations “will judge us with bitterness and with a resentment that eclipses any of the climate activists of today.”Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

World leaders are showing a sensitivity to that criticism. Their public and private remarks in Glasgow have been laced with both paeans to the passion of the young as well as a hint of anxiety. They’ll have to face young voters back home; many of these leaders have done so already, with climate action emerging as an important election issue, at least in some countries, including in the United States. In Germany, voters elected their youngest Parliament, with the Green Party recording its best result ever and launching climate change to the top of its agenda.

Mr. Johnson, for his part, warned his peers about their legacy. Future generations, he said in his opening remarks, “will judge us with bitterness and with a resentment that eclipses any of the climate activists of today.”

The organizers of the conference took pains to include youth speakers in the official program. One after another, heads of state and government rose to the podium this week and assured attendees that they had heard the demands of the young.

This did not impress Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a 24-year-old climate activist who had come to Glasgow from the Philippines. “When I hear leaders say they want to listen to our generation I think they’re lying to themselves,” Ms. Tan said in an interview on the eve of the Friday protests.

If they are really listening, she went on, “they would be prioritizing people over profit.”

“Cognitive dissonance,” was the verdict of Eric Njuguna, 19, who had come from Kenya. “We were expecting serious commitments at COP26 on climate finance and climate mitigation. The commitments aren’t strong enough.”

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Fridays for Future strikers at George Square in Glasgow on Friday.Credit…Kieran Dodds for The New York Times
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John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, said he was impressed at the progress made at the summit.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

There is a huge gap between how the leaders and the young activists view the summit.

John Kerry, the 77-year-old U.S. climate envoy, marveled on Friday at the progress made at this summit.

“I’ve been to a great many COPs and I will tell you there is a greater sense of urgency at this COP,” Mr. Kerry told reporters.

He acknowledged the complexity of global negotiations. Diplomats are still hammering out the rules of global carbon trading and discussing how to address demands for reparations from countries that have played no role in creating the climate problem but that have suffered its most acute effects.

Still, Mr. Kerry said, “I have never in the first few days counted as many initiatives and as much real money, real money put on the table, even if there are some question marks.”

Jochen Flasbarth, the German energy minister, cited three areas of progress: a global agreement on reversing deforestation by 2030; a commitment to reduce methane emissions, also by 2030; and a coal exit plan endorsed by three dozen countries, though not its biggest users.

“I understand young people are trying to push very hard to see concrete implementation and not abstract goals,” Mr. Flasbarth, 59, said Friday. “However we need these goals.”

But it was when leaders spoke to each other away from the cameras, that it was clear that the anger from the youth was getting under their skin.

At one closed-door meeting with his fellow ministers, Mr. Flasbarth was heard expressing concern that the activists were painting all the world leaders with the same broad brush, portraying them as protectors of the fossil fuel industry.

“Let’s tell young people there are differences, not all the politicians, all the countries are on the same side,” he said. “Progress is possible, and this is the group of progress.”

At the same meeting, which was attended by a bloc of countries called the High Ambition Coalition, the French minister for ecological transition, Barbara Pompili, said she recognized herself in the young people. She too was once an activist, she told her fellow ministers.

But then, she went on, she chose a different route. She chose to work inside the system. “I chose to be a politician,” she said. “I chose to try to act.”

The differences between the decision makers inside the summit, and the protesters outside the barricades extend beyond age to gender. While the world leaders and heads of state are mostly male, the streets of Glasgow have been filled with young women.

Girls and young women around the world have emerged as some of the most passionate climate activists, arguing that many of those most vulnerable to drought, water scarcity and other climate disasters are low-income women with children to feed. As a result, the climate movement has a shared mission with efforts to educate girls in developing nations.

The young women activists have found a sisterhood and a sense of empowerment in the climate protests, marches and campaigns. The inspiration for many of these young women is the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, whose school strikes for climate that began as a solo effort in 2018 have blossomed into a worldwide movement.

Ms. Thunberg, 18, has become so influential that on Wednesday when she criticized carbon offsets — making up for carbon emissions in one area by paying for the reduction of emissions somewhere else — a company that verifies carbon offsets felt compelled to defend the practice.

On Friday, Ms. Thunberg appeared before a cheering throng of thousands in Glasgow to pronounce the summit a failure.

“The COP has turned into a P.R. event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action,” she said.

That prompted Michael Mann, the 55-year-old climate scientist, to caution that negotiations among hundreds of countries are complex, and that the politics around climate policy are not as simple as they might seem. “Activists declaring it dead on arrival makes fossil fuel executives jump for joy,” he tweeted, referring to the summit. “They want to undermine and discredit the very notion of multilateral climate action.”

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Climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the crowd gathered at George Square in Glasgow on Friday.Credit…Hannah Mckay/Reuters
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Mitzi Jonelle Tan, center right, speaking outside of the COP26 summit on Tuesday.Credit…Duncan Mcglynn/Associated Press

On Saturday, the young protesters intended to return to the streets, joining with a coalition of other groups in a worldwide day of climate action.

Vanessa Nakate, a 24-year-old activist from Uganda, said the protesters were committed to keep up the pressure, “to continue holding leaders accountable for their actions.”

Daphne Frias, a 23-year-old climate activist from New York City, gave a nod to the inevitable: generational change is coming.

“We always say our leaders have failed us,” she said. “We are the new leaders. We are the ones who are going to make the decisions going forward.”

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