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Young people take charge of climate crisis talks with Mock COP26

The virtual conference will give young people from around the world a chance to turn their climate solutions into a legal treaty

The UN’s climate change conference, COP26, should have concluded in Glasgow this week. But, as with so many events in 2020, Covid-19 had other plans. World leaders postponed the event by a year, sparking concern among young people that pushing any decisive action on environmental issues back by another year means another 12 months lost. After all, it is the young whose lives stand to be most affected by any decisions made when the world’s politicians convene.

So they decided to do it themselves.

“There are people dying, there are people losing their livelihoods, and they are not being heard,” said 19-year-old Phoebe Hanson, a politics student and event co-ordinator for Mock COP26, an alternative event organised online by campaign groups and young activists. “If there’s even a chance that Mock COP26 will change that, it’s worth doing. And it will demonstrate that we, as young people, know and care enough to be included meaningfully.”

Highlighting the human effect of global warming is key to make change happen with urgency, Hanson said. The bushfires that devastated parts of Australia at the beginning of the year made the climate crisis a major talking point, but when Covid-19 began to spread, it was largely dropped. The Mock COP26 organisers are trying to reignite that conversation.

More than 200 staff and volunteers from 52 countries, all aged under 30, have come together to make MockCOP26 a reality. Bringing together around 350 youth delegates from around the globe, the ten-day event is set to showcase what can be achieved when climate talks are brought out into the open – and switched-on young people get to lead the conversation. 

“We want to be taken seriously,” Hanson said. “We want our decision makers to not just include us as photo opportunities without listening to what we say. 

“If you won’t include us in the conversation properly, we’ll start the conversation ourselves.”

The conference is loosely focused on the Global South and has an extensive programme of keynotes, panels and workshops led by young activists and well-known climate experts. Built around issues of climate justice, education, health, green jobs and carbon reduction targets, the conference will culminate in delegates collaborating on a final statement to be made to world leaders.

Environmental law group ClientEarth will help draft the statement into a legal treaty which could be adopted by governments around the world. 

It’s bold action from bold young people who want to be clear: they are interested in real policy change, not being included in talks as a box-ticking exercise.

It’s undeniable that the climate crisis is a human rights issue

“Somebody said, ‘why don’t we hold our own?’ as a joke, but it stuck in our heads,” Hanson, a first year politics student at Lancaster University, said. The idea grew out came from a group of young people involved in the Teach the Future campaign, which aims to refocus the UK’s education system on the climate crisis.

“We thought: we could actually do this. It grew from that idea to something that employs 18 student staff members and has [delegates] from 150 different countries.”

It took a couple of weeks of “very late nights spent sending DMs” to climate contacts around the world for the event to start coming together, she added. Hanson, who started organising climate campaigns in Birmingham and Staffordshire just a year and a half ago, said the response was “incredible”.

“When we were organising, it became clear so many people wanted to play a part in making change but they didn’t have a way in to do that. They had the skills and the knowledge, but they didn’t have the ‘how’. That’s a massive part of Mock COP26, it’s giving people a way to have their voices heard.”

What was pleasantly surprising, she added, was the response from world leaders themselves. COP26 president and UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma was scheduled to speak at the opening of the youth conference, while others in positions of power have offered their time and expertise behind the scenes.

“We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t had support volunteered from so many people who just care about giving young people a voice,” Hanson said. “It makes you really hopeful for the future. We’re not just being written off as idealistic young people.”

Mock COP26 will direct attention to the countries most at risk from the climate crisis. That includes a talk from 22-year-old Mitzi Jonelle Tan, an activist based in the Philippines where a new anti-terrorism law described as “dangerous” by human rights campaigners puts climate activists at risk. 

“She could be arrested for what she’s doing. It really shows the urgency of the issue,” Hanson said. “People hear we’ve declared a climate emergency and take it at face value – it’s abstract, it doesn’t mean much. But when you hear someone like Mitzi speak, it’s undeniable that the climate crisis is a human rights issue.

“When we say the climate crisis encapsulates human rights, it covers so much – feminism, race issues, class issues in particular here in the UK. We know people from low income backgrounds are more likely to suffer health effects because of the climate.

“It becomes quite overwhelming at times. But we’ve got to look to the people at the heart of these issues, and that drives us forward.”

Mock COP26 will run until December 1. You can view the conference programme here.