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‘Male, stale and pale’: COP26 leaves young people out in the cold

World leaders have praised young people at COP26 while barring their access to talks and discussions.

In an address that opened the landmark COP26 conference last week, Boris Johnson reflected on the climate concerns of younger generations, pointing out that the average age of his audience that day was “over 60”.

Meanwhile, just metres from the room, young activists and delegates were forced to watch the speech via an online link after being denied in-person access.

The incident set the tone for the remainder of COP26, which has been marred by countless accusations of poor planning, exclusivity and greenwashing.

Disabled access has been lacking, representation of the global south has been limited, and for a conference so interested in discussing younger generations, actual young people have been markedly absent.

It’s an irony that hasn’t escaped Laura Young, a 25-year-old climate activist who travelled to COP26 as a delegate with charity Tearfund.

“What’s the point in just stating ‘everyone here is over 60’ or just acknowledging that everyone is male, pale and stale?” she asked. “The point is, what are you going to do about it?

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“You hear older people saying ‘it’ll affect my kids’ and you think, well you’re not your kids – why aren’t they given the chance to speak instead?”

Though she didn’t expect the official “blue zone” to be dominated by young people, Young says she was surprised by how few she’s seen during her time in the centre. 

“I think I just expected there to be more of the grassroots campaigners who are really doing the work.

“Obviously the conference is during school time, but there could have been a greater effort to include the voices of school kids too,” she says. 

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Numerous stories have emerged throughout COP26 about young people being excluded or removed from talks that concern futures well beyond the lifetime of many world leaders. 

In a particularly ironic example, President Obama addressed a speech to young people at an event on Tuesday where few under 30 were able to get tickets.

“His speech was largely addressing young people and about young people and there were hardly any young people in the room”, Young points out. 

The problem has been particularly acute for people of colour, says Scarlett Westbrook, a 17-year-old climate activist. She says that young people of colour have been both barred and removed from high-level discussions in the blue zone. 

She believes many leaders are simply paying lip service to young people, “thanking them for bringing climate change to their attention while throwing them out of rooms”. 

Most leaders can get away with it, she says, because “a lot of young people aren’t franchised, we can’t vote for who our leaders are and they know it”.

Perhaps even worse is the way in which leaders are “pushing responsibility” for tackling the climate crisis onto young people rather than taking action themselves, says Westbrook.

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She points to the image from Rome of world leaders throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain for luck ahead of COP26 as a perfect example.

“They threw coins into the Trevi Fountain like they were the main characters in The Lizzie McGuire Movie when they all have the power to actually decarbonise.

“These leaders aren’t teenagers in a movie, they’re the villains”.

Young echoes Westbrook’s concerns, saying there’s been a degree of tokenism at COP26 where young people have been invited to perform speeches yet have been barred from official discussions.

“Sometimes we don’t want a speech, we just want a seat at the table. 

“Young people need to be present – there’s no point in talking about an issue without the people who are actually impacted by that issue in the room,” she says. 

In the absence of access to the blue zone, young people have made their voices heard elsewhere, with last week’s Fridays for Future demo attracting thousands of people – including schoolchildren – for a march through Glasgow City Centre. 

The march was uplifting, says Young, but she felt disappointed to see so few delegates from the blue zone in attendance. 

“When I went back [to the blue zone] I looked at people and just thought – have you left? Have you gone to see these young people or are you just staying in your bubble?”

Though Westbrook takes comfort in the energy of fellow young activists, she says that they’re “only acting because nobody else will…we shouldn’t really have to worry about the climate on top of normal teenage stuff”.

“If COPs were an effective way of making decisions, there wouldn’t have been 26 of them”, she adds.

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