Youthful zeal fires up drive for action as UN meets

World leaders under pressure to address perils facing the planet

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg takes part in the Youth Climate Summit at United Nations HQ in New York on September 21, 2019. Reuters
Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg takes part in the Youth Climate Summit at United Nations HQ in New York on September 21, 2019. Reuters

On the north lawn of the UN complex in Manhattan sits a see-through set of cuboid tents linked by tunnels.

To illustrate the effect of urban pollution, activists will fill the plastic space with choking, lead-filled smog this week.

The project gets under way as delegates from around the world gather for a climate action summit called by Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general.

The summit has garnered worldwide attention for the presence of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who will give a keynote address.

Ms Thunberg is a rock star in the year-long climate-strike protest movement that is demanding a move away from the carbon economy. She argues that politicians are not serious in tackling a crisis that will be irreversible in just a few years.

At events late last week, the air in New York was thick with youthful voices chanting "Greta" over and over.

The UN held a climate event for youth from around the world on Saturday. There was a sense of euphoria among many of the young attendees, mixed with zealous certainty in their cause. "Why are we studying for a future we won't have," said one attendee.

This is a very precious movement. Jayathma Wickramanayake, the Sri Lankan politician appointed as Mr Guterres' youth envoy, described on Sunday the generational shift that was manifest at UN headquarters.

“Yesterday was an incredible moment of solidarity,” she said. “This is a generation that is conveying their choices. They are changing their lives. Let’s make sure they don’t fight alone.”

Alongside climate protests, the disciples of Ms Thunberg want to change the western lifestyle they blame for global warning.

A few miles away from the UN complex, a separate meeting, the Social Good Summit, convened on Sunday at a theatre and community building at the north end of Central Park.

One of the panellists, Omar Itani described the challenge posed by the clothing industry. The Lebanese founder of the outfit FabricAid told of his work to ensure every piece of clothing is worn and never goes to waste.

Three years after he founded FabricAid with two university friends, it now collects 100 tonnes of clothes every month to either redistribute to the poor or recycle for new cloth.

The scale of waste in fashion is vast. The clothing trade is responsible for more carbon emissions that airlines.

Mr Itani explained how much still has to change. “There are 1.7 billion items from UK alone not worn every year,” he said. “The UK population is only 70 million but the equivalent of one piece for every person in China and the US combined is thrown away in UK.

“It’s crazy. We need a mind shift.”

Politicians have embraced the activists. States are expected to re-commit to the 2015 Paris Climate Accord at the UN summit on Monday. Big pledges to curb the carbon economy are expected.

“There are many challenges ahead of us, but there are also solutions that we can adopt if we commit to working together and accelerating our pledges to act,” proclaimed Amina J Mohammed, the UN deputy secretary general.

No one pretended that easy choices are on offer.

At the Social Good Summit on Sunday, a stall sold wristbands that would allow wearers to show support for particular development goals. The cheaper set was made of plastic, just like the tunnels that will fill with pollution later this week.

There is much to underline the point that it is difficult to be purist about saving the planet.

Published: September 22, 2019 09:58 PM


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