Optimism in the Face of a Daunting Future

Youth around the globe descended on COP16, the international climate negotiations in Cancun Mexico, this November to make their voices heard, to demand global investment in solutions, and to illuminate the pressing need to address environmental justice implications of a climate crisis left unchecked.

Below are reflections from US youth delegates as COP16 draws to a close. Youth from SustainUS, Sierra Student Coalition and Energy Action Coalition look reality in the eye as they strive to answer the following questions: What happened? Is there hope? And where do we go from here?

Caroline Henderson: International Youth Correspondent of the SSC COP16 Delegation


This year, the UN climate talks in Cancun felt markedly different than last year’s much-anticipated conference in Copenhagen. Since the last negotiations, a major shift has taken place in the youth climate movement.

Throughout 2010 our movement has experienced major growing pains and witnessed major failures on the part of our politicians. Last year’s Conference of Parties in Copenhagen ignored the cries to the millions of world citizens demanding a fair ambitious and binding treaty… American youth saw their leaders dilute and ultimately dismiss the climate legislation we’d been calling for. This fall, dozens of climate deniers and Big Oil politicians were elected into office.

These experiences have produced a lot of despair and disillusionment within our generation around the current system; political obstacles feel insurmountable, the corrupt fossil fuel interests are too powerful, and any significant agreement on an international level just seems impossible.

But the vexing reality is that these challenges cannot be insurmountable, too powerful, or impossible. We have no option but to face them. We know that our survival and the survival of entire vulnerable communities count on it. So what are we going to do about it?

Over the past two weeks, youth in Cancun have showed our tenacity, our innovativeness, and our uncompromising idealism. While youth recognize the agreement coming out of Cancun as an important step to stabilizing and building a foundation for future negotiations, we know there is much work to be done and much of the foundation hinges on what happens in the coming year.

The following are lessons and resolutions from Cancun – on the current state of our movement and directions moving forward, into the light. In 2011, we must:

  1. We are full of good ideas. We have to cultivate and foster the growth of these ideas; this takes perseverance, patience, and flexibility
  2. We must work to strengthen and communicate the connection between our local efforts and our shared vision of the just and sustainable clean energy future.
  3. We must continue to build our capacity and use our savvy and ingenuity to troubleshoot everyday challenges.
  4. Lastly, we must ask ourselves everyday: how can we connect our efforts to the source of bold, credible, and real hope? How can we communicate this real hope to others?


Lili Molina: Environmental Justice Director, Energy Action Coalition


For the last two weeks I’ve been in Cancún, Mexico. It’s not what you think, I wasn’t there to party, I was there to knock some sense into the folks deciding our future at the United Nation’s climate negotiations.

Here’s what I saw at the Cancún climate negotiations:

  • Countries like the U.S. continued to obstruct progress and put the UN negotiations on the brink of collapse.
  • People from all around the world mobilized to demand a fair, ambitious, and binding outcome through a democratic process.
  • And we wound up with the Cancún Agreements, a foundation for future negotiations. While we did save the UN negotiations, we still didn’t achieve an outcome that will dramatically cut climate pollution or protect the world’s most vulnerable people.

But my main observation in Cancún is that the grassroots is leading. And when I returned to the U.S. my observation was only confirmed. In just two weeks over 200 grassroots leaders have signed up to be Power Shift Coordinators — wow!

Power Shift Coordinators will help bring together the voice, participation, and strength of thousands of communities at Power Shift 2011, April 1-4. In the last year we’ve seen grassroots-led mobilizations like ths around the world with the Cochabamba People’s Conference in Bolivia, and the social movement mobilizations in Cancún. We have the solutions to cool the planet and we need to bring them together at Power Shift 2011…

Young people have been at the forefront of every social movement in history, leading the way with moral clarity and bold action. We have an obligation to stand with those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. At Power Shift 2011 we’ll show up in force and work in solidarity with communities across the world working to cool the planet with grassroots solutions.


Syd Shultz: Agent of Change, SustainUS Youth Delegate Cop16


“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

From the start, this was the mantra of COP16. We heard it a million times, in over five languages, and frankly, I’m sick of it. I’m all for progress, and all for compromise but I HATE CLICHÉ.

Like most clichés, this one is over-simplified and mostly inaccurate.  Yes, Cancun exemplified compromise and YES the Mexican presidency should be applauded for salvaging the UNFCCC from the rubbish heap. The past two weeks in Cancun showed that diplomats can still come together and bash heads and end up with something that looks, tastes and smells like an agreement. I’m not being facetious-Espinosa and the Mexican government deserve the standing ovation they received in the plenary on Friday evening.  They conducted the process with transparency and pushed hard for an agreement. This is the kind of leadership we need, and it’s not easy.

But it’s ridiculous to pretend that the fight in Cancun was between Perfect and Good. Perfect wasn’t even on the table. When it comes to climate change negotiations, Good has been knocking Perfect around the block for time immemorial…

If the emissions targets pledged to in Copenhagen and now solidified in Cancun are not enough to prevent small island states like Tuvalu and the Maldives from going under water, can we still call that GOOD?  If the money in the Green Climate Fund is not enough to stop children from dying of drought in Syria or floods in Pakistan, is that GOOD?  If anti-deforestation policies like REDD still result in widespread displacement of indigenous people, is that GOOD?

Of course, the UN has always been about compromise. It’s about taking what you can get and running with it and hoping the world gets a little better along the way. This is what people mean when they say “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” But, let’s call Cancun what it is: NOT GOOD ENOUGH…

So, ladies and gentlemen, Cancun is over and we’ve had our requisite day on the beach (and night at Senor Frogs). Now it’s time to suit up, put on our game faces and whatever other athletic cliche motivates you. We have work to do. This is going to be a busy year, and when Durban rolls around next December, we NEED to do better.


SSC delegate, Caroline Henderson, captures a tone that seems to pervade youth commentary in the wake of Cancun, as young activists commit themselves to optimism in the face of a daunting future:


“We as a movement don’t have any illusions about the challenges we face – but we will also not forget what is at stake. And for these reasons, we’re not giving up and we’re not backing down. We have our work cut out for us this year. We’ll continue to grow and gain in strength and successfulness. We’re going to make it happen.”



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