Leonie Sherman
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Addressing climate change is not possible without peace; peace is not possible until we address climate change

By Leonie Sherman

Leonie Sherman with youth climate activist Penelope Lea and Christina Figueres.

The author with youth climate activist Penelope Lea and Christina Figueres.

“We are the first generation to experience the impacts of climate change,” Raymond Johansen, Governing Mayor of Oslo told a packed room at Oslo Pax, the Nobel Peace Center’s first annual Peace and Climate Conference. “And we are the last generation that can actually do something about it.”

Over the course of the next two days, the 200 politicians, activists, writers, generals, and young people who gathered at Oslo Pax helped me understand how lucky I am to call California home. Our state has been actually doing something about climate change for years. In 2006, California set an absolute statewide limit on greenhouse gas emissions. Ten years later we extended and strengthened the limit. In 2018, California organized an international summit which gathered governments, the private sector and indigenous leaders to take climate action; companies and other jurisdictions lined up to reiterate their climate commitments. The Golden State is having a global impact. And the global community is noticing.

“California is leading the way in passing legislation requiring renewable energy,” Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, former president of Iceland, told us on the second day of the conference. Iceland has already been through the transition California is just beginning. “When I was a child, 80% of Iceland’s energy came from imported coal and oil. Today 100% of our energy comes from renewable local sources,” Grimssom explained. “When I was young, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Now we are one of the wealthiest. It’s all about energy. Energy and power,” he said with conviction.

Moving towards a carbon free economy requires radical change and sacrifice, which won’t happen without broad public support. California’s success in passing visionary climate policies rests on strong worker protections. “California has been able to attach labor standards to green development,” explained Samantha Smith, a panelist and award winning lawyer who used to practice in California. She now directs the Just Transition Centre. “Workers support a green economy because they know they’ll be taken care of.” The recent passage of AB-5, which grants gig economy workers like Uber drivers the strongest rights in the country, proves her point.

With our vast open spaces and densely populated urban areas, California exemplifies global trends; by 2050 68% of the worlds population will live in urban areas. “Cities are a big part of the problem when it comes to climate change,” Johansen explained. “But some important solutions come from cities. And with courage and political will, when national governments refuse to act, cities and state governments can change the market.”

California’s policies have changed the market by investing in clean energy and incentivizing businesses that advance a low carbon economy. Ten years after our initial commitment, our economy continues to grow while carbon pollution is declining.

But we didn’t gather at Oslo Pax just to learn about the successes of Scandinavian countries and progressive US states. We gathered to deepen our understanding of the climate crisis as a humanitarian crisis, and listen to young people explain how we can address the situation before it becomes a catastrophe.

The UN made a mistake in 1992, at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, when they framed climate as an environmental issue. Climate change is a political, ethical and global issue. Forced displacement, armed conflict, and extremism are exacerbated by climate change. And though the planet will be fine, humans will suffer, individually and collectively.

Climate change is not experienced equally by all. Those least responsible for creating the problem — island nations of the global south, non-human species, and young people — will suffer the most.

“We need to stop speaking as victims,” said panelist Ronald Jumeau, the Ambassador to the UN from the Seychelles, where the effects of climate change are inundating portions of the island. “We are not only trying to stop the destruction of mangroves, we are planting new mangrove forests. Parents bring their kids, we make a fun family event out of doing restoration work. Each tree has GPS coordinates, so kids can find their tree and watch how it grows and becomes part of a forest. They will protect that forest, you can be sure!” He pauses. “Resilience is the smile on a kids face after a day of planting trees with their family. The youth have not been jaded yet.”

About half the attendees of Oslo Pax were under 25. “Young people are not the leaders of the future or the leaders of tomorrow,” explained Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “They are the leaders of today, of right now. Frankly, adults have run out of fresh ideas.”

“If you are asking young people to make these huge sacrifices, allow us to creatively envision the future,” suggested Kelsey Juliana of Eugene, Oregon. At 23, she’s the oldest plaintiff among 21 who are suing the US government for failing to protect their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by causing climate change. Their case, Juliana v. United States (nicknamed Youth v Gov.) pioneers atmospheric trust litigation, based on the public trust doctrine. In 2016 Judge Ann Aiken of the US District Court of Oregon upheld the idea that access to a clean environment is a fundamental right; government appeals have put the trial on hold.

While the case languishes in legal limbo, Kelsey, her fellow plaintiffs and young people all over the world continue to speak out and lead the fight for climate justice. “Instead of scare tactics, pointing out what we have to lose — which hasn’t worked — let’s ask what we have to gain. Clean air, more free time, salmon running in the streams … let young people drive the conversation.”

Isaac Muasa leads the Mathare Environmental One Stop Youth Centre and won a UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour for his work removing garbage to create community spaces in the Mathare slum of Nairobi. He joined us by video. “Human nature is on our side in the fight against climate change,” he says with a wide grin. “Nobody likes to die sitting down. As humans, it’s not in our nature to give up.”

Even at Oslo Pax, where we all acknowledged the importance of youth leadership, adults were driving the conversation. Most of the keynote speakers and panel moderators were adults. But those adults were asking hard questions. And we were all listening to young people’s responses.

Liv Torres, the Executive Director of the Nobel Peace Center, asked 15-year old climate activist Penelope Lea, what to do when political leaders don’t listen. Lea didn’t hesitate. “Stand together,” she said. “We may not have faced a crisis like climate change in the past, but we have faced other overwhelming challenges. It’s important we learn from the past, acknowledge our differences and stand together to face this threat.”

At the last panel of the conference, Lea sat with three other young women who have devoted their lives to climate justice. Christiana Figueres, convener of Mission 2020 and the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) moderated. “Look at these young women!” She said to the audience. “Usually these panels are filled with older white males. What’s going on?” She returned her attention to the panelists. “Why do you think there are so many young women involved with the climate crisis?”

While I imagined a litany of possible responses — “men made the mess, now women have to clean it up,” “women are more mature,” “it’s our turn” — Sofie Nordvik, Norway’s youth representative to the UN Climate Conference in New York, fielded the question. “How do we make this space more inclusive for everyone?” she asked. “Are we doing something that makes young men uncomfortable? We need to be working across gender, across generations, we need to bridge the gaps that divide us. We need everyone to join us if we want to win.”