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This week, world leaders and activists from every corner of the globe gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for COP26, an international climate action conference where countries have debated policies and youth organizers have protested for more action from the biggest polluters.
Evanston had two of its own activists travel across the pond to participate in the global convention and connect with other organizers. Rachel Rosner, the President of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, and Lily Aaron, an Evanston Township High School student and the coordinator of the school’s chapter of E-Town Sunrise, attended the conference with a delegation from It’s Our Future, a youth-driven climate justice organization based in Oak Park.
Youth activists arrived at the conference at the beginning of this week expecting to sit in on climate policy discussions among world leaders and to participate by asking questions and urging nations to consider certain courses of action. In fact, organizers in attendance could not even access any presentations or debates featuring global leaders, Aaron said.
“I most certainly did not travel a cumulative 15 hours so that I could be told to livestream an event where I see [U.K. Prime Minister] Boris Johnson speaking about James Bond in rooms where the futures of entire generations are at stake,” Aaron said. “So I’m kind of disillusioned with how adults have facilitated this. They’ve made this space incredibly inaccessible to youth.”
But that treatment of youth activists enhanced the connections that young people like Aaron made together and amplified the demonstrations they organized outside the conference rooms where world leaders were meeting. Climate justice advocates from all over the world shared ideas for pushing a climate-forward agenda in their own communities. Aaron said she was able to learn about the unique problems the climate crisis is causing in different parts of the globe, from sea levels rising to economic and cultural disasters.
“In this day and age, thinking about inciting a global cultural shift in the name of climate justice sounds really intimidating, but it was so evident from the people who were there that we are empowered to go at this crisis in a way that is so all-encompassing and so powerful that there’s literally nothing that we can’t do, once we display to the broader population that we will not stop until we achieve justice and a habitable country for everybody,” she said.
To engage youth back home in the Chicago region who were not able to attend COP26 in person, Rosner and other It’s Our Future members took part in a virtual webinar on the afternoon of Thursday, November 4, during which representatives from Evanston and Oak Park were able to interview activists from other parts of the world. As part of that panel, indigenous Central American Diwigdi Valiente and Nathalia Lawen, a native of Seychelles, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, answered questions from online attendees.
Valiente and Lawen said smaller, poorer countries more vulnerable to natural disasters will pay the price for climate injustices perpetrated by wealthier nations like the United States, China, Russia and the United Kingdom.
“I’m sure a lot of people have felt homesick in their lives; now just imagine feeling homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist because it’s been lost to sea level rise,” Lawen said during the webinar. “Sure, people will migrate. We will migrate to other, bigger countries, but our homes will be lost forever. Our culture will be lost forever. Our languages will probably be lost forever because we will have to live in another country.”
Youth activists stressed that climate change is an intersectional issue that will impact immigration, housing, poverty levels and more. Valiente lives with his indigenous community on a small island chain off the coast of Panama, where his people face sinking land and increased vulnerability to storms and flooding. Eventually, he fears they will have no choice but to leave their home behind in order to survive.
“We are still forced to move, so we either move to a rainforest and start destroying what has been saved for so many years, or we go to a city and then we start losing our language and we start losing our culture,” Valiente said.
With this inherent inequality in the climate crisis, where global warming and pollution will upend the lives of some while leaving others undisturbed, a community like Evanston has the chance to push for justice and equity while luckily being in a relatively secure environment. But for Aaron, the most important takeaway from the conference is remembering that even in Evanston, the actions of residents impact the global climate situation for people all across the world.
“Evanston is not exempt from this,” Aaron said. “We have the immense privilege not to experience the extent of the climate crisis in the way that less developed countries, systematically disenfranchised countries do. We bear immense privilege for that, and it is our obligation to amplify the voices of those who do bear the climate crisis in ways that we will never, ever understand.”