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At COP26, Youth Want Action, Accountability as Protesters Rally

GLASGOW — Thousands of climate activists from across the world have descended this week on the Scottish city of Glasgow, demanding that nations gathering for a global climate conference produce real, meaningful change.

And some of the strongest and most urgent calls for action have come from young protesters who claim that the world they are inheriting is teetering on the brink of a climate catastrophe.

They have spent the week disrupting talks held by gas giants, and staging theatrical spectacles on the fringes of the international event, known as COP26. But the protests will peak on Friday and Saturday in two days of demonstrations expected to draw up to 100,000 people.

On Friday afternoon, crowds streamed in to a leafy public park in central Glasgow for one of the centerpieces of the protest plans. Some protesters were carrying banners reading, “We are running out of time,” “26 years of blah, blah, blah,” and “System change not climate change.”

The youth-led climate strike was organized by Fridays for Future, the international movement that has grown out of Greta Thunberg’s solo school strike that began in 2018. But local unions and other campaigns also gathered in solidarity.

Veteran Extinction Rebellion climate activists stood alongside families with young children, union representatives, socialist campaigners and young students skipping school to demand greater action from world leaders to address the issue.

“There’s a real responsibility for young people that this will be ours to deal with,” said Eilidh Robb, 26, a Scottish climate activist. “And the mess that we didn’t create will be left to us to manage.”

Ms. Robb, who is originally from Edinburgh but is now based in Brussels, volunteers with the U.K. Youth Climate Coalition, a British nonprofit that mobilizes young people to take action on climate change. She traveled to Glasgow this week by train with hundreds of others to take part in the conference and in the protests.

While world leaders this week managed to secure new agreements to end deforestation and reduce methane emissions, raising hopes of real progress, the coming days will see diplomats haggle over further greenhouse gas reductions.

But within the conference, countries are still debating about how they can deliver on the unmet promises of years past, including a pledge of $100 billion in annual climate finance from 2020 to 2025. The commitment from wealthy nations to poorer nations was promised in 2009 and remains unfulfilled.

Countries that are most at risk from the effects of climate change in the developing world are also pushing major carbon-emitting nations to increase their annual targets to keep global temperatures from rising past 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with levels before the Industrial Revolution.

For many of the young protesters, the conference has produced mixed emotions: They expressed some concern that their voices were not being heard, but also some hope that their activism and presence at the event would help inspire change.

“It’s a huge burden for young people to dedicate their lives to calling out politicians who are paid to represent us,” Ms. Robb said.

The young activists say they want more than just reduced emissions: They would also like an acknowledgment of the systemic issues intertwined with climate change response, including inequality and poverty. They want solutions that work for everyone and that help dismantle racism, sexism and the neglect of developing nations.

Alejandra Kopaitic, 33, a Chilean master’s student studying the environment and climate change at the University of Manchester, in England, came to Glasgow with her husband to participate in the march. She wants governments and corporations to make more immediate commitments to finding solutions.

“We can do a lot from home, but it’s not enough: We need a whole system change,” she said. “If we don’t change business as usual and how we are producing things, taking resources from the ground and overconsuming, it is going to be difficult.”

Philip Klein, 10, was out of his Glasgow school on Friday to attend the march with his father and a schoolmate.

“I want a good future,” Philip said. “Hopefully we can fix it.”

Laura Kelly, 16, a student from Edinburgh, was blunt: “This is the moment; there is no better moment than now,” she said as she pointed to her banner, which read, “Action now or swim later.”

“Time’s important,” she added, “and we are running out of it.”

Rudy Sinclair, 16, was also missing school in Glasgow, but said that his school encouraged the school strike.

“We feel that the more people that come here the better the chance that the government will take notice and feel the pressure to do something,” he said.

The presence of environmental activists at COP26 itself has been muted because of pandemic restrictions, as well as difficulty in obtaining vaccines, visas and affordable accommodations, leaving some unable to attend.

The Britain-based COP Coalition, an umbrella group of climate activists and organizations, has labeled the conference the “least accessible climate summit ever,” pointing to chaotic crowding and some delegates being told to dial into the meeting from hotel rooms.

The format of the event — which was flipped from previous years to begin with speeches from international leaders, including President Biden — also left many activists barred from entering the conference center this week because of heightened security.

Monicah Kamandau, 27, a Kenyan climate activist who traveled to Glasgow, has long called for the world’s richest countries that are the most responsible for climate change to pay their share of addressing the problem, and for greater inclusivity of youth voices in debates and solutions.

She is hoping to see the $100 billion climate finance commitment become a reality, with clear directions for mitigation and adaptation, and mechanisms put in place for countries to be held accountable to their commitments.

“I want to be very realistic and look at the fact that this is the 26th summit on climate discussions,” Ms. Kamandau said. “And my view is that over that time, there have been a lot of promises made, but they have not been implemented.”

In particular, women and activists from developing nations — who are among those most affected by extreme weather driven by climate change — are being left out of the most crucial conversations around climate change, many activists say.

In a survey of people in Brazil, India, South Africa and Vietnam, which all face imminent threats from climate change, ActionAid International, a charity group, found that nearly half of respondents think that developing countries are being excluded from representation at the climate talks. And three-quarters think that people from these regions will be most affected by the decisions made at the summit.

Diaka Salena Koroma, a climate activist from Sierra Leone, was unable to attend because her visa was delayed, despite having been invited to participate.

She began campaigning for climate justice in 2017 after a mudslide set off by torrential rain killed hundreds in Freetown, her country’s capital, and said women and girls on the frontline of the climate crisis like her need to have more visibility.

“We are born in a system where our voices — our existence — doesn’t even matter,” she said of young people from developing countries.

Ms. Koroma, who spoke by video chat from her home, said she wanted to see climate funds be distributed directly to those already most affected by climate change and broader commitments from wealthy nations to help mitigate the issue. She also hopes the conference will one day be held in Africa to bring more voices from the continent to the table.

“We can’t play politics with this kind of issue,” she said. “Climate change — it surpasses every other issue we have.”

Stephen Castle contributed reporting.

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