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New York, USA: Youth leaders from more than 140 countries and territories, including Tonga’s dual sport Olympian and UNICEF Pacific Ambassador, Pita Taufatofua, and Greta Thunberg, a prominent young climate activist from Sweden, gathered at the first UN Youth Climate Summit to voice their demands for urgent climate action in New York, USA, on 21 September.

The summit featured a full-day of program bringing together young activists, innovators, entrepreneurs, and change makers committed to combating climate change at the pace and scale needed to meet the climate challenge.  

Hosted by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, the summit opened a dialogue between youth and decision makers where youth shared their solutions on the global stage, a precursor to the three-day Climate Action Summit starting on 23 September. 

Mr Guterres said the gathering was a critical milestone ahead of the Climate Action Summit, where he has asked world leaders to come with bold, concrete plans. He credited youth for shaking up leaders’ “laissez-faire” approach to climate change. 

“We are not yet there,” he said, admitting that we are “still losing the race” against climate change but credited Greta Thunberg for bringing attention to the issue.

“But there is a change in momentum. Largely this change in momentum was due to your initiative, and to the courage with which you have started this movement.”

“Millions around the world [are] saying clearly, not only that they want change, not only that decision makers must change, but they want them to be accountable,” he said. “I have granddaughters. I want them to live in a livable planet. My generation has a huge responsibility. It is your generation that must hold us accountable to make sure we don’t betray the future of humankind.”

Demanding climate action

Greta Thunberg who spoke briefly at the opening session said the day prior to the youth summit, millions of people marched around the world demanding real climate action, especially young people. 

“We showed that we are united, and that we young people are unstoppable," she said.

In another session with elite athletes using sports as a platform to bring attention to the reality of climate change, Pita Taufatofua, who is aiming to qualify for his third Olympics in kayak sprints, spoke about the issues faced by the Pacific.

“We’re at the frontline of climate change and when people say ‘goals for this many years ahead’, I’m like, we’re seeing it now,” he told the summit.

He used kayaking as an analogy to climate change, explaining that balancing on a kayak is very hard, but if you lose your balance, you fall into the water.

“And that’s kind of what’s happening with our planet today, is that somewhere along the line we’ve lost balance. We’ve got more carbon going into the air than is sequestered into the ground. And we’re paddling for the planet to bring awareness to what’s happening.”

He was emotional when speaking about the impact natural disasters have, referring to Tropical Cyclone Gita which caused widespread destruction in Tonga last year, its impact still felt, particularly with school children who still attend classes in tents.

“I’m here in New York. If I came here and I said 50% of New York disappeared in one night, what would happen? People would act. 50% of my country was wiped out in one night. People haven’t acted yet.”

"So I call out to the leaders of the world, it’s not tomorrow, it’s not our children’s children, it’s us, it’s now, it’s happening, and it’s going to affect all of us in some way or another."

Climate Change affecting lives

United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, said Climate change is the defining issue of our time.

“Millions of young people all over the world are already being affected by it. If we don’t act now, the impact will be severe.”

Global emissions are increasing, temperatures are rising and the impacts of climate change are growing. Climate change is already affecting the lives of all people, but for the 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24 years, the issue is felt with far more urgency as it will shape their lives in ways never witnessed before. For the younger generation, the need for urgent climate action has never been clearer.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, the world is now experiencing the warmest five-year period on record.  The average global temperature for 2015–2019 is on track to be the warmest of any equivalent period on record and is currently estimated to be 1.1°Celsius above pre-industrial times. Widespread and long-lasting heatwaves, record-breaking fires and other devastating events such as tropical cyclones, floods and drought have had major impacts on socio-economic development and the environment.

Sea ice and ice mass continue to decrease, sea-level rise is accelerating, and sea water is becoming more acid. Food insecurity and health impacts are growing. But the world is continuing to invest in fossil fuels.

“We have to ensure that no one, especially young people, is left behind,” said Jayathma.

The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), she said, are a blueprint for the world to achieve sustainable development by 2030. Climate action (SDG 13) is crucial to achieve this.

The outcomes of the Youth Climate Summit will feed into the Climate Action Summit, attended by heads of state and government as well as business CEOs and civil society leaders.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres with Greta Thunberg and other youth at the opening session of the UN Youth Climate Summit, New York. 21 September 2019. Photo: UN Video

Youth demand urgent climate action at UN