SHARM AL SHEIKH: Fiji’s Sivendra Michael was just a year old when Pacific island nations first sought help in 1991, through planned UN climate negotiations, to deal with expected “loss and damage” from rising seas and other climate change impacts.
This year, the 32-year-old, a disaster risk management and development expert who just earned his PhD, will be pushing to finally make that help a reality as a formal negotiator on “loss and damage” and other issues for his country at COP27 in Egypt.
“They are negotiating our future and it’s only right for us to be at the table,” said Michael, one of 60 newly trained youth from 27 countries acting as full-fledged climate negotiators at the UN talks starting Sunday.
As the first class of the new Climate Youth Negotiator Programme, they aim to “bring the power from the streets and young people to more experienced negotiators,” said co-founder Marie-Claire Graf, a 26-year-old former Swiss negotiator.
Young people - many passionate about climate change action and with increasingly impressive expertise and credentials - have long been at the forefront of green protests and activism outside the corridors of power.
Now many are striding into those corridors, seeking to push beyond their still-too-frequent tokenistic inclusion on panels and into direct positions of influence over policy and politics, in an effort to spur lagging action on climate threats.
They do not see themselves as lesser partners at the table.
“I’m listed as a youth negotiator because of my age. But I’m as capable a negotiator as anyone else,” said Michael, who has a PhD in development studies, a master’s degree in public policy and economics, and is writing a chapter of a book on loss and damage.
“We have grown up with climate change happening,” he said, pointing to ever-more-frequent flooding in his South Pacific island community.
“We have been living through the era of climate change.”
The push to train a new cadre of young climate diplomats grew in part out of Swiss negotiator Graf’s experiences at COP25 in Madrid in 2019.
Then 23 and a sustainability and politics student, she led Switzerland’s negotiations on efforts to boost the capacity of developing nations to cut emissions and adapt to a warmer world.
But despite being asked by the Swiss president’s office to take on the role, as the best qualified person for the job, Graf found herself dismissed by older negotiators from other teams, who doubted her abilities because of her age.
That fuelled a desire to increase the number of young diplomats on teams and, importantly, ensure they were extremely well prepared, not just for complex subject matter but also for the strategic and emotional aspects of negotiating, she said.
Since July, the Youth Negotiators Academy, launched by Graf and three other women after COP26 in Glasgow, has run online classes for a first cohort of 60 negotiators-in-training, linking them up with experts from around the world.
Archie Young, Britain’s lead climate negotiator, said he had advised the trainees on everything from the importance of empathy and listening to how to overcome setbacks and extract themselves from a tough situation, if needed.
“When you think of negotiations, you think of a zero sum-game, us and them. But that cannot apply when it comes to a climate negotiations,” he said, emphasising the importance of cooperation in solving a global problem.
Half the members of Young’s own negotiating team are under 35, with the youngest 22 and just out of university, he said.
Graf said that the negotiator training programme had, for some participants, focused on helping overcome cultural barriers - such as a reluctance by women or young people in some societies to speak out in the presence of older male colleagues.
“It’s hard as a young person. Even if you’re outgoing and confident, you’re going to sweat and panic,” especially when in the spotlight, she said.
‘A FRESH MIND’
The initial participants in the Climate Youth Negotiator Programme say the advice has been a huge help in building confidence to take an active role in the talks.
Guadalupe Rivas Royg, 33, who works for Paraguay’s National Directorate of Climate Change, admitted that she struggled when she joined her first U.N. negotiations last year in Glasgow.
“I was inexperienced,” she said. “I didn’t know how to do anything, even how to turn on my microphone to talk”.
“This time it will be different,” said Rivas, a lawyer with a master’s degree in sustainable development, who will negotiate on climate finance for Paraguay.
She thinks an infusion of young negotiators can help shake up the talks and bring an outside perspective about what is not working and how that could be changed.
“I’m a fresh mind. I’m new in this system and I’m questioning things - how they work and why we are still doing things this way,” she said in a telephone interview.
Evelyn Addor, a 32-year-old trainee negotiator from Ghana who works for a forest NGO, said she aims to bring voices from frontline rural communities - which she knows well - into the “loss and damage” negotiating rooms at COP27.
“It’s very intimidating,” conceded Addor, who will be negotiating for Ghana for the first time. “The stage is big.” But “being from civil society gives me a whole different perspective about what policies should be. I want to carry the voice of the community people I work with every day,” she said.
Graf said that trainee negotiators were chosen in part to bring more diverse voices to the talks - 70% of this year’s group are women, 13 are from indigenous communities, and one is non-binary.
Some are receiving financial help, provided by donors to the training academy, to attend COP27, and support to arrange visas.
“So many young people have lost their hope in this decision-making process, or are losing it rapidly,” Graf said.
“We’ve had the same people trying to resolve the same issues for 30 years,” with women and young people underrepresented in the efforts.
Now, “we hope to bring change by having other people there - people who are young and well-trained”, she added.
‘NOW IT’S OUR TURN’
One of them is Hanadi Al Rabai’eh, a 28-year-old Jordanian chemical engineer who will be negotiating on a broad range of topics at COP27, from finance and adaptation to gender issues.
Rabai’eh, who graduated at the top of her university class, works for Jordan’s Ministry of Environment and says the climate threats facing her country - from floods to soaring temperatures - are evident, and require smart work across fields, from water to agriculture to refugees, to solve.
At the same time, Jordan is a leader in renewable energy in the Middle East, getting almost 30 per cent of its electricity from solar and wind power, she said.
Rabai’eh said she cannot wait to take the microphone at COP27 - and predicts that with hard work she could be Jordan’s environment minister in 10 years.
“Now it’s our turn, as youth, to face climate change, to carry out initiatives to adapt and create resilience for our countries,” she said.
“We will be the leaders who, for the future, will implement the decisions we are negotiating now.”