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Power to the (Young) People

Cross interview between Clémence Alméras and Melati Wijsen

INTERVIEW - 11 March 2020

International conferences such as the UN Conference of the Parties (COP) or the Paris Peace Forum used to be annual gatherings between heads of state, policymakers, business leaders and other organizations. This changed this year when, for the first time in its history, the World Economic Forum welcomed a group of young people to take part in the high-level dialogue taking place in Davos in January. Among them was Melati Wijsen, a 19-year old changemaker from Bali, Indonesia. At the age of 12, Melati and her sister founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags, a local project aimed at banning these single-use plastics on the island. Melati, along with Clémence Alméras, Policy Officer at Institut Montaigne for Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development, give their insights on the recent involvement of the youth in international meetings.

In your opinion, why is it that young people are more and more visible in international high-level conferences (World Economic Forum, Paris Peace Forum, United Nations Climate Change Conferences, etc.)?

MELATI WIJSEN

Our presence during these conferences definitely makes a difference. We are living in a very special time where one message can reach millions of people with the click of a button. Our generation knows how to mobilize and share our story like never before, we have a very strong message to deliver: the urgency of time and the catastrophic changes in our environment. All of this forces us right into frontline activism that brings us to all sorts of different places: whether it is the front of a classroom, on the streets or, as we are fortunately now part of, world leaders’ gatherings and big conferences. These gather scientists, world leaders, CEOs, and for the first time in the 50 years of the World Economic Forum, young people. People at the top are aware that young people are unstoppable which is why they need to include us in order to advance.

CLÉMENCE ALMÉRAS

There are different ways to answer this question. As Melati stated, today, young people have more tools at their disposal to enhance their visibility: mainly the Internet and social media. This acquired visibility gives them more power in the sense that they can reach out to people they would not have access to otherwise and thus make their claims go global.

Last but not least, for their elders to see such young people taking the stage or taking action in their school, their hometown, etc. can constitute an emotional trigger. One cannot forget United Nations Secretary General António Guterres’ speech at the COP25 opening ceremony when he said, before an audience of women and men of his age, "do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned?". Though this movement may represent a bigger than ever gap between generations, political and economic leaders are not left indifferent by this mobilisation, probably because their children are chiefly affected and concerned by climate change.

A global movement is happening and who are better placed than young people to lead it?

But also because civil society is applying more and more pressure on those same actors as people are usually not satisfied with their own government’s action when it comes to tackling climate change. A global movement is happening and who are better placed than young people to lead it?

How would you describe the dialogue during these conferences between young activists and world leaders? And corporate representatives?

MELATI WIJSEN

The dialogue at these conferences is different this year. We are not waiting for permission to speak. We are bending and breaking the rules to change the current broken system. We are pulling up our own chairs to the table where government and corporate leaders are seated at and making room for our voices to be heard. On their side, there is a lot of talk and little implementation and change.

We are still trying to explore ways on how to create this intergenerational movement through dialogue. When we are invited to these conferences, there is a huge interest from corporations to listen and to learn from us. It is up to us young people to keep proving ourselves and demonstrating we have something serious to say. We have to show them that we are more than just an inspiration for them. We have shown solutions and we are carrying them out with or without them. We are leading by example.

These international conferences are a good platform, they provide a good starting point for dialogue but we have to immerse all this talking into real action. This is exactly what the younger generation is doing.

CLÉMENCE ALMÉRAS

I was not myself in Davos but I did watch the filmed conferences. I could not help but be impressed by these young girls and boys taking the floor in front of some of the world’s most important people to defend their own views, whether it be on climate change or social justice.

Whether they are being listened to remains unclear to me. Yet, the room was packed when Greta Thunberg spoke after the American president Donald Trump: the interest is there, probably because it is unprecedented.

Raising awareness can take place at different levels: from grassroots movements in your hometown to delivering a speech at UN-level meetings. At what level, local or international, does the call for action have a greater impact?

MELATI WIJSEN

Both levels are indispensable to get your message across.

Call for actions have a greater impact when action actually happens and you have proof to show it works. Regarding the level at which it can have more impact, it all depends on the type of movement, people and message to get across. My experience showed that the biggest impact took place at the local level because our strategy was aimed at such a scale. Through the Bye Bye Plastic Bags project, we set our objective to ban plastic bags in Bali and managed to achieve the banning of these on our island. However, through this local project we inspired 50 more teams led by young people around the world to get the same action done for their home countries.

At the local level, another idea concerns education. Rather than going out on the streets to protest every Friday, schools around the world should encourage both teachers and students to spend the 7 hours actively learning about climate change and climate action.

At the international level, we need to follow the Paris Agreement with no loopholes for governments. The private sector needs to dig deeper into their pockets and take further measures than the standard operational procedures. Investing in human capital and in solutions that already exist is key for change to come faster.

The private sector needs to dig deeper into their pockets and take further measures than the standard operational procedures.

Something is certain: the simple act of going to Davos or other conferences is not enough. It is what we choose to do and who we become after these meetings that count. Starting on the individual level, examples go from reducing single-use plastics to going vegan. Every little step counts.

It is therefore a combination of both. Local, global, hand in hand and never losing sight of the overall mission: creating change.

CLÉMENCE ALMÉRAS

I have to agree with Melati: the actions led at the local, national and international levels are all inextricably linked. The snowball effect clearly works: it is because of actions like Bye Bye Plastic Bags, combined with consumers’ campaigns at the national level or employees protesting against their company’s practices (such as Amazon) that governments will change the legislation and that economic and financial players will slowly change their behaviours (Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos recently announced he would commit $10 Billion To an Earth Fund, following pressure from civil society and employees).

Let us look, for instance, at how public pressure has been successful in convincing governments to forbid the use of CFCs - gas that have scientifically been proven to contribute to depleting the ozone layer - via the signing of the Montreal protocol in 1987.

Moreover, investment funds have, over the past few years, gradually announced that they would stop investing in fossil fuel projects or other high climate risk projects (Amundi, BlackRock, etc.), thus putting pressure on companies conducting such projects.

However, a question remains unresolved: how to determine the environmental impact of this or that business; how to incorporate other essential criteria such as social and governance performance? There are as many definitions as there are investors and it is highly expected that American banks and investment funds will impose on us their way of "doing business" in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. So as for this not to happen, political decisions must be taken. It is up to the new European Commission, that has presented its Green New Deal on Wednesday 11 December at the COP25 in Madrid, to offer a framework to the 27 Member States which corresponds to our values, as Europeans, as well as to its economic and financial actors.

 

Copyright: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

 

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