The Story of LCOY: Redefining Climate Action

By Saga Norrby

At a Local Conference of Youth (LCOY) held at Amsterdam University College (AUC) last weekend, close to 200 attendants were encouraged to hold older generations accountable, and to redefine what ‘climate action’ means – is it about emission reduction, or is it more?

The event kicked off with an opening ceremony at Pakhuis de Zwijger on Friday Oct. 19, and the following two days more than 80 workshops and so-called Talanoa dialogue sessions took place at AUC.

Talanoa is a traditional word used in Fiji and across the Pacific to reflect a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue. The purpose of Talanoa is to share stories, build empathy and to make wise decisions for the collective good. The process of Talanoa involves the sharing of ideas, skills and experience through storytelling.” – https://talanoadialogue.com/

Launched at the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP) in Bonn last year, a Talanoa dialogue between Parties (of the COP) and non-Party stakeholders have been going on during 2018. All submissions are available at the above website and will be synthesised and fed into COP24 in Katowice in December.

LCOYs are modelled on the international COY that have accompanied the yearly Conference of the Parties (COP) since 2005, as a platform for youth to mobilise and make their voices heard by high-level representatives. Local COYs, though not as directly in touch with said representatives, make this sort of platform more accessible to youth around the globe.

According to Sarah Huelsen, third-year Science major, and Ireen van Dolderen, second-year Science major – both part of the organising team of the LCOY Netherlands – the overall aim of the conference was to establish in the minds and hearts of the participants that climate action can be performed in every field, by every person, channeled through whatever passion they may have.

The workshops of the LCOY were divided over these categories:

 Activism     Agriculture     Art     Business     Climate Justice     Education     Energy     Finance     Governance     Labour Market     Life-Style     Science 

See the programme in full here.

Cities and States – Pressuring a system too solid to change on its own

The LCOY Netherlands took place less than two weeks after the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released. The report states that halting global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius – the aim agreed upon by a great number of states in the Paris accord – is still technically feasible, but that it requires a drastic increase in efforts by the world’s governments. But can governments be relied upon to put in all the effort necessary?

At the opening ceremony of the LCOY, Marcel Beukeboom, climate envoy for the Netherlands to the United Nations, did not seem to think so. Speaking of global climate governance, he said, “This system needs to change from within, but it also needs pressure from the outside, because it’s too solid to change on its own.”

Beukeboom went on to stress the importance of young people holding older generations accountable, for the world they leave behind and for the goals they have committed to – a point Marieke van Doorninck, alderman in the municipality of Amsterdam, had lifted a few minutes earlier.

Van Doorninck also underlined the power of city action, telling the audience of Amsterdam’s commitment to reduce emissions by 55%, compared to 1990 levels, by 2030 – by comparison, the target of the European Union is a 40% reduction by 2030. Van Doorninck argued that while a large part of emissions are created in cities, they are also places where solutions can be tried out and implemented at a faster pace than in whole nations, by virtue of being smaller and the home of innovative youth.

In a Talanoa dialogue following a session on global climate governance the next day, Sarah Dobson, representative of the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), added to Van Doorninck’s argument, saying that cities do not have the same restrictions as states in terms of the risk of losing votes, which means they can take more drastic measures to combat climate change.

Dobson was backed by Dr. Sander Chan, PhD, political scientist specialising in transnational climate action and global environmental politics, who was responsible for the session on global climate governance. He brought up the United States as an example of the power of cities. President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris accord, for which he has been fiercely criticised by, among many others, the president of France, Emmanuel Macron. “The irony is that the US will stick to their 2020 targets, while many European countries, including France, won’t,” said Chan.

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From left to right, Lennart Tiller (co-initiator of the LCOY), Sarah Dobson and Sander Chan at the Talanoa dialogue following Chan’s session on the state of global climate governance

This is largely thanks to commitments of individual US states and cities, who know their government simply will not do the work. “We need that here too, we need to develop this sense of can-do,” said Chan.

On the other hand, Chan called cities “the most schizophrenic climate actors, because they’re not really non-state.” There is therefore a risk that states, which unlike the Trump administration at least claim to want to reach their targets, count the work of cities as contributions to the nation’s goals, and thus as an excuse to relax governmental efforts. Chan thinks city efforts should rather be used as leverage against states to push them to set more ambitious targets.

Chan also said that while it is regrettable that the international political community has been slow in responding to climate change, and on fulfilling its promises, that is not a reason to discard international politics. “The discrepancy between what we have committed to and what is actually happening on the ground is a reason to get more into politics,” he said.

Meet a participant: Rick Poelwijk, 22, Dutch law student and youngest member of Diemen municipal council.

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During the LCOY, Poelwijk got the idea to – during the upcoming budget discussions of Diemen city council – introduce an amendment that asks the aldermen to incorporate a membership of the Covenant of Mayors in their future plans for environment policy. “We’re a relatively small city, 30 000 inhabitants more or less, but I think even we can make a difference, and if everybody has that mindset we can make a big difference all together,” said Poelwijk.

The decisions made on the global level give the rest of society direction, and are also what makes it possible for non-state actors to keep their governments accountable on a national level, Chan argued.

In doing so, he echoed Serena Bashal, representative of the UKYCC, who during the opening ceremony had described COP as a catalyst. “COP won’t save us, it’s the people acting on the COP that will save us,” she said.

Holding states accountable – Matching the solution to the size of the problem

Maybe more powerful than most non-state actors, suggested Chan, are students. Having grown up in China, he remembers how universities were moved out of Beijing after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and surrounded by fences. “They understood the power of students,” said Chan. Speaking directly to the young audience in front of him, he said, “You are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and the last generation who can put a stop to it – you have nothing less to defend than your future.”

The LCOY as a whole shined light on a variety of different ways in which young people can defend their future. One of them was, naturally, to participate in events such as the LCOY and also the international COY and even COP. Another was climate litigation.

Through climate litigation, non-state actors can hold states – but also corporations – accountable. A local example is Urgenda, a case where Dutch citizens sued their government for failing to adhere to their duties toward their people, including a duty of care. In 2015, the District court of the Hague ruled in favor of Urgenda, requiring the Dutch government to immediately take more effective climate action. The Dutch government appealed the judgement, but only a day after the release of the IPCC report, on Oct. 9, 2018, the Hague Court of Appeal ruled in favor of Urgenda again, upholding the decision from 2015.

“Through climate litigation we change public discourse, and connect something spatially and temporally dispersed to the local, personal experience; we’re making [climate change] tangible,” said Chiara Arena, third-year Social Science major and partly responsible for a workshop on climate litigation.

Meet a participant: Sara Felber, 22, Austrian student who volunteers for the student organisation Klimareporter, providing other students with information concerning climate issues.

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A climate issue Felber personally wants to focus on in the future, is meat eating. “I started [studying] English just to be able to communicate on a global basis, but now I’ve changed my subject to psychology in order to investigate the cognitive dissonance coming from eating certain meats but not eating other meats and other animals,” she said.

In another session, Plan B, an organisation which is bringing the British government to court, presented climate litigation as a way to move away from consumerist guilt toward political agency. Though adopting sustainable habits is clearly better than not doing so, Lauren Sellers, representative of Plan B, argues the focus needs to be on politics. “Individual action doesn’t demand anything of politicians,” she said.

“‘You have to match the solution to the size of the problem,’” Sellers continued, quoting a saying of the director of Plan B, Tim Crosland. “Changing your individual habits won’t do that.”

Paris Palmano, another representative of Plan B, said, “Litigation is not the solution, it’s a tool that shines a spotlight on the behaviour of those in power.”

Currently, there have been more than 1000 cases of climate change litigation all over the world, with a large majority in the United States.

Learn more about climate change litigation in this article published by The Guardian.

Another way in which political leaders can be pressured, is civil disobedience. Talissa Soto, representative of the Dutch organisation Code Rood (an organisation I have written about here), described civil disobedience on the stage during the opening ceremony of the LCOY. “We put pressure on politics with our literal bodies,” she said.

Referring to politicians she thinks have been serving the interests of industry for far too long, Soto said, “We stop business as usual, we put ourselves in your way – if you want us to move, you have to listen to what we have to say.”

While both litigation and civil disobedience are ways to draw attention to injustices and power abuse, the parts of the world where power abuse and injustices are rife, there is often not a fair and functioning legal system in place, and performing civil disobedience often entail risking one’s life.

Stories of injustice – the case of West Papua

Someone with personal experience of such rampant injustice, is Raki Ap. He is a political refugee from former Dutch colony West Papua, and spokesperson of the campaign Free West Papua. On the last day of the LCOY, Ap told his story, and the story of his nation, to a classroom crammed with people.

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Raki Ap presenting on ecocide and genocide in West Papua

At the end of the 1950s and beginning of 1960s, the Netherlands were preparing to hand the people of West Papua their independence. Ap described the relationship between colonizer and colonized as unusually benign – to this day he meets Dutch veterans who cry over what has happened with West Papua since the ties with the Netherlands were cut, when the West Papuans did not get their independence. Instead, they were handed over to Indonesia – read a more detailed account of the history of West Papua here.

West Papua is the home of the world’s largest gold mine, and has seen a virtual explosion of the palm oil industry in recent years – two industries that tend to leave environmental destruction in their wake, and which are incredibly lucrative; though rarely for the people living in the region. “Corporations pay the Indonesian government to crush resistance,” said Ap.

Ap’s father, Arnold Ap, was an anthropologist, musician and beloved cultural symbol. In 1984, he was assassinated after having been arrested by the Indonesian military, on the grounds of suspected sympathies with the independence movement. Raki Ap’s mother then fled the country, and Ap was born four months later in a refugee camp across the border in New Guinea. Ap describes his life as a journey from an orphan to an all-round activist.

“We are third class citizens in our own country,” said Ap, showing photos that depict West Papuans as slaves – walking in line, their hands on each other’s shoulders, overseen by military. “These are not pictures from 50 years ago, they are from five years ago,” said Ap.

One of the photos shown by Ap, retrieved from Mondialisation

An estimated 500 000 West Papuans have been killed in the past 50 years. Against this staggering violence, civil resistance may seem like an impossibility. But according to Ap, it is not. “Even under oppression, without freedom, we are organising ourselves,” he said.

Recently, 1.8 million signatures were secretly collected in West Papua, and successfully brought across the border. These signatures back Ap and other activists in their lobbying of international politicians. But the West Papuans’ primary weapon, is storytelling. With their stories, they put pressure on the international community. “Our stories of injustice are stories about international law,” said Ap.

Two countries that Ap believes find it especially difficult to dismiss West Papua’s stories, are the Netherlands and Australia; West Papua’s former colonizer, and one of its closest neighbors.

“[The Netherlands] can’t hide anymore behind stories of how well they’re doing regarding international law, peace in Mali and efforts in Afghanistan, when 500 000 former citizens have been slaughtered – it’s not credible,” said Ap. “Australia can’t talk about IS and genocide in Syria when a genocide is happening on their own doorstep.”

Storytelling is also the weapon Ap advices for everyone who wants to help the cause. The greater the global awareness, the bigger the pressure on the international community to help West Papuans in their struggle for freedom.

The case of West Papua is one where environmental destruction is deeply linked with social exploitation, and work such as that of Naomi Klein indicates such links are almost always to be found.

“This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate”, a book written by Canadian author and journalist Naomi Klein, published in 2014, was a large inspiration for the two initiators of LCOY Netherlands, Lena Hartog and Lennart Tiller. Read about their first steps toward organising an LCOY here.

Klein published a new book last year, by the title “No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need”, which also ties into climate change, action and justice.

The intertwined nature of climate change and social inequality might necessitate climate action to have a more complex focus than emission reduction, but it might also provide the fuel effective climate action needs. As Chan put it, “Stories of climate injustice are very mobilising, more so than facts on mitigation gaps.”

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The closing ceremony of the LCOY, in AUC’s main hall

Stories as bridges – from the personal to the universal

The point both Ap and Chan were making, is that stories touch people in a way that dry facts do not. Furthermore – as pointed out by Kauthar Bouchallikht, chairwoman of Groene Moslims, during one of the last Talanoa sessions of the LCOY – different people are touched by different stories.

Already at the opening ceremony of the LCOY, Bouchallikht said that words such as ‘green movement’ and ‘activism’ can be excluding. She argued that being part of the climate movement has to do with identity, and for that reason it is undesirable to have a narrow definition of what climate action is. “We need a really big story, with many layers,” Bouchallikht later said during her Talanoa session. “We need to keep looking for common ground.”

Meet a participant: Balder Claassen, 24, Dutch climate activist inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year-old Swedish girl who started school striking earlier this year to pressure the Swedish government to up their climate ambitions.

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Every Friday, Claassen sits with a sign outside local parliament buildings around the Netherlands, to get in contact with people and talk about climate impact. Sometimes with other protestors, sometimes alone. “That’s the thing that has inspired me very much about Greta – you can sit on your own, you don’t have to be with many to make an impact,” he said.

Bouchallikht showed the participants of her Talanoa session this video on empathy, and then asked whether anyone experience that they have at least one friend who does not care about the climate. Everyone raised their hand. Bouchallikht then said she did not believe that is true. “If you say ‘they’re not interested in…’ you haven’t tapped into their stories,” she said.

“That assumption [that someone is not interested in climate action] says something about how we connect to each other,” Bouchallikht continued. She argued it shows a certain degree of paternalism; that the person with the assumption believes him- or herself to know better what climate action is. “To understand what would move [those who do not seem to care], you need to understand what’s important for them,” Bouchallikht said. “And then you tap into that.”

Bouchallikht meant her advice to apply just as much between friends as between strangers with different worldviews, and in that she was accompanied by Chan. “Taking climate change seriously is a matter of neighborly love,” he said. “Politically we might come out on opposite ends, but we should feel their pain as well.”

Feeling each other’s pain, as expressed by Chan, or tapping into each other’s stories, as put by Bouchallikht, are very personal things. Climate change is a global problem, and can be experienced as far removed from the personal, out of one’s hands. But if Chan, Ap, and Bouchallikht are right, personal stories have the power to bridge gaps between people that are, figuratively, worlds apart. Or as Bouchallikht said, “By making things personal, you’re making them universal.”

Maybe this is what Lennart Tiller, third-year Social Science major and co-initiator of the LCOY Netherlands, meant at the opening ceremony when he said, “We’re here because we all feel that we need to do something – this something has to be part of us, we have to be part of this something.”

Dr. Sander Chan’s advice for defining personal climate action:

Search for the overlap of your answers to the following questions:

What am I good at?
What do I enjoy doing?
What will make the world better? 

An example of personal climate action: Music
“I feel climate change needs epic orchestral music, because it is an epic story”
– Kate Honey

Kate Honey is a composer who created the Shell Symphony, through which she pressured Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw to cut its ties with oil giant Shell. She sees music as a carrier of messages, but also as a tool to build community and emotional resilience. Through music, she found a way to envision a brighter future and to process the climate change induced grief she felt. “Climate change threatens beauty around the world, music is a way to create beauty – to bring back what’s been lost,” said Honey.

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