A youth-led movement has called on the countries of the United Nations to take climate change seriously – but can the world’s elite meet their expectations? Sam Sachdeva reports from New York.

As far as public signals of discontent go, world leaders would have found it hard to miss.

Friday’s climate strike, on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly, drew millions of people into the streets around the world.

In New York, tens of thousands brandished placards calling for politicians to take them seriously, with some signs carrying the ominous warning: “Our house is on fire.”

Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has become the face of the climate change movement, addressed the masses by the Hudson River. 

“Why should we study for a future that is being taken away from us, that is being stolen for profit?”, Thunberg said.

It is a state of agitation and anger acknowledged by the UN, which for the first time hosted youth delegates at its New York headquarters to discuss climate change over the weekend, ahead of the formal Climate Action Summit taking place on Monday (New York time). 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has made climate change his priority for this year’s general assembly, demanding that countries show up with “concrete plans” rather than “beautiful speeches” and empty platitudes.

That has led to the exclusion of nations who are perceived to be neglecting their emissions targets or remain committed to new fossil fuel power plants.

United States President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison were among the notable absentees – Trump offered some counter-programming with his own summit on religious freedom – but China and India were both given speaking slots despite their continued commitment to coal, raising eyebrows among some observers.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the UN the world had to not just prevent the worst on climate change, but provide the best world possible for future generations. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Unsurprisingly, it was a debate Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was unwilling to enter.

“I can’t speak to the basis on which countries are or aren’t participating: we can only speak from New Zealand’s perspective…

“We have over a period of time seen our gross emissions rise, we have been high emitters relative to others in the OECD, but we’re trying to turn that around and we’re trying to do it collaboratively.”

But Ardern was clear that the lack of interest in collaborative action from countries like the US was not an insurmountable obstacle to change.

“What I think is important to keep in mind though is regardless of whether or not countries are signing up to the Paris agreement, which of course would be New Zealand’s preference we are seeing climate action at a state level, and often at a company and a private sector level as well.

“In fact, what we need to start encouraging is that even if we’re not seeing politicians moving we need to make sure we find ways that we can achieve those goals regardless.”

The Prime Minister was given the privilege of delivering the first speech by a head of government at the Climate Action Summit, and as promised she did not shy away from New Zealand’s failings.

“Although New Zealand accounts only account for 0.17 percent of the global total our gross emissions have increased a little over 23 percent since 1990 and our net emissions by 65 percent. 

“Our generation – we – have it within our grasp, not just to prevent the worst, but to build the best possible world for the generations to come.”

“But, also as with many here, things are starting to turn around.”

New Zealand’s gross emissions had peaked in 2006, she said, with over 80 percent of the country’s electricity already coming from renewable sources.

She outlined her Government’s work on the Zero Carbon Bill, its efforts to strengthen the Emissions Trading Scheme, and its investments in green energy technologies and more climate-friendly infrastructure.

“Mr Secretary General, the situation is stark. It will not be easy,” Ardern said. 

“But our generation – we – have it within our grasp, not just to prevent the worst, but to build the best possible world for the generations to come.”

Thunberg was less optimistic, lacerating the politicians gathered for their lack of action in a brief speech which preceded Ardern’s remarks.

“This is so wrong – I shouldn’t be up here, I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean…

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said, on the verge of tears.

Then came a promise, and a warning: “Change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Pacific Peoples’ Minister Aupito William Sio is unconvinced that the urgency of climate change in the Pacific is being heard by everyone in New York. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Aupito William Sio, the Pacific Peoples’ Minister, is working alongside Ardern at the UN and was equally urgent about the need for change.

“There is no other canoe, as we would say in the Pacific. This is it – we’ve all got to be paddling in the same direction or we’ll sink,” he told Newsroom.

The Pacific looms larger than ever in climate change discussions on the world stage.

Earlier this year, Guterres visited Tuvalu and other Pacific nations facing peril from rising seas and proclaimed: “We must stop Tuvalu from sinking and the world from sinking with Tuvalu” – something which does not surprise Sio.

“You come away moved by the urgency, you come away believing that, ‘Gosh how do you get the world to act collectively, with haste, with urgency’…

“When we met with [Guterres] yesterday with the Pacific Islands Forum leaders, his responses sort of gave me a real sense of confidence that he learnt something when he was down in our part of the world.”

“People who plant trees today plant it for shading the future generation, knowing full well that they won’t benefit from that. That’s the kind of attitude that I think we’ve got to somehow get across to the most powerful nations.”

But while the Secretary General may be “raising the flag” for climate action, Sio was not so confident that message had been heard by those in the halls of the UN without his experience.

“You sit in that room, you’re isolated…this buffer of being in this very powerful city surrounded by these very tall buildings makes it really difficult to recognise how a small island like Tokelau or Kiribati or Tuvalu or the Marshall Islands, how they are literally fighting for their lives and yet here…just nice.”

Citizens have to look beyond their immediate interests and take a longer-term view, Sio said.

“People who plant trees today plant it for shading the future generation, knowing full well that they won’t benefit from that.

“That’s the kind of attitude that I think we’ve got to somehow get across to the most powerful nations, the industrial nations, that we’ve got to act now for the future generations knowing full well that we ourselves won’t benefit from this, and that’s a tough ask.”

It is a sentiment shared by Thunberg and the young climate strikers who took to the world’s streets – whether the world’s leaders as a whole can make good on that feeling remains to be seen.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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