GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — The teens continue to exploit every avenue they have to force the world to come to grips with their future. The latest push came on Wednesday when Greta Thunberg and 13 other kids dropped a petition on United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ doorstep. Their demand: The UN must declare a climate emergency.
The petition is the group’s second attempt to get the UN to throw its weight around. The teens asked for climate change to be declared a children’s rights crisis in 2019, only to be rebuffed last month. The new petition, dropped in the midst of international climate talks in Glasgow known as COP26, opens a new avenue for redress.
“We respectfully call on you and Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) to declare a systemwide climate emergency at the United Nations,” the petition reads.
The petition is essentially the legal version of Thunberg’s “blah blah blah” mantra, asking the UN to put its muscle where its mouth is. It asks the UN to appoint a crisis management team to oversee widescale action to reduce emissions and protect the most vulnerable.
“I hope the petition sends a message of urgency,” Alexandria Villaseñor, one of the petition signatories and a U.S.-based youth activist, said. “We have had 26 COPs that have been failures. Right now is the time to take action, and we need to do that urgently. It’s young people and youth who are continuously reminding those in power that we need to do something right now, and this petition is an important way to do that.”
This would be different than the usual UN processes, such as the climate talks that happen in different locations every year, and would instead focus all facets of the organisation and world governments on the climate crisis.
“With respect to the petition, we’re in a moment of time where it’s critically important for the UN system to recognise that countries are dealing with a mounting climate disaster,” Carroll Muffett, the head of the Centre for International Environmental Law, said in a WhatsApp call. “That means planning for issues of displacement, adaptation, and resilience. All of these are issues in which the UN has appropriate and ongoing expertise. The UN has a critical role to play in all these issues and in urging countries to act.”
The petition argues that this is necessary because climate action must not stop at state borders.” And frankly, most countries haven’t exactly done a bang-up job addressing carbon pollution anyways. A flurry of pledges at the COP26 offer a tantalising glimpse of a better path forward. But many of the promises are nonbinding and could leave wiggle room for countries to continue funding our collective doom. A UN emergency declaration would, in theory at least, help put pressure on countries to come to the table and offer support. The petition notes the UN did this with covid-19, which unlocked powers and appeals for funding to help combat a global health crisis.
The group of teens also argues that this is especially important to their generation and those living in developing countries. “The countries that emit the least face the greatest risks,” the case continues. “UNICEF has identified 33 countries as ‘extremely high risk’ for children due to threats from climate change. Those countries contain half the world’s children but are collectively responsible for only nine per cent of CO2 emissions. The ten highest emitting countries account for nearly 70% of global emissions, but only one, India, is ranked as ‘extremely high-risk.’”
The UN partially screwed the group of young adults last month by shooting down their claim that five major emitters were infringing on their rights as children. The rejection came after an advisory council decided that yes, climate change was violating kids’ rights — but that the UN couldn’t do anything about it until the kids exhausted all options in the various nations they were calling out. The ruling is a little rich given that kids have filed national lawsuits around the world only for them to become ensnared in a Mobius strip of court hearings with no exit.
Juliana vs. United States is perhaps the most high-profile case. It’s taken so long that some of the kids are now adults — and it still hasn’t reached a resolution as settlement negotiations just stalled out. Still, Muffett said the ruling was still “really important to move international law in this space” because it noted that young people’s rights were being violated by the climate crisis. That in and of itself is groundbreaking even if the committee didn’t feel it could act.
Kids are in a particularly precarious position given that they will have to live the majority of their lives in a world created by the policymakers of today. The next decade is one that will require unprecedented. action around the world to reduce carbon pollution tied with burning fossil fuels. The choices policymakers pick will set the course of the planet yet kids have no vote in who will represent them and their choices. No wonder the teens are so upset and freaked out. Absent representation at the federal or local level, the UN could be kids’ best shot to ensure their voices are heard and their needs for a habitable future are met.
“The United Nations connects the entire world together, and we need global action on the climate crisis,” Villaseñor said. “In order to show great leadership, they have to declare a climate emergency.”