“You are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”Jean-Jacques Rousseau
As the time approaches for the critically important UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) summit (COP15) in Montreal this December, I have had the fortunate opportunity to speak with youth leaders from around the world, some of whom will be attending the summit. I met Jonas Kittelsen on a Zoom conference call in September. As members of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network (GYBN), he and other young Norwegian activists have a working relationship with the CBD, which strongly advocates the inclusion of young people in decision-making. Jonas and his fellow global activists Shruthi, Swetha and Sudha are knowledgeable and passionate about protecting Nature, and I was honoured to discuss with them their thoughts and actions to protect Earth’s biodiversity, of which humans are a part.
The GYBN website makes it very clear that there is a global biodiversity emergency. The organisation is asking all young people to rally for biodiversity. Has Norway’s biodiversity youth network succeeded in rallying its peer group?
Jonas: Unfortunately, there is no specifically Norwegian biodiversity network, but we have a Nordic youth biodiversity network, which aims to bring young voices to the forefront at UN negotiations for Nature. Our Nordic Youth Biodiversity Paper carries the voices of several thousand Nordic young people, who have articulated what they think politicians must do, and we will use this to push policymakers to take responsibility for this acute emergency. However, I wish more young people rallied for biodiversity, as the crisis is existential, and there are still very few of us working with these issues firsthand.
Why did you feel compelled to join GYBN? Are you a member of other climate/biodiversity groups? What is unique about GYBN?
Shruthi: GYBN is the first climate/biodiversity group I joined. The reason I wanted to join was the capacity building that they did around the CBD, which was my source of understanding this complex process, something I always wanted to do. The capacity-building training was my introduction to GYBN and the community. GYBN is unique in that they don’t just organise campaigns and awareness marches. They really make the effort to involve young people’s opinions and voices in discussions about policy and to get up to speed regarding these important negotiations. They are involved in a wide range of activities that engage artists, young people, decision makers, governments and international bodies. The fact that they have 40+ national chapters and several subnational ones speaks of the reach of the GYBN community.
The global youth climate/biodiversity movement has gained much-needed momentum. However, the term “youth-washing,” whereby a corporation, government or the UN uses its seemingly engaging relationship with young people to foster its own agenda, is of concern for groups such as yours. For example, Egypt’s repressive regime, which is hosting November’s Climate summit (COP27), is going to have a Children and Youth Pavilion there. Greta Thunberg has said, “The real danger is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like real action is happening when, in fact, almost nothing is being done apart from clever accounting and creative PR.” Does your connection with the summit feel like a public relations stunt on Egypt’s part? Tell us about your relationship with it. How does it support your efforts?
Swetha: With any initiative, it is always important to ask what the overall objective is and how it is being achieved. Take your example of the youth pavilion at COP27. If this initiative is youth-led, if it brings grassroots and marginalized young voices to the forefront, and if it is done in a way that can highlight their voices, concerns and demands, then it can be a very powerful space. We have a very good collaborative relationship with the Secretariat of the CBD. This helps young people in the biodiversity community create youth-led spaces that are used to mobilize intergenerational partnerships with various stakeholders.
Many times younger people are pushed aside when consultations are held and policies are made in regional and national governments. How can this change? What can older people do to support your group?
Sudha: This is exactly what GYBN is actively advocating for and trying to change. We have had success in this sphere, with the CBD recognising us as an official youth group, but a lot still remains to be done. Active youth engagement in policy and decision-making is critical because young people and future generations are going to live in a world that is rapidly changing, with ecological and climate crises looming right over our heads. The change can only happen when older generations realize that the dynamism and knowledge young people have is important and create a space for dialogue between the two groups, because each group has a lot to learn from the other. What the older people can definitely do is consciously and actively encourage young people to voice their opinions, and give them a seat at the table where important decisions affecting their lives are made. Dismissing the opinions of young people due to a perceived lack of experience is another major factor at play, which needs to change because a lot of young people are involved in several grassroots and international initiatives and therefore have a lot to bring to a discussion. An open, respectful dialogue, and inclusion and recognition in all decision-making spaces (from regional to national and international) that is not tokenistic is the best way to support youth groups.
I have noticed for years that more than twice as many young women as young men are participating in biodiversity and climate groups. I have observed this in university classrooms, on protests, and even in photos on the GYBN website. Why might this be happening?
Swetha: Yes, this is a very interesting trend when you look at it globally. My personal observation as someone coming from Asia is that this has a lot to do with job opportunities. Young men in many cultures need to get a well-paying job, which may not always be possible for a climate change activist. However, this trend is not the same in all regions. For example, in Africa the biodiversity movement offers many men jobs in wildlife conservation and eco-tourism, with well-paid salaries.
Will Norwegian youth activists be coming to Montreal in December to take part in the UN summit? If so, what do you hope to achieve?
Jonas: As far as I know, it will only be me and Norway’s youth delegate in Montreal. The goal is obviously to get the best Global Biodiversity Framework possible, and our task as young activists is to hold governments responsible and accountable for the massive gap between scientific consensus and politics. We are there to scream in the halls and fiercely demand a just future behind closed doors. A just future entails a rights-based approach taking equity and intergenerational justice as premises, with proper funding mechanisms to enable marginalized countries to uphold their biodiversity targets.
Climate/biodiversity justice and social justice are intertwined issues. Do you believe that governments are up to the task of strengthening and upholding basic rights? Is there another path?
Jonas: No, not really. I have no trust that governments will uphold our basic human rights and give us a safe, liveable future. They always disappoint us, and I can’t see that changing after following the negotiations rounds prior to this meeting. If you look at your policies, you will see that richer countries consistently prioritize their own national interest over planetary and human wellbeing. Where is the climate and biodiversity finance for marginalized countries? Nowhere. That doesn’t mean we should give up. Every species matters, every degree of temperature matters. This is felt bodily. Traumas will rise exponentially without an emergency plan, so we must fight with everything we can to avoid the worst consequences of irreversible tipping points in our natural systems.
Biodiversity loss will impact your generation massively unless there are immediate agreements to push back against the destructive tide we are witnessing daily. A never-ending series of scientific reports are shouting out to us to act for Nature. What strategies are you prepared to use?
Jonas: We are staring apocalypse in the eyes when 70% of wildlife is lost in just 50 years. Ecosystems rely on animals. We – and our economy – rely on ecosystems. Urgent times require urgent measures. I’m willing to use all non-violent strategies that bring urgency and visibility, but I would need to connect more with local movements like Extinction Rebellion Canada and MAPA (Most Affected Peoples and Areas) networks to understand how best I can contribute. I will join marches outside and organize frequent actions inside the venue to bring the needed urgency – potentially with disrupting elements – but how actions are designed must take into consideration how negotiations develop and what strategies GYBN and other affected communities want to pursue.
Global surveys have shown that young people are overwhelmingly distraught about what is unfolding for our planet’s ecological wellbeing. What keeps you going?
Jonas: I don’t feel I have much choice. The moment you realize the gravity of our crisis, there is no turning back. I have accepted that my life will become progressively worse over time, but I’m not seeing my planet deteriorate without a proper fight. There is enormous power in people power. We just need to realize what we are capable of, and then social tipping points and new political landscapes will arise. History has showed us that movements can win justice. That is what keeps me going.
Overconsumption is a main source of biodiversity destruction and it is mostly happening in the global north, where the carbon footprint of people is huge. How can we turn this around? Would having fewer children help to reduce this impact?
Jonas: We must stop overconsumption, especially among the 1% wealthiest. They are responsible for most of the emissions and the degradation of Nature. I’m convinced we must build new systems designed for protecting the integrity of ecosystems through rights-based approaches dignifying human and animal life, instead of profit-maximizing systems designed to degrade Nature. Our focus should lie there, not on birth rates.
Please view tinyurl.com/GYBN-interview to have an even better understanding of what committed youth are doing and what is at stake at the Montreal biodiversity summit.