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Obama’s opening speech at the COP21 included a rousing quote from Washington State Governor Jay Inslee: “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it.”
What that quote doesn’t include is the generation that has to live with the largest impacts of climate change— no matter how successful delegates from over 190 countries are at reaching a deal to limit global carbon emissions. It’s a demographic that's missing from the negotiations. Out of the 40,000 people attending COP21, there are less than 20 teenagers.
Victoria Barrett, a 16-year-old Alliance for Climate Education (ACE) Climate Fellow, is one of them. The Notre Dame School of Manhattan student’s concern about warming planet traces back to Honduras, where the sea has literally risen to the doorstep of the family home her grandparents still live in.
“It was the first thing about climate change that hit really close to home,” says Barrett. “And it made me realize the global implications of how climate change affects everyone.”
As an ACE Youth Fellow, Barrett is in Paris as a voice for the nearly 2 million US teens that ACE has reached. ACE’s award-winning programs include climate change education assemblies, and empowering action through leadership training and fellowship opportunities.
A new report from UNICEF spells out why children will feel the worst impacts of climate change. It’s easy to imagine the daunting future today’s youth are facing as they grow up and look for work in a world shaped by record temperatures, rising sea levels, intensifying droughts and resource insecurity around the world. But as Barrett tells it, teens are bogged down in debating. She works on making sure they know the facts, and once they do, they are ready to step up to the challenge.
“We decided to take on the responsibility to fight climate, because we realize we’re going to be the ones that would be affected by it the most,” says Barrett. “It’s our future, and whatever issue that our generation gets focused on, everyone starts to care about it— because we are the ones that are setting the baseline for what posterity will be like.”
Using social media to connect other teens with climate change resources and actions was the first step. Bennett took a huge leap from there, straight into an Our Children’s Trust lawsuit with 20 other youth plaintiffs against the US Federal Government. “We’re suing the Federal Government on the basis that they failed to protect our right to life, liberty and property by allowing the use of fossil fuels,” explains Barrett, “which contribute to climate change directly and will disproportionally affect our generation.”
Barrett will be in Paris for the full two weeks of the COP21, attending panels, following the negotiations, and giving voice to teen and youth concerns. She may be in the minority as a teenager at the UN Climate Conference, but the scrutiny of her peers is something at least one world leader is well aware of.
“Let there be no doubt,” Obama said in his opening remarks, “the next generation is watching what we do.”
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