Youth, indigenous voices shape climate conversation at Davos

From left to right: Edward Felsenthal, Time's CEO; Natasha Mwansa, executive director at the Natasha Mwansa Foundation; Salvador Gomez-Colon, founder of the Light & Hope for Puerto Rico; Greta Thunberg, climate change activist; and Autumn Peltier, chief water commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Photo by: REUTERS / Denis Balibouse

SAN FRANCISCO — The 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is taking place during a climate turning point.

2020 is seen as a critical year for enhancing the ambition of countries' climate change commitments in order to put the world on a pathway to avoid global warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius

Critics of the annual gathering in Davos say the meetings are all talk and no action, and this year, new voices — from young people to indigenous leaders — are demanding that some of the same leaders who are chiefly responsible for climate change do something to reverse the trend.

“My grandmother is the best technology ever. She can predict the weather without a cell phone or internet. Her knowledge of bird migrations and local weather patterns is part of a deep understanding of the land that will help us protect it.”

— Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, president, Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad

In several highly anticipated appearances, Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg implored participants present from corporations, banks, and government to immediately halt all investment in fossil fuels. Action has not followed previous verbal commitments, and she said “empty words and promises” might be even worse than silence because they “give the impression that sufficient action is being taken.”

While Thunberg may have dominated headlines in Davos this week, she was just one of the youth who traveled to the Swiss alpine village to urge action at every level.

“It’s been really hard to advocate for climate change at a local level with people who are like me,” said Ayakha Melithafa, a 17-year-old youth activist from South Africa who spoke on a session that highlighted the 1,000 jurisdictions in 19 countries that have declared a climate emergency in response to concerns of their citizens.

She became a climate justice activist when she realized that climate change was the culprit behind the droughts that threatened her mother’s livelihood as a farmer.

Melithafa often meets people who consider climate change the last of their concerns, given how many other challenges they face, and she responds by explaining that “climate change is directly interlinked with other socioeconomic problems.”

Typically, the conversation on climate justice focuses on the way in which climate change widens economic inequality, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest.

But justice is based on rights, said Henrietta Fore, executive director at UNICEF, and children have a right to a clean world.

“There should be a clean Mother Earth to walk upon, there should be clean water to drink, there should be clean air to breathe,” she said while speaking on a panel at the forum, before describing what she called “intergenerational climate injustice.”  

It is an injustice, she said, that past generations who have had the benefits of a cleaner world are passing one on that is in worse shape.

“What are you actually going to do to ensure that what we say is going to be done back home? Because we’re not going to be in Davos forever.”

— Natasha Mwansa, activist

Still, these youth face a challenge when it comes to going from panels at Davos and protests in their communities to real policy change.

“What are you actually going to do to ensure that what we say is going to be done back home? Because we’re not going to be in Davos forever,” Zambian activist Natasha Mwansa said to the audience gathered for the youngest panel in the history of the WEF meetings.

Intergenerational partnership is critical, because while older generations have experience, younger people have ideas, energy, and solutions, she said, inspiring applause from the audience.  

“Involve young people not just in conferences but as part of the system,” Mwansa said.

Engaging with indigenous communities

Building on Thunberg’s remarks that “our house is on fire,” at Davos in 2019, and her warning that “our house is still on fire,” earlier this week, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, president of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, said this is not just a figure of speech for her people.

“It’s our real home that is burning,” she said. “Nature that protected us has become an enemy for the people."

Indigenous communities need business leaders to ramp up climate action on a faster timeline, because “by 2050 there’s no solution for this planet,” Ibrahim said.

She spent this week raising awareness not only of the deadly impacts of climate change on people in the Sahel region but also the value of indigenous knowledge in protecting ecosystems, noting how business leaders can partner with indigenous communities as stewards of the land.

"My grandmother is the best technology ever. She can predict the weather without a cell phone or internet," Ibrahim said while participating on a panel. “Her knowledge of bird migrations and local weather patterns is part of a deep understanding of the land that will help us protect it.”

Speaking on a separate panel about the future of the Amazon, environmentalist and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore noted the absence of indigenous voices.

He said the comment was “not to be politically correct,” but rather to acknowledge the ownership indigenous communities have rainforests, and the need to honor their ways of life.

Responding to a question on the connection between poverty and climate change, Gore said people who clear land in the Amazon thinking they will grow crops later find the land won’t support agriculture.

“It’s not widely understood that the soils in most of the Amazon are extremely thin,” he said. “It’s a false hope and it’s not a sustainable answer to poverty. There is an answer to poverty in this region. That’s not one of them.”

The richness of the Amazon is in the canopy and the life that inhabits it, Gore noted, and when people clear trees they not only accelerate the pace of climate change but also destroy resources that could support their communities.

For example, the growth in demand for goods such as acai berries, the super fruit from the acai palm, presents an opportunity to employ people and generate economic growth without destroying the land, said Carlos Afonso Nobre, director of research at the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, who spoke of the tragedy of the evolution of the Amazon from a carbon sink to a source of carbon emissions.

Speaking on a session on tropical forests, he described how the Yanomami, an indigenous group living on the border between Brazil and Venezuela, are producing chocolate made from a variety of the cocoa plant in the Amazon.

“It shows that modern technologies can eventually empower local communities really to merge traditional knowledge with modern technologies and construct a very vibrant new economy,” he said.

Update, Jan 23, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify why 2020 is considered a critical year for climate action.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.

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