These Grade 11 students — from left, Zoe Zias, Grace Cao, Linden Thomas, Sophia Dantas and Catarina Rosa — say world leaders have shirked their responsibilities at the UN climate negotiations in Madrid. Michael Swan

Leaders given failing grade on climate

  • December 22, 2019

Despite months of protests from youth climate activists around the world, leaders at a global climate summit in Madrid have kicked the can of climate change down the road until the next UN-sponsored negotiations in 11 months. 

The decision to basically maintain the status quo has left Grade 11 students at a Toronto Catholic high school seething with anger.

“I think that government leaders have too much power. It drives me crazy,” said 16-year-old Linden Thomas of St. Joseph College School. “There should really be, for one, more youth representatives (at UN climate negotiations). We take it more seriously, because it’s our future.”

Her classmate Grace Cao agreed.

“We’re going to be the ones who actually face the consequences of all this — all the climate change, all the flooding and all the fires,” she said. “It’s going to have an impact directly. The greatest impact will be on us.” 

“We’re 16,” pointed out Sophia Dantas. “By the next federal election we’re going to be voting. And we are going to take all that Doug Ford has done to us, everything Justin Trudeau has done to us, what any leader has done to us, and we’re going to take that into account. We’re either going to vote them out or keep them in. So they need to take that into account if they want to keep their jobs.”

The two-week meetings in Madrid were supposed to persuade countries to become more ambitious about cutting carbon. But in the final communique countries were merely “invited” to “communicate” by 2020 their mid- and long-term climate plans. 

At one point Brazil’s delegation objected to any use of the word “urgent” in describing the climate crisis. The United States — which is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement — was accused, along with Australia, China and Brazil, of frustrating the process. The next meetings will be held Nov. 9-19, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Since last year, St. Joseph’s students have been participating in occasional climate strikes in front of the Ontario legislature near their school. The Madrid result has left them wondering whether politicians are listening.

“Why are they waiting until next year to have another one?” asked Catriona Rosa. “Especially when this isn’t something we have 50 or 60 years for. We have 12 years and that’s it.” 

The students are aware of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2018 report that gave governments until 2030 to adopt the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Canada announced it would legislate its commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. The latest UN survey predicts Canada will miss its 2030 goals by 15 per cent.

“So Canada’s carbon footprint is increasing. Meanwhile it should be decreasing radically. There’s gotta be a change,” said Development and Peace’s head of advocacy Elana Wright, who was in Madrid for the first week of the COP 25 negotiations. 

Watching the Madrid proceedings doesn’t inspire confidence, said Wright. “It’s hard not to get cynical, because the COP process is voluntary. So they make their commitments, each country, but they don’t necessarily fulfill them,” she said.

Climate activist and theology student Rosemary Boissonneau is unwilling to put all her trust or hope in the UN’s climate negotiations, reserving her deeper faith for Pope Francis and his Laudato Si’ encyclical on the environment. 

Laudato Si’ is prescient,” she said. “The encyclical warned about carbon trading and markets that it might just lead to the rich being able to pay and continue to emit (carbon).”

As a middle-aged Catholic school teacher, Boissonneau has been inspired by the youth movement most identified with 16-year-old Greta Thunberg.

“It’s not just the 16-year-olds,” she said. “It’s the Indigenous voices and all these people coming together, insisting on change. Working with the #FridaysForFuture people, I can see so much hope in that they see a way forward. It’s not going to be easy, but these people understand the urgency. They’re fighting for something that they love.”

Global Catholic Climate Movement Canada co-ordinator Agnes Richard hopes that Canada’s bishops and parish pastors start to respond to the Catholic youth.

“There are wonderful bishops who are doing a lot of work in support of this, but there are also pockets where parish priests can say, ‘No, we don’t have that conversation here,’ ” Richard said. “That’s really unfortunate, because for Catholics in Canada not to know what Laudato Si’ is, I think is really unfortunate. There are very specific calls to action (in the encyclical) and those are things we can take to our government.”

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