Today at the People’s Space, I met Elana Hawke and Rachel Ward, two activists from a ten-member COP17 youth delegation from New Zealand.
The two vivacious twenty-somethings graciously let me interrupt their brief downtime between ocean-awareness demonstrations and justice rallies for a lunchtime interview.
Hawke and Ward’s journey to Durban began with their involvement in YOUNGO—a constituency charged with representing youth at the UNFCCC negotiations—but both have a lifelong passion for the environment.
“My best friend until the age of three was an orangutan,” says Hawke, who lived in Borneo—an Indonesian island expected to be completely deforested within 25 years—as a child. “My children won’t be able to see orangutans in their natural habitat.”
Indonesia is a leading producer of CO2 and methane, Hawke explains, because of the continued use of slash-and-burn agriculture.
As the only group from New Zealand’s NGO sector, Hawke feels the team has “a real responsibility to relay what our leaders are doing here” to young people at home. She promotes the delegation’s work through social media and helps organize public actions, like the demonstration for marine stewardship and climate justice—hence, the sailor costume—which took place earlier in the day.
Ward’s activities include encouraging young people to take an active role in climate negotiations by educating themselves through projects like Negotiation Tracker—a website that highlights what global leaders are accomplishing at COP17.
Or what they are not accomplishing, in this case. Leading emissions producers like the U.S. and Canada will likely opt out of a legally binding commitment to upholding 1997’s Kyoto Protocol—a big disappointment for the New Zealand youth delegation, who want a second commitment to Kyoto by 2013.
Another key issue for Hawke and Ward is the money these two nations continue to earmark for oil company subsidies—money they would like to see invested in renewable energy.
“How can we subsidize these companies when people are dying?” Hawke asks.
North Americans aren’t the only ones Hawke wants to see work harder for climate justice. She is also calling for more action from her own country.
“Based on our geographic position, New Zealand should be helping,” says Hawke. “And it’s just not.”
The 23-year-old’s hometown of Auckland—rated one of the world’s “most livable cities”—is just 2,100 miles from Tokelau, a New Zealand territory experiencing severe, climate-induced water shortages. Tokelau inhabitants are rationed just 20 liters of water per day for drinking, washing and bathing, Hawke explains. Contrast that with the 132 liters of water that goes down the drain during a ten-minute shower.
Rising sea levels—also a result of climate fluctuation—are causing thousands of “climate refugees” to immigrate to major cities like Auckland, a port city of 1.3 million, which has the largest concentration of Polynesians in the world. Traditional languages and culture are often lost in this shuffle.
“This issue is not their fault,” continues Hawke, referring to countries like Samoa. The former New Zealand territory has fewer than 200,000 people—who couldn’t produce enough emissions to change the climate if they tried—and just one COP17 delegate.
“Those most affected by climate produce the least emissions,” says Hawke. “I’d like to see countries that are responsible for this step up. We need to step us as an international community.”
While working with Hawke to magnify the voices of climate-vulnerable groups, Ward, an aspiring environmental lawyer, is also speaking out for “generation jobless” at COP17.
“When I talk to my peers in higher ed, [they say] they want to do something, but there’s no outlet,” says Ward. “They’re feeling disheartened.”
New Zealand universities are churning out college grads who want to make a difference into a market where the concept of “meaningful work” is all but non-existent—a problem that intentional green jobs-focused policies could help alleviate. But recent college grads don’t make policy; and so, like their American counterparts, many of New Zealand’s best and brightest are flocking back to graduate school.
Hawke and Ward it is critical that all New Zealand’s young people are represented at COP17, since they’re the ones who will have to live with COP17 outcomes.
“It’s not their future that they’re deciding,” says Ward. “It’s our future. It’s our children’s future. This is what I don’t think the negotiators get: their ways of life are not going to continue.”