With COP26 winding down, Greta Thunberg is leading a group of youth climate activists in pushing the UN to declare “a systemwide climate emergency.” The group of 14 teens is drawing comparison to the UN's coordinated response to the coronavirus pandemic, and by filing a legal petition with the UN secretary-general, they are hoping that the climate crisis will get the same attention.
It's the next step for these activists after their case declaring that countries perpetuating climate change were violating their human rights was rejected by the UN's Committee on the Rights of Children. In keeping up the pressure, the youth activists are looking to step in and address what they see as a global failure to address climate change. Thunberg has called COP26 a “failure” and full of “blah blah blah.” Now, the youth activists want to see big government organizations put actions behind their words.
By calling on UN secretary-general António Guterres to declare climate change a global level 3 emergency—the highest possible—they'll force his hand. An emergency declaration of this magnitude, which was used for COVD-19, would set in motion resources and technical expertise. Importantly, these resources would go to the most at-risk countries facing global heating. These countries often include developing countries and small islands.
“The countries that emit the least face the greatest risks,” the petition details. “UNICEF has identified 33 countries as ‘extremely high risk’ for children due to threats from climate change. Those countries contain half the world’s children but are collectively responsible for only nine percent of CO2 emissions. The 10 highest emitting countries account for nearly 70% of global emissions, but only one, India, is ranked as ‘extremely high-risk.’”
The group wants the UN to start dealing with the crisis as a global matter not dependent on borders rather than leaving it for individual countries to grapple with. To that end, the petition also calls for the creation of a crisis management team to oversee prompt action on the climate by the global community.
“I hope the petition sends a message of urgency,” says Alexandria Villaseñor, an American youth climate activist who signed the petition. “We have had 26 COPs that have been failures. Right now is the time to take action, and we need to do that urgently. It’s young people and youth who are continuously reminding those in power that we need to do something right now, and this petition is an important way to do that.”
It's believed that the UN has already viewed a draft of the petition and that the level 3 emergency is under discussion, but thus far the secretary-general's office has declined to comment publicly.
“The secretary-general has really taken the lead over the past few years on pushing states to declare national climate emergencies,” says Scott Gilmore, a human rights lawyer who is lead counsel on the case. “The UN has not taken that step yet. The view of the petitioners, in this case, is that now is the time.”
As the petition is presented, the world will be watching to see how the UN reacts. With the future of our youths—and our planet—in the balance, it will be interesting to see if, and when, they feel the time is right to act.