The dominant message of the Youth & Leaders Summit (YLS) 2020 was the pressing need for immediate, collective, and systemic action to tackle the challenge of climate change. The event began with the welcome address by Frederic Mion, president of Sciences Po, who exhorted the audience to question their notions of prosperity. “We no longer have a choice but to think of alternative models of growth and development,” he declared.
In her opening remarks, Elisabeth Borne, French minister for ecological and inclusive transition, emphasised the need for “deep changes in our imagination.” She affirmed that citizens across the world are not satisfied with speeches anymore and are demanding action.
In keeping with the theme, Enrico Letta, Dean of the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA), talked about the various measures taken to make the YLS itself a carbon-neutral event.
The first of the five keynote speeches was delivered by Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi, Chairman of the Strategic Committee of PSIA. The tone for the summit was set with the call for “all hands on deck!” to prevent an “ecological armageddon”. Ban Ki-moon emphasised that the philosophical principle behind Sustainable Development Goals is that nobody gets left behind, and thus, the challenge of climate change requires a global partnership in response. He valued the Paris Agreement as the best available roadmap, even if it was not perfect.
The second keynote speech was given by Thomas Friedman, opinion columnist for the New York Times. During the course of his speech emphasizing the primacy and criticality of climate change, Friedman elaborated his ten principles of climate change, including ‘the four zeros’ (zero net energy buildings, zero waste-producing manufacturing, zero-carbon grid, and zero-emission transportation). He said that “it is now cheaper to save the earth than to ruin it” because of new technologies and “scale solutions are the only ones that matter.” He called today’s youth “the Noah generation,” who will have the responsibility of saving all forms of life in times of great climactic upheaval.
This was followed by the first panel discussion on the topic ‘Economic and Environmental Well-Being for All’. The general consensus of the panel of experts was that not dealing with climate change actually worsens poverty and inequality; that we have to rethink our notions of profit; and that governments have to step up and take charge of redistribution of resources and setting up new policy frameworks. The PSIA student panel, consisting of Alexander Cook, Esther Delrieu, Sarah Pellerin, and Georgia Stanley, then presented their findings on stage and directed their questions and concerns to the experts. This was followed by a lively question and answer session with the audience. Active participation by the audience, in fact, was a key feature of all the events of the summit.
The third keynote speaker of the day was Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Disagreeing with Thomas Friedman on the necessity of focusing exclusively on climate change, Steiner urged the audience to have a broader lens and consider sustainable development as a whole that must be aspired to by all of us together. He argued that “mass movements are the society’s reaction to the political leadership doing things that do not reflect the society’s values anymore,” and that change must begin by bridging this gap.
The fourth keynote speaker was Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Striking a positive note, she encouraged the youth to “envision a future that you want, and work together to achieve it.”
We cannot simply tell people that they need to be activists. To be effective, we had to be activists ourselves.
Maria Fustic, PSIA student
The second panel discussion was on the topic of ‘Climate Activism for Lasting Change’. The panelists discussed the need for scaled-up solutions and comprehensive policy responses, focusing on education of the masses and reinvention of the debate. The PSIA student panelists – Clement Cardon, Maria Fustic, Eren Can Ileri, and Helena Michalke – demonstrated climate activism on stage by calling for an end to Sciences Po’s partnership with the petrochemical giant Total. Responding to a question by this correspondent, Fustic later explained, “We cannot simply tell people that they need to be activists. To be effective, we had to be activists ourselves. We united all of our voices in one powerful speech and stood in solidarity with Sciences Po Zéro Fossile in calling out the university for its partnership with Total, a fossil fuel company which is perpetuating the climate crisis and has committed atrocious human rights violations.” Ileri added, “In discussing Climate Activism for Lasting Change, the question of narrative was recurrent. Which forms of protest will best carry our message? What is the story underlying the climate crisis? Whose voices are most subject to erasure? Those most impacted by this crisis—the Global South, least-wealthy communities, Indigenous Peoples—are working to mitigate its causes and adapt to its effects yet are excluded from high-level dialogues.” Cardon stated that “environmental movements are a key to foster a green transition,” and that “these movements and the transition they fight for are much more fair and stronger when they are truly inclusive and constructive.”
The third panel discussion was on “Innovations for a Climate-Impacted World.” Talking about the innovations that have failed, the panel agreed that one of the major failures has been the “ringfencing knowledge on climate change as being policy-neutral,” and emphasised the need to deconstruct expert knowledge so as to make it accessible and understandable to the average person. A major innovation going forward would be regenerative agriculture. Members of the PSIA student panel – Chetna Hareesh Kumar, Julian Martinez Bejarano, John Ploeg and Julie With – presented their findings. Summarising the conclusions of the panel to this correspondent, Ploeg said, “[The panel] focused more on the frameworks needed to spur climate change innovation than specific technologies. The necessity of both effective carbon pricing and new financing models based on public funds but blended with private investment were highlighted. One presentation did focus on a particular innovation – gene editing for crops. But again, much of the discussion was around the regulatory and diplomatic frameworks required to make its uptake a global reality.” Martinez Bejarano added, “New technologies and innovations can play an important role in adapting to climate change, but, at the same time, there are no magic bullets. No single technology will get it done alone, may it be gene editing, regenerative agriculture or CCS, so we need a comprehensive change in our economic systems to lower the capital costs for all innovations and rise them for polluting activities.”
The last keynote speaker of the day was Jeffrey Sachs, director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His focus was on bringing in transparency and clarity to the “straightforward regulatory approach” that is needed, because when it comes to climate change solutions, “there is no magic of the market.” He asserted that a positive deal with China would be decisive, as a clean Belt-and-Road initiative is in everyone’s interests.
The major messages of the Youth & Leaders Summit were those of collective responsibility, regulatory action, scalable solutions, and shaking up the status quo; and the central role that the youth of today have to play in tackling the challenge of climate change. The impressive clarity of vision, authenticity, and sense of accountability displayed by students at the summit, be they panelists, volunteers or members of the audience, is a testament to the coming of age of a new generation, one that has turned its considerable powers of ingenuity, collective mobilisation and individual responsibility to the cause of the future of life on our planet earth.
The Paris Globalist congratulates all student panelists, volunteers and team PSIA who were instrumental in the success of YLS2020.