In the political aftermath of COP15 in Copenhagen, many point fingers at US and Chinese leadership for stagnating the UNFCCC process and ultimately decimating the prospects for a legally binding climate treaty. The current gridlock is woven with mistrust between two superpowers- the two world's largest economies and carbon emitters- that hold they key to meaningful global climate action on the international political arena. The bitter dynamic between the US and China in climate politics can be strangling, depressing, and frustrating.
But on Tuesday, US and Chinese Youth transcended the systematic mistrust that has characterized the diplomacy between our two nations for years. In an air-conditioned hall inside the Poliforum (a Cancun basketball arena), we held our first workshop to formally launch the US-China Youth Climate Exchange. Coordinated by seven US and seven Chinese youth delegates, this workshop was the culmination of a two-month long planning process that included hours upon hours of awkwardly-timed conference calls, skype chats, and email chains. As a member of this core team, I can attest to the difficulty of hopping on the phone at 11pm EST on a Saturday night (10am Sunday in Beijing) in a dorm infested with college freshman that had a bit too much Four Loko. But the extraordinary geographic distance aside, we managed to form a cohesive team and lay the groundwork for two weeks of intensive collaboration at COP16 that features multiple workshops, shared actions, core meetings, and a 'diplomacy dinner'.
Tuesday's workshop kicked off with a orientation by Holly Chang from GoldenBridges that laid the essential foundation for open communication, with the goal of building empathy and trust among US and Chinese youth. Following that was a series of contiguous presentations from US and Chinese delegates that outlined our respective countries' cultures, political histories, and stances on climate. Summer Zhao, a Chinese student and Sierra Student Coalition COP16 Delegate from the Washington University Students for International Collaboration on the Environment (WUSICE), unveiled a comprehensive Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), the product of the U.S.-China Student International Conference on Climate Change and Sustainability that mimicked the negotiating process between US and Chinese youth. We finished the afternoon with an open space dialogue, focusing on building relationships and sharing perspectives on youth climate organizing.
Throughout the afternoon, the workshop hall buzzed with energy and excitement, as participants became increasingly conscious of the symbolic significance of our collaboration. Reporters from Reuters and the China Daily continually disrupted the action by yanking organizer after organizer into the Poliforum's concourse for interviews. As one of the bottomliners of the workshop, I was constantly bouncing in and out of the workshop hall, swapping places with co-facilitators to try and keep our agenda on track.
The workshop capped off with a version of the childhood game 'Rock-Paper-Scissors', where the loser of each round became the winner's cheerleader. Behold, the future of international climate negotiations:
Photo by Jared Schy.
But in all seriousness, the message to our leaders is clear: we as youth know what's at stake in these negotiations, and understand the imperative need for positive action between US and Chinese leadership. And it's beyond understanding; we are modeling the progressive collaboration that we envision for our leadership.
For me, the US-China Youth Climate Exchange highlights one of the fullest expressions of youth identity and agency that I've experienced as an activist. Coming from the US and China, we couldn't have more contrasting political or cultural identities. But what we do understand- and what we are expressing through this collaboration- is our shared stake, our shared future, and our shared identity as passionate and conscious young people.