Quirks & Quarks

Youth '92 all over again at the 2019 Youth Climate Summit

27 years ago, young people got together to advocate for climate action. Will they be more successful today?

27 years ago, young people got together to advocate for climate action. Will they be more successful today?

People march along Reforma Avenue with signs during a protest in Mexico City on September 20, 2019, in the framework of the "Friday for the planet" global demonstration against climate change. A Youth Climate Summit will take place at the United Nations on Saturday. (ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)

As young people around the world walk out of school to demand action on climate change and participate in the United Nations Youth Summit in New York, it harkens back to a similar youth environmental summit in 1992. 

Considering how the climate has continued to degrade since then, one wonders if youth will finally be heard this time.

1992 seemed like a good year for climate action

1992 was a big year for environmental awareness as the UN adopted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio at the famous "Earth Summit." More than 100 countries — including Canada — ratified the deal, with commitments to fight climate change (then called global warming) by reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. There was also an agreement to preserve biodiversity.

World leaders gathered in 1992 for the first Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conference spearheaded many of today’s international environmental agreements. (United Nations)

Parallel to the Rio meeting was an event in Costa Rica called "Youth '92", where thousands of young people from around the world gathered to talk about their future on planet Earth. I was there as host of a kids' science show called Wonderstruck.

The meeting was fuelled by the boundless energy of youth who were ready to take on the big issues of smog choking cities, water pollution clogging rivers and the destruction of rainforests for beef production. (Sound familiar?) There was a strong resolve to change political will and take on the corporate giants who were placing the economy above the environment. As a group, the youth felt they had a strong voice because they were the future.

27 years of broken promises

Of course, politicians at the time were happy to make bold claims of solidarity with the young voices, with pledges to change environmental laws and move forward into a cleaner, sustainable world. Sadly, few of those promises were fulfilled. The year 2000 came and went and the target of reducing emissions to 1990 levels was not met. 

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks the United Nations during the Entry into Force of the Paris Agreement September 21, 2016, at the United Nations in New York. (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Since then, other UN summits have reset those targets, such as the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which Canada later pulled out of under the Harper government, and the Paris Agreement in 2016, which the United States pulled out of under the Trump administration. 

As a result, CO2 levels have done nothing but climb. In 1992, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was 356 parts per million. Now, it is above 400, a level that some scientists believe is near or past the point of no return. In other words, the voice of youth was unable to move governments and big industry to implement real change. 

Will things be different this time?

Now the youth are speaking out again. Will they succeed this time?

16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg has inspired a wave of climate protests by schoolchildren around the world after delivering a fiery speech at the UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland, last year. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

One big difference between the situation in 1992 and today is that climate change is much more visible to the public eye. As the global average temperature continues to rise, droughts and forest fires are more common, ice caps are melting at unprecedented rates. In fact, in many cases, the effects of climate change are happening faster than predicted. When it comes to biodiversity, the situation is also bleak, with species disappearing at a rate that some scientists think signifies planet's sixth major extinction event

All of this has young people deeply concerned because this is the world they are inheriting, so they are crying out for action.

Perhaps this time, the rest of us should stand beside them for support.

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