Youth climate leaders demand action at inaugural UN Youth Climate Summit

By Nellie O’Shea Carre

More than 500 youth climate leaders from 60 countries convened at the United Nations headquarters in New York City this weekend, to showcase solutions to climate challenges and demand action from world leaders at the inaugural UN Youth Climate Summit.

The tone of the summit was set on Friday, as millions of people rallied around the world to protest inaction on from political and business leaders on the current climate crisis.

Youth speakers at the summit presented innovative climate solutions, and engaged directly with decision-makers on what the UN has described as the “defining issue of our time”. 19-year-old Argentine climate activist Bruno Rodriguez opened the summit alongside four other youth, including Sweden school striker Greta Thunberg.

“The climate and ecological crisis is the political crisis of our time, it is the economic crisis of our time, and it is the cultural crisis of our time,” Rodriguez said.

“The time is now for us to be leaders, and that is why we are here. My message to the Secretary-General is simple; let’s stop demanding world leaders to listen to science, and let’s start demanding them to act on science.”

UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador Aidan Gallagher shares letters written by children concerned about the climate crisis.
Photo: Nell O’Shea Carre.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres attended the opening session as a ‘keynote listener’, and addressed the summit briefly. He called on world leaders to increase carbon taxes and cease subsidising the fossil fuel industry, for the benefit of taxpayers.

“For the first time, there is a serious conflict between people and nature. And this could be absolutely destructive for the future of our communities, and for the future of our societies,” Mr Guterres said.

“It is not only a question of glaciers or ice caps or corals, even though that is still important, and the bio diversities are vital. But is more and more of the suffering of people, and this will become worse and worse as time goes by.”

“Lots of people are dying or suffering because of the impacts of climate. So we have no time to lose.”

A UN report created by scientists from around the world will be presented to the UN Climate Action Summit this week The United in Science report calls for urgent and immediate action to prevent catastrophic global warming.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is in the US currently but will not be attending the Climate Summit. Australia was denied a speaking opportunity at the summit by the UN, due to the country’s poor climate policies.

Greta Thunberg will present at the summit in New York today, and spoke briefly in the opening session of the youth summit. On Friday, she addressed the more than 250, 000 people who rallied in New York City.

“We will make the world leaders act, we can and we will,” Thunberg told the rally.

“And if you belong to that small group of people who feel threatened by us, then we have some very bad news for you. Because this is only the beginning. Change is coming whether they like it or not.”



Youth participants at the summit were selected by the UN from over 7000 applicants between under the age of 29, based on their commitment demonstrated to addressing the climate crisis. 100 outstanding youth climate “champions” received fully funded travel as carbon-neutral as possible to New York.

Speakers covered topics as diverse as climate finance, technology, education and science. Young innovators presented tech and nature based solutions to climate challenges, such as storing carbon emitting data in DNA crates.

Celebrities and professional sports people such as Olympic Gold Medallist in Snowboarding Chloe Kim and Game of Thrones star Oona Chaplin expressed their support for youth activists and the Fridays for Future global student movement, who will be receiving the UN Champion of the Earth award this week for environmental inspiration and action.

A highlight of the summit was the intergenerational town hall, where young leaders engaged with high level representatives from governments and civil society, including UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, President of Austria Alexander Van der Bellen, and Chair of Elders and former president of Ireland Mary Robinson.

Governor of Washington Jay Inslee responded to questions about lack of action from political leaders, raising concerns about the ability of the fossil fuel industry to influence elections.

“We have to develop the recognition and trust that if [politicians] don’t do anything about it, they are going to be thrown out of office,” Mr Inslee said.

“I want you to know that we are with you. Don’t use the absence of action from the White House as an excuse for inaction. I’m telling you that in January 2021, the United States of America will begin fully embrace with you to defeat climate change.”

US President Donald Trump will be in attendance at the UN headquarters today, but will not be present at the climate summit, instead booking a conference room to address a gathering on religious freedom.

Several of the selected participants were unable to attend the youth summit due to delayed or rejected visa applications, such as 17 year old Afghan climate activist Nasratullah Elham.

“There should be no one left behind, every visa should have been handled,” Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told the summit.

“It’s our job to close that gap, and that’s what we are trying to do day in and day out. To close that gap between the reality and the aspiration.”



Anika Dafert
17, Austria 

“I came here by myself, with the President of Austria. It is funny, travelling with the president. We checked in somewhere else, and then came with a bus directly to the plane, so no security check or anything. Here in New York there is always police. I have to wear a badge with an ‘s’ on it so that the secret service knows that I am allowed to be near him.”

“He’s that kind of president that he knows what’s happening, and he’s very aware of it. But he’s just the president, he’s more of a representative of the country than the one to make decisions. So all he can do is to talk and to influence the people. And that he does really well.”

“I have a feeling that sometimes he cannot really say what he thinks directly. But I can, and I definitely do that.”

Spencer Berg
16, USA

“We’ve had three big strikes, but there’s been nothing like September 20th. It was absolutely insane. New York Police Department thought we were going to have 5,000 to 7,000 people. We had 300,000 people.”

“Just seeing that was so inspiring, that was the moment I personally realised it’s really touching everyone.”

“We think what really got people out was that we made it so that when people went, you’d get your absence excuse for the day. We knew that a lot of people wanted to come, but their school was too academic and hard, or their parents would be mad at them, or it would look bad on an application.”

“It took a lot of lobbying, a lot of meetings. In Fridays For Future New York City we have 16 core people, and we have committees, like logistics, outreach, communications. Then all of those have sub groups.”

Dilangez Azizmamadova
27, Tajikistan

“Every Friday we go to climate strikes, and you see a lot of children also, and a lot of elderly people taking part in climate strikes. That is what makes me smile, when I see them.”

“We are also running some lectures and seminars at universities, showing people how the planet, how our earth will change by 2050 if we do not take any measures to change the situation right now.”

“I come originally from a mountainous region, these really high mountains in Tajikistan, and a lot of tourists are coming there. I see how it’s getting polluted each day, each year. That’s why I’m really serious about this issue. People I think should take to the streets right now.”

Di Tang
25, China

“I’m an environmental policy student. Today I heard here that there is a weather application that updates with real time information for farmers; how to improve their crop income. So I think that’s really impressive. I can bring information like that back to my country.”

“After I graduated from my undergrad, I wanted to do something that helped people, or gave something back to society. Sometimes people don’t believe how bad this situation is, until they see the data.”


Conflict of interest: the author of this article was not a participant at the Youth Climate Summit but their travel was funded by the United Nations. 

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