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caribbean climate activists
In Glasgow: T&T's Chandelle O’Neil, sustainable energy specialist and human rights advocate.

Caribbean climate youth ambassadors left to find own way to COP26

Young climate activists from the Caribbean say they have gotten little to no support to attend COP26 despite representing the demographic that stands to face the worst effects of the climate crisis.

Even those poised to play a formal role in drafting the Global Youth Statement to be presented at COP26 say they have experienced continuous obstacles in their efforts to get to Glasgow.

Nobody was responding to our emails—not even the embassies, not government ministries—everything just went unanswered,” said Adriel Charles, 23.

Charles is one of 3 activists from Trinidad and Tobago who hoped to attend COP26 as part of the collective, Mighty Sparrows. This group of 34 Caribbean climate youth advocates was selected by the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Youth (COY16) Global Affairs Unit to be “country coordinators” and effectively play the role of ambassadors for climate action.

They were given the task of contributing to the Global Youth Statement on behalf of their respective nations that will be presented to world leaders at COP26. Nevertheless, almost none of them are attending in person.

adriel charles trinidad and tobago
Trinidad and Tobago’s Adriel Charles, climate advocate: “Nobody was responding…”

Elijah James, country coordinator for Antigua and Barbuda, acknowledged that for most of them COVID-19, coupled with a lack of political will, had killed their dreams.

“There are some countries whose governments have poured out, opened the gate and allowed their ambassadors to be engaged and covered but there are others who are basically struggling to pay staff, their public sector bills, their obligations and whatever the case may be,” he said.

Grenadian Nickson Barry who is the regional coordinator for the Mighty Sparrows says he only knows of one member of the group that will be attending from Cuba. Despite group members’ preparations to participate virtually instead, Barry fears that they will be missing out on an opportunity to engage meaningfully at a global level.

“If you are not there and don’t already have networks, there isn’t much that can be done,” Barry said, citing his experience participating in heated negotiations though the national delegation of Grenada to COP21 in 2015.

We were fighting for 1.5 to stay alive when bigger countries that have the resources and who are the major contributors of CO2 and other emissions were asking for two.”

That conference was pivotal because it led to the adoption of the Paris Agreement—an international treaty that appeared to unite most of the world behind a shared vision of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Six years later, scientists now say not enough has been done and this goal may no longer be achievable. This was revealed in an August report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which called for “immediate rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” to return to 1.5 C.

Need for ambition

COP26 represents a last hope—especially for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean that now face rising sea levels and increasingly destructive hurricane seasons.

“We will not survive a two degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures—our shores are already going and our coastline is disappearing,” Barry said.

Jonathan Barcant, co-founder of the youth-led environmental non-profit organisation, IAMovement, believes, however, that youth should not lose faith, and should remain focused on climate action at home.

“I think a lot of people have obviously held their breath through 25 COPs and I am far more focused on moving forward with the work that we’re doing here on the ground.”

IAMovement has been leading climate change adaptation efforts across various Caribbean islands by use of the Vetiver System (VS), a simple and effective way of preventing soil erosion and promoting conservation, to fortify vulnerable communities against the effects of flooding caused by climate change. They also played a pivotal role in organising youth-driven climate marches in T&T to coincide with COP in 2014 and 2015.

hurricane climate change
On October 4, 2016, Hurricane Matthew made landfall on southwestern Haiti as a category-4 storm—the strongest storm to hit the Caribbean nation in more than 50 years. Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

While Barcant empathised with the position of youth who wanted to attend COP26, he pointed out that the rapid digitalisation of systems over the past two years of the pandemic has democratised participation in large conferences where more events can be livestreamed than ever before.

“We’ve known that this machine has been unsustainable for a long time,” he said regarding the tens of thousands expected to fly into COP26. “This pandemic has forced us to slow down and forced us to recognise that many things are unsustainable and maybe not necessary,” he added.

Little support

In addition to not being able to attend COP26, the country coordinators all expressed the view that the various national delegations representing the Caribbean region have done little to engage them.

The other regional coordinator for the Mighty Sparrows, Vaughn-Xavier Jameer from Trinidad and Tobago, said he had been consistently disappointed by the outcome of previous COPs and had no faith that youth interests would be adequately represented at COP26.

“We need to empower youth to shape their futures and to ensure they understand the climate crisis they are surviving through, and how it impacts their lives,” Jameer said.

When Mighty Sparrows’ Charles attempted to gather data to draft the Trinidad and Tobago contribution to the Global Youth Statement, she was met with little interest by her fellow youth. Despite her best efforts, only 10 young people returned her survey questions, leaving her with insufficient data to add any contribution to T&T’s statement to world leaders.

The other country coordinator for T&T, 23 year-old Ruth Baptiste, said that she no longer considers herself to be a youth climate ambassador as her “views on the climate crisis have changed”. She credited this change of heart to a video she saw online produced by the American conservative non-profit media company, Prager U. The video she shared attempted to brand wind and solar power as impractical.

Based on how events have unfolded for the country coordinators for T&T, effective youth engagement on climate issues here has a long way to go.

On Barry’s part, he believes the entire region would benefit from having more youth included in the national delegations sent to climate conferences by Caribbean governments.

“Unless you have that accreditation from your government, you are not able to speak directly,” he said. He believes his experience at COP21 transcended the usual “youth tokenism” because he was accredited through the national delegation of Grenada.

Moving on their own

Carver Bacchus, a seasoned environmental advocate and Festival Director for the Green Screen Film Festival in Trinidad and Tobago recalls his own experience attending COP21 in Paris, 2015. Unlike Barry, he had made his own way there without his country’s national delegation and so had difficulty fully experiencing the negotiation process.

Six years on, he feels as though not enough progress has been made and hopes to see regional negotiators holding richer nations to more binding commitments. This year, the festival he directs is featuring a youth jury for the first time that will judge environmental films submitted by their fellow youth to the “Very Short Shorts Mobile Film Competition”.

One of the jurors, Sapphire Alexander, 18, is in the same headspace that Bacchus occupied in 2015, describing her feelings in the lead up to tracking the negotiations from home as “cautiously optimistic”.

This year, only one young person, Priyanka Lalla, 14, will be traveling as part of T&T’s national delegation which will be led by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. This was confirmed by Kishan Kumarsingh, the local Head of Delegation for Technical negotiations at COP26. Lalla is a UNICEF Eastern Caribbean youth ambassador.

youth climate change
Members of ‘United 4 Climate Action’ meet virtually across the region.

Path to COP26

One determined youth from Trinidad and Tobago who has already successfully found their way to COP26 is Chandelle O’Neil, 28, a sustainable energy specialist and human rights advocate who identifies as queer and uses they/their pronouns.

As part of the Unite 4 Climate Action delegation, O’Neil plans to use the opportunity to advocate for under-represented voices in the Caribbean climate movement.

The question that has always bothered O’Neil about how the movement functions locally is  “Why aren’t there more black people here?”

O’Neil believes that some may associate environmental activism in Trinidad and Tobago with privilege and lighter complexions, not necessarily because they think the rest of the country doesn’t care, but because it is hard to focus on “going green” when life’s basic necessities are not being met.

“You can’t ask for people to plant a tree when they are just trying to survive their life.”

O’Neil realised that in order to get a wider cross section of groups in society to be more actively engaged, they needed to step up, occupy space tand become the change. This thinking has now carried them all the way to COP26 but the journey there has not been straightforward.

Through the Building Bridges for Climate Action programme, O’Neil became part of a group of 21 Latin American and Caribbean youths who travelled to Germany last year for networking and capacity-building with other climate activists.

Despite being the only Trinidadian in the group, O’Neil feels fortunate to have the company of Caribbean colleagues from Jamaica, Anguilla, Montserrat and Cayman Islands. After this experience, the group of 21decided to continue working together under a new banner “Unite 4 Climate Action” to seek funding to get them all across to Glasgow for COP26.

They were able to piece together funding for Glasgow from various grants and donations secured by targeting dozens of different international organisations and were able to meet their target just in time to organise their travels and accreditation for COP26.

Now that they are there, O’Neil says they are not scared and not will not be intimidated.

“Sometime people look at me and want to profile me a certain way but once I start talking, they figure out I’m not stupid,” they said before adding, “I can generally hold my own in these conversations”.

While at COP26, O’Neil’s mission is to convert the technical language of climate conferences into accessible messaging for people back home in T&T with the hope that the public recognise the value of the negotiations for protecting society’s most vulnerable.

A key issue O’Neil will be tracking at COP26 is the formalisation of the Santiago Network which was launched as a vehicle for connecting vulnerable developing countries with providers of the technical assistance, knowledge and resources needed to avert climate risks and address the ensuing loss and damage.

“I’m going because we need more people at the table. We need more representation, we need more diverse voices. But it’s my understanding these things don’t trickle down to where they need to be and it’s a straight-up hot mess; but you still have to go to the other side and figure out what they’re talking about,” O’Neil said.

This story was originally published in Trinidad Express with the support of Climate Tracker.

Zico Cozier
Zico is currently the Assistant Editor at Cari Bois Environmental News Network, he conceptualised and hosts a local television show called “Trinidad is a Real Place” on TTT Limited, and he’s a Communications Officer at The Cropper Foundation – a non-profit that advocates for the advancement of sustainable development in the Caribbean region. Zico is passionate about environmental advocacy, learning languages, and karate.