The Intergenerational Fight for Climate Justice at COP 28 

December 10, 2023 | 10:19 pm
Sanjali De Silva/UCS
Sanjali De Silva
Former Contributor

On the day before the 28th United Nations annual climate talks began, I walked into a room with over a hundred people representing almost two thousand civil society organizations. I sat next to a guy who immediately introduced himself to me—he was my age and it was his first COP, too. When prompted by our facilitator, roughly a third of the people in the room raised their hands that it was their first COP. Another third or so have been coming to COP since its first convening in Berlin in 1995.  

The youngest member of the Climate Action Network International (CANI) is still in high school, and the oldest is 85. Teenagers and octogenarians sat side by side in a strategy session, finding common ground in the name of one clear thing: climate justice.  

Over the course of the next two weeks, civil society members from around the world would come together to fight for the world we want at COP28. At this year’s negotiations, success for our constituency means a decisive end to the fossil fuel era, robustly resourced recompense for Loss and Damage, and a path forward that equitably funds the clean energy transition and global adaptation goals.  

As a youth, a science advocate, an American, and a descendent of the global South, I couldn’t be more aligned with these priorities. The end of the fossil fuel era would mean a world where I don’t routinely watch the Rocky Mountains where I grew up, burn to a crisp. A Loss and Damage Fund would help my family in Sri Lanka recover from the economic loss they’ve experienced from sea level rise along the coast. And an energy system powered by renewable sources like the wind and sun will create a world where my kids can breathe clean air.  

On day one of COP 28, world leaders officially gaveled the Loss and Damage Fund into effect. During this historic moment, I sat beside my mentor and anchor, Dr. Rachel Cleetus. Dr. Cleetus, a policy director and lead economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has been fighting for this fund for years. Dr. Cleetus has been working alongside leaders from the Global South to ensure the fight for climate justice includes restitution for people on the frontlines of the climate crisis who are suffering severe economic and non-economic losses and damages caused primarily by emissions from richer nations including the United States.  

While Dr. Cleetus worked tirelessly to track complex and ever-changing international policy spaces, more of my UCS colleagues, like Dr. Delta Merner, Dr. Kristina Dahl, Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, and Dr. Rachel Licker have been working on cutting-edge attribution science, which is critical to understanding who bears the responsibility of loss and damage. To my UCS colleagues and countless others, like Professor Saleem Huq, who made this moment possible: thank you.  

But the work on Loss and Damage is far from over. With an operationalized fund in hand, efforts to get it properly resourced are in full swing. Advocates are calling on wealthy countries like the United States to step up and contribute their fair share to help communities recover.  

On the ground with me in Dubai are youth activists Emma Buretta and Keanu Arpels-Josiah, organizers with Fridays for Future New York City. Emma and Keanu are among the masterminds behind this past fall’s historic March to End Fossil Fuels. The March to End Fossil Fuels brought together 75,000 people on the streets of New York calling on President Joe Biden to phaseout fossil fuels and stop expanding new oil and gas projects. The momentum from the march enabled my team at UCS—led by my partner in power Hannah Poor—to mobilize more than 650 scientists to call on President Biden to take ambitious climate action at COP28, including agreeing to a phaseout of oil, coal, and gas.  

I’m witnessing firsthand some of the youngest members of our constituency look our country’s top decision makers in the eye and implore them to do better. And it’s working.  

As Keanu, Emma, and I sit face to face with negotiators and slide the scientist sign-on letter across a table, it’s front of mind that it wasn’t until two years ago in Glasgow at COP 26 that fossil fuels were even mentioned in any final negotiation documents. The immense influence of the fossil fuel industry over our political systems is only recently beginning to erode in a meaningful way. Getting to this historic moment has taken tireless campaigning from individuals like the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Accountability Campaign Director Kathy Mulvey who has helped bring to light the role of fossil fuel companies in exacerbating climate change and worked to expose the industry’s dangerous deception and disinformation tactics.  

Fossil fuel phaseout and Loss and Damage are only two pieces of the intricate international climate justice puzzle. Countless other members of this multigenerational movement are fighting for critical progress on mitigation, adaptation, a just transition, climate finance, and more. And for so many of them, such as our Indigenous friends and people from the global South, the fight is monumentally harder. Leaders like CAN’s Executive Director Tasneem Essop are working to make the impossible possible, leading the movement forward in a way that centers equity and reminding us that there is no climate justice without human rights.  

Scientists, policy experts, and advocates across multiple generations are coming out in force to demand climate justice, to demand human rights, and to demand a safe and fair future for all. This intergenerational struggle is one I feel exceptionally proud to be a part of. I’m proud to stand arm in arm with those who came before me in the name of those who will come after. For the generations yesterday, today and tomorrow, may we have climate justice now.