By Jessica Merriman and Alexandra Wenzel
A Youth Perspective
“We shouldn’t be here for this… demanding basic access to our future on this planet.” Emelie Lindgren, a youth climate activist from Sweden captured a sentiment shared by many of the youth delegates to the Stockholm+50 Conference who were unsure the promise of intergenerational equity would be kept. While the message of the opening speakers at the pre-conference Youth Assembly was one of hope, gratitude, and “power in youth,” the feeling of many attendees – us included – was ostensibly one of frustration and disappointment. We were gathered in the meeting place of the United Nations’ first international environmental assembly, held in Stockholm in 1972, to attend a conference commemorating its fiftieth anniversary. Alexandra attended as an ambassador of the Global Pact for the Environment while Jessica represented the Graduate Institute’s Environmental Committee. We were undoubtedly privileged to be there – so many youth delegates with accreditation weren’t able to attend, simply because their visas had been delayed or outright denied. And with youth from Global South countries facing the brunt of these barriers, their absence was all the more striking. In attending the pre-conference Youth Assembly, we gained deeper insight into UN initiatives but missed a critical discussion of these obstacle-filled systems and how to overcome the failures of the past fifty years.
Two Discourses: Techno-managerial vs. Climate Justice
Ahead of our trip to Sweden, we finished our final research papers for our Political Ecology course – both focused on competing discourses and approaches to climate change remediation. At the time, we didn’t yet realize just how relevant our research would be to understanding the dynamics of our Stockholm+50 experience.
Alexandra’s paper analyzed the two dominant discourses present at international climate change conferences. The first is a “techno-managerial” discourse, which advocates for using the existing capitalist system to find solutions to climate change, such as viewing nature as a saleable commodity with nature-based solutions or seeing humans as capable of controlling nature through geoengineering. Within the “official,” accredited spaces at climate conferences, where politicians and other “high-level” actors convene, this discourse is standardized and inescapable. Outside the official venue, however, in community or grassroots spaces, this is starkly juxtaposed with a “climate justice” discourse, which incorporates alternative types of knowledge and challenges the existing neocolonial, capitalist systems that view society as separate from nature. Similarly, Jessica’s paper analyzed competing discourses in the environmental conservation realm on the dominant “instrumental value” of nature – which treats nature as worth conserving due to its commodified worth or utilitarian benefits to humans – versus the subordinate “intrinsic value” discourse – which acknowledges that nature is inherently valuable whether or not humans gain anything from it.
We found these concepts plainly visible during our time in Stockholm. When we attended community-led talks or demonstrations, like the People’s Forum and the Climate Strike, climate justice was front-and-center, critiques of capitalism were the foundation for action, and the environment’s intrinsic value was paramount. In “official” spaces, however, where those with political power and importance on the global stage dominate, it was clear that the environment’s instrumental value, its commodified worth, or its manipulation to maintain the international financial system and promote economic growth dominated discussions of climate solutions. Given that the techno-managerial institutionalized discourse has produced little more than temporary solutions, it should be obvious by now that systemic overhaul is necessary to achieve true climate justice.
One Step Forward
Despite the painfully slow progress inherent to bureaucratic UN processes, we saw some successes. After the disappointment in the last-minute change at COP26 to “phase down” fossil fuels rather than “phase out,” the Stockholm+50 outcomes document ensured that the more urgent “phase out” language was included. Stop Ecocide International, a campaign to get the International Criminal Court to adopt ecocide as its fifth international crime (among genocide and war crimes), lobbied heavily at Stockholm+50. As a result, it now seems likely that Finland will agree to submit the proposed amendment at the ICC. After the UN Human Rights Council adopted the right to a healthy environment last year, the conference also saw strong support for further implementation of the landmark right. This included a push for UN member states to prioritize this human right in their government policies as well as recognition of this right to make its way to the UN General Assembly. The push to criminalize ecocide and the support for the right to a healthy environment can be a signal of hope for stubborn optimists, as international environmental law has made significant developments in these areas since 1972.
The lack of meaningful collaboration between attendees, the upsetting exclusion of those without passport privilege or the resources to attend international conferences in expensive cities, and the absence of an urgent spirit under the convention roof left the conference feeling firmly like a commemoration rather than a meaningful opportunity for stronger commitments.
Concluding Thoughts: Bringing It Home
Our experience at Stockholm+50 was, in a sense, a microcosm of the global fight to stop climate change: disjointed, governed by a privileged few, and with some successes but also a sense of frustration and failure.
It is clear that the work cannot be done at international conferences alone. It is the responsibility of every human on this planet to commit to climate justice, but especially us in our incredibly privileged capacity as Graduate Institute students – by divesting from the fossil fuel industry, boycotting the world’s largest polluters, striking and protesting, and collaborating with our communities to create and enhance solutions.
The Graduate Institute itself falls behind leading universities that have taken actions to remain relevant and responsible. These include declaring a climate emergency, creating a climate action plan, sending student delegations to environmental conferences, and much more.. The Institute’s Target Initiative on Sustainability, while an important step, is long overdue and lacking in its outreach and information availability. If the Graduate Institute truly aims to “prepare future policy-makers to lead tomorrow’s world,” then it needs to do its part to ensure the viability of tomorrow’s world.
The ongoing climate crisis is a radical problem that requires transformational, radical action. While international gatherings like Stockholm+50 are indeed useful for attracting global attention to climate change issues, we’ll need to take serious stock of the lessons learned since its flagship conference in 1972.
The most important of which? We don’t have another 50 years to act.
Original photos taken by Jessica Merriman and Alexandra Wenzel.