Doha Climate Conference: Youth Activists Battle the Status Quo in UN Event

Abdul Elnajdi stands in a spacious hall at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar, pecking at an iPad balanced in the crook of his elbow. Three-day stubble clings to his chin and a black t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Arabs: Time to Lead” is stretched against his wiry frame. The 30-year-old Libyan juggles his iPad to shake my hand, and ushers me over to meet his compatriots: the other members of the Arab Youth Climate Movement

Here at the 18th Conference of the Parties, or “COP18,” inaction tends to win (or, more accurately, lose) the day. According to self-defined rules, the world’s delegates have until the year 2015 to hash out a new carbon-cutting treaty and avert catastrophic global warming. That gives negotiators three years to dawdle, equivocate, and bicker over textual semantics. Not that we should have expected anything different: the same delegates have had two decades to address runaway carbon emissions, and they haven’t accomplished anything. Why start now?

If yet another UN climate conference really does go down the tubes, don’t blame the Arab Youth Climate Movement. Barely three months old, the AYCM is a collection of over 1,000 young people from the Middle East and North Africa who have come to COP18 – the first climate conference ever held in the Middle East – to lobby their nations’ representatives and protest global inaction. The group has staged marches, put on an array of colorful demonstrations, and met with everyone from national delegates to officials at the World Bank in an attempt to jolt negotiators from inertia.

“We want the COP to be a success, meaning that it comes out with appropriate, achievable goals to reduce carbon emissions,” says Abdullah Saif, a representative of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the group of Arabian Peninsula countries that includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. “As long as that happens, the Arab Youth will be happy. Right now, we just want a voice.”

Speaking about climate change in a unified voice, however, isn’t easy when your coalition includes both countries like Qatar, the nation with the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions, and Mauritania, a less-developed country that contributes practically nothing to global CO2. “There are very different realities around the Arab world,” says Tariq al-Olaimy, a 24-year-old member of AYCM’s policy team who resembles a Bahrainian James Franco. “What we have in common is that we’re all very vulnerable to climate extremes.” The Middle East is projected to be hammered by heat waves, sea level rise, and severe food and water shortages. 

These crises are likely to further disrupt a region that has, of course, experienced its share of tumult in recent years. Can AYCM recreate and redirect the fervor birthed by the Arab Spring protests? It will certainly be difficult: environmental groups the world over have long struggled to generate enthusiasm within their rank and file, and climate change, with its diffuse causes and uncertain effects, may have a hard time inspiring the same vast, blazing passion as the drive to overthrow dictators. 

But while AYCM’s members are hesitant to draw comparisons, Saif says that his organization can pull at least one crucial lesson from other uprisings. “When you want to become a global issue, you have to pull out all the stops,” he avers. “No matter your opinion on the Arab Spring, you can’t deny that it got noticed.”

The Arab Spring protests gained notoriety largely through their shrewd leveraging of social media, a strategy that AYCM has also been quick to adopt. Jihad M’nasria, a 28-year-old Tunisian-American and self-described “social media freak,” is among the group’s mavens. Through Twitter, Facebook, and the creative deployment of photos and video, M’nasria and her team have built an alliance that is growing both numerically and geographically: Against a far wall, two Kurdish Iraqis strategize tersely in their home language. And they've only just begun to build their coalition. “We’ve been working on what we’re going to do once the COP is over,” M’nasria says. “We plan to get involved in research and education in schools over the next five years.” 

For now, though, the Arab Youth are enjoying the ride. According to Saif, their recent march through the streets of downtown Doha was covered by 130 different media outlets. “We’re the hot new thing around here,” Saif says. “Everyone wants to talk about us.”

Still, the movement’s leaders profess that they won’t be satisfied until they’ve secured emissions-reduction pledges from their home countries – and, considering that many of AYCM’s members come from OPEC states that would sooner give up oxygen than oil, extracting those pledges might be like drawing water from the desert. “We sat down for a long meeting with the negotiators yesterday, and it went well,” said al-Olaimy on Tuesday. He smiled slightly when he added, “Of course, there’s a difference between access to power and influence over power.”