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The Youngest Negotiating Team at COP26 has a Message for Other Countries

When Juan Carlos Monterrey Gómez went to his first round of U.N. climate negotiations as part of Panama’s delegation in 2015, his colleagues told him not to talk about his age, in case it made other countries’ representatives take him less seriously. At the time, he was just 22. Now, aged 29 and the lead negotiator for Panama at COP26 in Glasgow, he won’t shut up about it.

“I like to say my age in every room I go into,” Monterrey Gómez says, standing in a windy concrete alley at the edge of the summit’s sprawling warren of meeting rooms, where 197 nations are trying to reach a consensus on how—and how fast—the world should cut its greenhouse gas emissions. “I want it to make the other negotiators uncomfortable. They need to remember that it’s our generation and younger generations that will be most impacted [by their decisions.]”
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Panama claims that its negotiating team at COP26, comprising some 15 people with an average age of 29, is the youngest ever to represent a country at a U.N. climate summit. Though the U.N. does not hold records for the ages of negotiators at the summit, they almost certainly skew older than that. Malik Amin Aslam, a climate adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister, talking to the Washington Post on Sunday, estimated that the average age of those inside negotiating rooms was around 60. “We’re talking about 2060, 2070 [net-zero targets emissions] and none of these guys is going to be around,” he said.

In a series of protests around the COP26 site over the last week, youth climate activists have warned that politicians at the summit are too focused on emissions targets that are decades away, and not enough on taking action to cut them in the next few months and years. “The voices of future generations are drowning in their greenwash and empty words and promises,” 18-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, told a crowd gathered at George Square in central Glasgow on Friday.

Panama’s environment ministry says it has put youth voices at the center of its climate diplomacy efforts for years. Starting in 2018, the country has run three annual youth climate leadership academies, which train young people over the course of several days to understand the climate crisis and take action. Three of the 89 previous attendees are now members of Panama’s delegation at COP26.

The key to accelerating action in the U.N. climate process, Monterrey Gómez says, is to give more space in the talks to young people, who are going to experience worse climate change impacts for longer than older people. “If other countries gave young people the mic like Panama is doing,” Monterrey Gómez says, “we’d solve this in a few minutes.”

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