C2GTalk: An interview with Marie-Claire Graf

How can young people get involved in governing climate-altering approaches?

3 February 2021

This interview was recorded on 15 December 2020, and is also available with interpretation into 中文, Español and Français.

Young people may not yet have a seat at the decision-making table, but they are influential stakeholders with the power to steer the direction of the climate discourse, said Marie-Claire Graf during a C2GTalk interview. As they work towards getting that seat, they are building capacity, learning and awareness on a range of issues, including the governance of climate-altering approaches.

Marie-Claire Graf is one of the Global Focal Points of YOUNGO, the Children and Youth constituency to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. She is a Swiss youth advocate for sustainable development and climate action, and the president of the Swiss Associations of Student Organizations for Sustainability, and vice president at Swiss Youth for Climate. Marie-Claire is a Climate Reality Leader, and co-founder of a crowdsourcing platform startup for aggregated science-based and citizen-science data called C’Square.

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Click on the play icons below to watch the quoted parts of the interview

How do you see the current moment in the world’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis?

I think that young people, countries, are getting more and more desperate. Five years ago, we set the Paris Agreement and everybody was pretty excited to limit global warming to 2°C, aiming for 1.5°C (young people have always been saying we need to go to 1.5°C), compared to pre-industrial levels. Despite these global agreements, despite the increasing action, and despite the climate strikes and young people rallying around the world, emissions are still going up. The curve is still skyrocketing. We haven’t flattened the curve. We are not yet going to net zero. This is a really hard reality we are facing, and it comes with some mental health issues and frustration, especially amongst young people. But I do see that there is momentum. Countries are gathering and doing something, despite the virus. But the reality is not looking too good.

2019 was a big year for youth climate action. You saw a lot of efforts hitting the headlines and coming to prominence at that time. There was the UN Youth Summit. And there was a thought that some of this would continue this year—and then came COVID-19 and everything associated with that. Do you see that the energy from the youth climate movement has been maintained during this period, perhaps in different places ? Tell me a little bit about how this year has been for you.

We were elected—Heeta Lakhani from India and myself—at the last UNFCCC Conference of the Parties. The slogan was “It’s time to act”, right? So we really had in mind that 2020 is going to be that big year for Climate Action. We’re finally going to bend the curve with the aims for net zero and the COP26 Presidency, which has been very strong in this race to zero. 

But everything was, of course, different. Our year started normal and then got quite chaotic. Everything was postponed. It was very hard for young people to make their voice heard in the UNFCCC processes. It was also very hard for young climate strikers on the streets because, of course, we take science seriously. Science told us to stay at home, and stay socially and physically distanced—and that’s what we have been doing. So it’s gotten challenging for the youth voice to be heard because a lot of things are now getting done top down, hierarchic, and behind closed doors. There is no way that young people can engage. 

The UN itself is trying to get things done, with the Climate Dialogues trying to have new engagement possibilities. It is also very challenging for many young people to quickly adapt. A lot of people have personal issues and struggles.

Nevertheless, the young people are here. Our demands and our requests are the same as before, and they’re even more urgent now. We may be not making the headlines and we might not be omnipresent, as we have been before. But we are here. We are not going away and we will persist until the demands are implemented. So this is a little bit like this paradoxical situation—we are not too visible, but we are still here. We are still watching.

This has been a lot of people’s year of video conferencing. Are there other avenues that you’ve still been able to use to speak to people in positions of power and influence via online media, rather than the traditional stuff on the streets that you were talking about?

As YOUNGO we talk very extensively with the UNFCCC, UNDP, UNICEF, and many other UN entities; with the COP26 Presidency; and with different other streams, including adaptation, mitigation, climate finance, indigenous peoples, and action for climate empowerment. There are a lot of engagements we can use, and they are getting somewhat accessible. 

Very often, the meetings happen in Europe, so it is very challenging for most of the young people around the world to participate because of visas, finances, languages, and so on. So, we now have the outstanding opportunity to also open it and broaden it so that more young people can engage in the different processes. We do have this and everyone is working hard to maintain this structure. 

Nevertheless, especially for young people who are not officially in the decision-making position, for us the coffee breaks and the time before the delegates go into the room and negotiate is the most important because this is where we can have our influence—and this, of course, is not possible in the online world.

I think we all share that kind of experience, one way or another, but I can imagine it being more challenging for some groups. I wanted to talk a little bit about carbon dioxide removal, one of the issues that interests us. This year, I’ve seen a lot of focus on net zero as well as the 1.5° target. How aware do you think youth climate activists are of the findings of the IPCC and its Special Report on the Impacts of Global Warming of 1.5°C, including on the need for large-scale carbon dioxide removal, as well as urgent emissions reductions?

Most young climate activists base our demands on the IPCC’s 1.5°C report—which is still not officially welcomed at the UNFCCC because some countries are still blocking it. That is actually a movement that YOUNGO is also very involved in, together with March for Science, the Independent State of Samoa, and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) alliance. So many people are pushing for this report, and especially the findings, to be officially welcomed and recognised so that, for example, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) can be built based on this. This has been one of our demands since 2018 and we haven’t succeeded yet. We are also working hard to build up momentum amongst Member States so that this report is officially welcomed at COP 26.

In general, many young people come with their own story into the climate space. Maybe someone comes from a gender lens; someone from agriculture; and someone comes because their home was flooded. So young people come with, I think, very specific interests into the space, and then YOUNGO provides them an opportunity to grow and learn new things. It was the same for myself. I came from the educational side, and I had the pleasure within YOUNGO to learn about different new findings and other interesting points. 

So, I think, very few young people come into the climate space because of carbon dioxide removal or other technological advancements—but they are learning within YOUNGO and many other spaces about different findings and technologies. We do have a technology working group, so there are definitely young people focusing on this, but I have the impression that it’s more about renewable energy, because this is also where a lot of small projects are going on in different countries where young people do engage. Whereas I am not aware that any young person put something like this in place, and this was the reason why this person was triggered. Nevertheless, young people are aware of it. The 1.5°C special report is our guiding document when it comes to science, and we would absolutely welcome it if this were also welcomed by the Parties.

It’s interesting you use the frame of “these technologies”. Carbon dioxide removal—at least, the way we talk about it—can include nature-based approaches as well as technology-based approaches. Do you think that there’s a difference in the way you and the people you speak with think about nature and technology? How do you see the different framing? Is there a sense of: nature is something that people are more positive towards while technology is a little more scary?

In YOUNGO, there are young people who are very excited about technology, as well as the nature lovers. It strongly depends where they are coming from and what their local experience is. In Switzerland, we have a good mix between nature-based solutions. We try to maintain the forests, soils, humus and black soil. Whereas in other parts of the world, you might not have this opportunity, but you may have large solar farms. So it depends on what your story is and why you are engaged. We see quite some engagement in nature-based solutions, nature reforestation, agriculture, and the health of the ocean. We also have a lot of young people involved in technology—technology transfer, especially—and the governance aspect of it. So we do have both and we also have young people who are in both spaces. So we can bridge it.

When I say the word carbon dioxide removal, do you think there’s a natural assumption that this is a technological approach which is slightly different from nature-based? Or do you think people understand it as the broader idea that we have to stop putting CO2 in the air and start pulling it out of the air as well?

I think that there is a general awareness around it, but if you go into the details, I’m not an expert. It’s the same as for every topic, like climate finance or international carbon trading; I know what it is about, but if you go into the details, I’m not an expert. I think most people are aware about the trees, the oceans, and the soil. But if you go into the details—technological details, especially of different instruments—it might be quite challenging to follow because first, it’s not a topic which is heavily discussed. And second, it’s also hard to find appropriate information, and it’s not as present as other topics in the social media and news. So you’re just generally less exposed to the content which makes you less aware.

So beyond carbon dioxide removal, our initiative is also interested in another set of additional potential approaches to tackle the climate crisis and manage risk known as solar radiation modification—a family of approaches to reflect sunlight, including marine cloud brightening and stratospheric aerosol injection. Do you see any awareness in the communities you speak to have these ideas?

I do think there is awareness and I know that they are interested people with quite some in-depth knowledge. But is it a niche topic that some experts might talk about or is it a broad-scale topic? For example, gender is not yet as mainstream as it should be, nor is agriculture—but I think they already have a little bit of a broader engagement and different people from different backgrounds and interests are coming into it. So I think this is not yet there for many of these different technological solutions, but I know there are young people who are experts in this, and who are knowledgeable about this.

How do you think people might learn more about these ideas? Do you think there’s an openness to learning more about these ideas? And if so, what would be the thing that should be done to help people understand and also maybe think about the nature of weighing up risk against risk. This is something we often think about here in our initiative: How do you consider the risk of doing something against the risk not doing something? The risk of getting involved with some of these SRM approaches against the risk of a warming world?  What are the sort of things that it can help young people grapple with these questions a bit better?

There is always a group of experts and interested people who talk about the issue, who are engaged, and then mainstream this into other areas. What I think is always very important and what we encourage young people in YOUNGO to do is to bring topics together. We have a climate lens on all the topics—but how can we bring together topics around gender and adaptation, finance and agriculture, education and mitigation, so that we are not looking at everything from a siloed approach? I think this is also very important when we are talking about solar radiation modification or carbon dioxide removal—that we have an approach. Where is this leading to? That it’s not a stand-alone issue, but it’s a part of a solution, of something bigger, and of the risk. So I think we have to look at it from different perspectives and what would be the implications.

In regards to the risk, I see that a lot of young people are either afraid or have mental health implications, frustration or depression about the current state of the world, that there is more doom and gloom. There is less and less to be hopeful about, especially if you’re also seeing the Climate Ambition Summit, which happened as the five years anniversary of the Paris Agreement, with bold actions from some of the countries, whereas the biggest emitters haven’t been at the table. Everyone can set some goals, as we have been seeing in Paris, but then you need to implement the actions that it’s actually going to work.

The coronavirus could have given us a huge opportunity to really shift the direction and completely turn around and make our decisions, financial flows, economy and society more sustainability driven, taking into consideration the natural boundaries, the planetary boundaries. But we have unfortunately been seeing that many of the finances are still going in the direction of a very old, fossil fuel-driven economy and society. So we are not yet seeing this complete detachment—and this of course is frustrating a lot of people. And I think where we are now, where we can learn more about it is basically—there is the risk, there is where we are heading to, and we do not yet have a solution. So we might have to take into consideration new ideas.

Many people in YOUNGO work on the governance and political advocacy side. So we talk about governance because, as far as I’m aware, there is no governance structure for this. So I think it is very important that we incorporate these governance questions as well—not only the technological part of the solutions, but also the policy part.

What role do you think young people might be able to play in pushing the governance of these approaches? By governance, we take a fairly broad view of it: essentially including the whole process of learning, discussing, and trying to come to positions. What are the practical things that young people might do to start shaping and thinking about these governance processes, given that there seems to be quite a lot of activity now on CDR, and the discussion around SRM is also beginning to progress?

In general, young people are still not sitting at the table when decisions are taken. Through YOUNGO, we have a certain engagement, but we are not decision-makers. We can influence them because we have access to spaces, and because we are invited to certain meetings and conferences. But we are not the ones taking the ultimate decision. Nevertheless, we have seen that young people have a huge influence when it comes to steering the direction—with the strikes and raising awareness, but also with policy papers and advocacy. We are influential stakeholders, but we are not the ones who are going to execute the decision at the end.

We, as young people, push for that—that we are also at the table and take the decisions. But, this will unfortunately probably still take some time because the current decision-makers are hogging the space. Unfortunately, they are not letting in young people with new innovative ideas. And this goes far beyond what we are talking about here—just with also new social and economic concepts. Of course, it is not exclusively young people who are driving this agenda; it is much broader. Many people have been fighting their whole life to open up certain core, dominant structures.

For many topics, it will be great to have young experts in the room who are able to be agenda-setters. What we, as young people, do is have the capacity building, learning, and awareness so that we are able, when we catch our negotiators and decision-makers, to talk about it. In general, it’s very important to understand the space well enough that you know where you fit in, because the space is fairly complex—especially for young people who have been in the space only for a short amount of time. To understand the space well enough, to see where it’s fitting in—that’s the challenge. There is, at the moment, not a place for this discussion to fit in. So maybe there’s a little bit of talk at the sidelines, at the margins—but this is not the way young people can come in, because it’s very easy to say, “Come on! This topic is not for this table. We are very busy. We don’t have the finances. We don’t have time. Just go somewhere else.” So, unless the topic is an agenda point, which has a dedicated group tackling and talking about it, it’s very hard for young people to meaningfully contribute. Just because it’s very easy to put us off if there is not a dedicated stream or avenue of engagement—as you see, for example, with adaptation, mitigation, gender, education and so on.

What does that look like when you describe these particular streams? What does the influencing process look like? To what extent are you seeing young people’s voices, not just being heard, but being listened to, and acted upon? What, in practice, might that look like for some of these other areas? Is it you sitting in certain meeting rooms, having voting rights? What, practically, might it look like?

We never have a voting right because the UN is a government-determined process. Young people are always excluded unless they’re part of a delegation—which means that they get an official negotiation mandate which is very rare. I, myself, have been a negotiator for Switzerland and I will probably be in the future again for different topics such as climate education, training, awareness, gender, technology transfer, and capacity building. But this is a very special case and, unfortunately, not many people have the opportunity to be engaged in this manner.

What we’re doing: We have a seat at the table (or in the second row or wherever), but we can go into the room through YOUNGO. We are also invited and can make interventions—which are spoken in two to three minutes interventions speaking about the issue. We can also bring in new concepts or new ideas. But again, many people do interventions, and whether our intervention is taken seriously—the next step depends on the older guys sitting in the front rows.

We can also do submissions, which is like a written statement from young people. But we are following the official requests from the UNFCCC, and it’s often very specific. So it’s not, per se, allowing us to bring in completely new concepts. 

It also really depends on personal relationships. Sometimes it works with someone from the secretariat or the workstream. They are inclined to listen to us. But sometimes they are just not interested in listening to young people, and then it’s very easy to put us off. So, we have very good personal relationship. Some people are listening to us. We can send in our points—for example, in climate education, action for climate empowerment in a broader scope. We have been writing text, which is now in the Katowice work programs (basically the guidelines on how to implement the Paris Agreement). We have also been working extensively, for example, on agriculture, where we could bring in some of our language when we’re doing interventions and so on. So there are workstreams where we have been very engaged, and there are workstreams where our voices are not yet heard as much as I would wish.

Could you give an example where the process worked as it should in terms of listening to and acting upon what young people are saying? What would be an example where this happened in a way that should be applied more broadly?

In general, we try to do as many submissions as possible to raise our voice and to be included. But again there are many stakeholders.

We have been very extensively involved in the Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) agenda. We have been holding a Youth Forum, which was organised and co-convened by the UNFCCC, but organised by YOUNGO as well. We had hundreds of young people working very specifically on how the actual climate empowerment agenda is moving forward. We have been writing an outcome document, which was also referred to in the Katowice guidelines and work program. The countries seeing this—again, they can decide not to do it, but at least there are major guidelines. I think this was very meaningful engagement. Nevertheless, just because we have a policy document, it never means that something is actually getting done.

There are a lot of policy documents and texts; what is important is to break it down depending on the national circumstance. We can do this with the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). We have been seeing some very positive NDC processes where young people have been extensively taken into consideration. I think this is the place where ultimately the actions are getting implemented. At the international level, it’s great to have a policy document and to have some text somewhere—but if the countries or the Parties are not doing it, then the paper is not needed, right? We have a saying here: “The paper itself is not getting boring; it can just stay there forever.“

I think this is what we as young people have to take in mind: Ultimately, the actions happen locally and nationally, and very little internationally. We need robust and clear frameworks, but we have to break it down. And breaking it down can be very hard, because all the countries have different approaches and different settings.

You mentioned 2020 was meant to be the year of action and getting things done. Do you think that could now be 2021? What are your hopes for the year?

I think 2020 and 2021 cannot be compared, because the overarching situation is difficult. I do believe that we will live with coronavirus for the next coming years, especially also with the economic and social challenges following. There’s the economic recession, but also with a lot of people’s physical and mental health still being affected by it. We cannot neglect this. Even if there is a vaccine, there are effects which are going to stay way longer.

We have been seeing what I think is great because it’s basically proving what we have been saying: If we treat a crisis as a crisis, we can tackle it. This is probably the only thing which has given me hope in this pandemic: That from the day we called the coronavirus a pandemic, so many things have suddenly been possible on a political level, but also among people. People have been showing solidarity as I’ve never seen before—between generations, different levels of society, and different groups of people, which normally in the “business as usual” world would not be possible.

On the financial side, money flows were unleashed, which I have never seen before in my whole life. Where’s all this money coming from? When we are asking for a tiny awareness raising campaign around climate, it is like, ”We don’t have the money, I’m sorry.” This is the only thing which is giving me hope: That when we are treating a crisis as a crisis, the unimaginable things are possible. And this is what we as young people are going to call for next year. This is what is still going to be there.

But the world is going to look different. We will still battle with the areas around the world which were heavily affected by coronavirus until mid-next year, around summer. It will be very challenging to be well prepared for the international negotiations, just because the countries are dealing with certain cases. Maybe in some areas of the world it’s going better, but there will always be areas where it’s very severe and it’s very hard to prepare adequately.

Also, there are other epidemics going on in different parts of the world. There are other challenges, like huge inequality is around the world. For many of them, the gap got even wider, and closing this gap is getting harder, especially for young people on the front lines of hunger, poverty, abuse, and desertion of education. I mean, this cannot just be restored; it will take a long way. But the climate is here and we have to treat it as a crisis. This is what young people are going to call for this year.

You used the word “restored”; there has been this framing around “restoring” and “repairing” the planet. How do you see that? Do you see it as a meaningful and useful approach to thinking about the crisis?

What we’re using the word for is, for example, ecosystems reforestation—where we are trying to revive degraded ecosystems. So I think we are working on this, but we also have to see that it’s taking time. It’s a decade of ecosystem reforestation; it is, on purpose, not a month or a year, but a decade. It’s using 10, 20, 50 to a hundred years.

This is also the challenge when it comes to coronavirus. Even if we have a vaccine for the coronavirus (and there’s no vaccine for the climate crisis), many things that changed, especially on the economic and social side, are going to last for a very, very long time. Even if we put a lot of money into the system now, it’s not going to change. It’s not going to solve the fundamental issues we are facing, which are always coming from a certain inequality and you see that most of the money is actually going into the old fashioned system and it’s not allowing people and economy to change and transform in a way we would need it to transform to tackle the crisis.

The reason I grabbed the word “restore” is because some people may also be using that term with relation to some of the proposed climate-altering approaches that are on the table—which of course then raises a lot of questions. What can you restore? If you were to be able to, what would you restore to? And, who decides where you would restore it to? 

We it see from the World Economic Forum; they’re using the word “reset”. And then, we have the word “restore”. The climate crisis is based on inequalities which is based on our economic and social system. From my point of view (which is also backed up heavily by science), this system is going not be able to tackle the crisis and lead us to the more sustainable, liveable future that young people and many other people are dreaming of. At the COP23, we had the Talanoa Dialogues around the questions: Where are we at the moment? Where do we want to go? How do we get there? The road most people imagined, painted and talked about where we wanted to go is very different from what we have today.

So when we are saying “restore” or “reset”, and we mean going to the world we had in 2020, it’s not what most people want. I think it’s maybe a little weird that we are talking about “restoring” or “resetting”, but it actually means something we have probably never lived in. At least, I myself have never lived in a world I wish to live in, in a broader context. The world I’m dreaming of, I have never seen in real life. It’s easy, probably, for people to say we are resetting or restoring something instead of imagining. But I think that the fundamental hope, belief and desire of many of these people is this better world we try to achieve in the future.

This concept of hope, dreams, doom, despair—it’s one of these very difficult issues that a lot of people personally struggle with, especially in this field: How to get that balance right, how to maintain a sense of hope without that hope becoming “hope-ium”, like false or fake hope. How to have a sense of direction and be able to do something, whilst also recognising and not undermining the gravity of the moment. How do you personally balance those two requirements to operate in this field—recognising the gravity of the situation whilst not abandoning a sense that you can do something about it?

This is one of the reasons why I’m engaged in YOUNGO. That’s one of the reasons why I’m still sticking around the space, despite its complexity and knowing that I can probably have a more relaxed life without it. This year was a little bit chaotic, but those who have been at the COP know how stressful that can be, from the preparation to the debriefing. But it’s about the people who are in the space and the people who, regardless of all of these challenges, keep moving forward. 

I gain my hope from the people who are involved, from the people who are engaged with the UNFCCC processes, from people outside, from people on the streets. There is so much power and so much willingness to change this world. I do think that there we are going to reach a social tipping point, and I do think it’s coming very, very soon. And I think that what we have to do now is prepare for this time when we reach, finally, this social tipping point of where we have these “irreversible changes”—but in the social and economic sphere, not in the natural science climate system sphere. My hope is that we are reaching a social tipping point, way before we reach even more of the climate-related tipping points.

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