“It’s not just me who is watching you,” Selina Neirock Leem warned the audience at the 2019 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Symposium Friday during a discussion about climate change. “It’s youth all over the world.”
The environmental justice activist from the Marshall Islands joined Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Convention, for the conversation moderated by Devex editor-in-chief Raj Kumar.
For Leem, climate change is not an abstract problem—it’s a physical reality that daily threatens her nation’s existence. The Marshall Islands are now covered in water, and the Marshallese must soon decide whether to “relocate or elevate.”
But the panelists Friday agreed that Leem is not alone, and that the climate crisis isn’t just a major threat to the Marshall Islands. “We are all in the same boat,” Figueres, who helped broker the historic 2015 Paris Agreement on climate policy, declared to the room, “and if there is a hole in the boat, the whole boat will sink.”
The climate crisis has impacted the daily lives of people around the world, including and especially the 800 million who lack access to power, water and food. Figueres noted that compounding inequalities like poverty, sexism, racism and institutional divestment become more obvious through a climate justice lens—and that investments in expanding renewable energy aren’t just a solution to the crisis, but a transformational source of advancement for communities worldwide that need it most.
Garcetti, who has shown national leadership in his post as Mayor in combatting the climate crisis and is also the incoming chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group of 94 cities worldwide committed to taking similar action, uses this kind of intersectional lens to guide his efforts.
Guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Garcetti has built his administration’s agenda around the notion of fostering inclusivity and letting critical community voices shape policy. His recently-launched Council on climate change, which features numerous youth leaders, will directly advise him on solutions. “How can you fight for climate without fighting for gender equality?” Garcetti asked the room. “This is how we can tie these things together.”
Garcetti will also be leading efforts to advance the Global Green New Deal with the C40 Group, which outlines over 60 commitments urban leaders can make to slow climate change and build better climate policy.
These opportunities for progress come at a critical time. “We need to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030,” Figueres warned. “If we don’t, we’ll enter into a climate, political, social and environmental crisis, the likes of which we’ve never seen before.” Illustrating the choice leaders across industries must now make between “two futures,” she called on all humanitarians to become climate warriors—switching investment portfolios and taking other deliberate steps to advance an environmental justice agenda. Fittingly, she closed out the conversation with a small gift for her co-conspirators: white t-shirts emblazoned with the words “STUBBORN CLIMATE ACTIVIST.”
Garcetti similarly called for a “climate decade,” in which activism and tangible solutions around the climate crisis are a priority. “This is about will,” Garcetti declared, “and don’t tell me that human beings who fought world wars, stubborn human beings that love to survive at our core, can’t do this. In fact, the excitement—I talk about this as being of the age of anxitement, anxiety and excitement together—if we can channel that, this is our battle to fight and to win.”
Warriors like Leem are intent to do just that—and they’re ready for their movement to expand. “Grow little ones,” she said to the audience during a poetry reading before the session. “Grow into the giants we need you to be.”