Jay'Len's Key Takeaways from UNGA - UNA-USA

From the Desk of the Youth Observer: Takeaways from the UN General Assembly

The United Nations recently held its 74th annual General Assembly. For anyone unfamiliar, the UN General Assembly, or UNGA, is like the Super Bowl for international diplomacy. Each year, thousands of community leaders, youth activists, and UN Member States come together to discuss the state of our world and our progress of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

This year’s UNGA focused largely on SDG 13: Climate Action. It brought together a wide range of climate activists and leaders, including Secretary-General António Guterres, Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Villaseñor, and the list goes on. As a climate activist myself, it was very exciting to exchange stories and share moments with like-minded individuals who are passionately pursuing climate action.

Here are my key takeaways from my time during the 74th UNGA:

#1: Youth leadership is essential for moving the needle on climate action.

On Friday, September 20, 2019, I did something I thought I’d never get the chance to do. I marched through the streets of New York City for climate action! Nearly 400,000 people showed up from all over the country. I marched alongside my fellow UNA-USA members after we had just finished a climate activist training that morning. We held up our signs and lifted our voices high, urging world leaders, both in the U.S. and abroad, to act!

One of the most poignant moments from the march was hearing the voices of children yelling “our planet, our future”. The anger and frustration in their voices reminded me that this is more than just a march for them, this is a fight for the health and well-being of the planet that they will inherit. This is a fight for their lives.

#2: Climate change is more than just an environmental issue.

The UN hosted its first ever Youth Climate Action Summit the day after the march. It brought together 600 young leaders from across 140 countries and various disciplines. Even though the conference was focused on climate action, it brought together students working in human rights, poverty reduction, and gender equality.

At the summit, I met with youth leaders from around the world – including fellow UNA-USA leaders. One of those leaders was Ruth Miller, a young climate activist and member of the Dena’ina Athabascan Tribe from Alaska. As we experienced the event together, she shared her thoughts on the current climate crisis and I slowly found that this was more than just an environmental issue. She shared stories of her childhood in Alaska – stories of a strong, gutsy, and brave mother alongside a quiet yet very wise father who taught her the essence of leadership and how important it is to be a caretaker of nature. Ruth told me about how indigenous people have been warning the world for generations about what would happen if they didn’t begin to take care of the Earth. She stressed how young people, even before Greta Thunberg, had been chaining themselves to pipelines and urging world leaders to act. Talking with Ruth and other leaders at the summit really opened my eyes to the idea of climate justice and how certain communities are more greatly impacted by climate change than others. You can read more about Ruth’s work on climate justice here.

The conference featured talks from Greta Thunberg, YouTube personalities Penny Tovar and Omar Yousef, and one of my personal favorites was hearing from the UN Secretary-General António Guterres. He stressed that world leaders, “talk too much and they listen too little” – a comment that I felt resonate with the other young people in the room. This was the first time I felt like young people were being taken seriously. What’s so unique about this summit is that it was more than just a summit for SDG 13, but a summit that touched on every SDG, from zero hunger to life on land. I never recognized this until recently, but the SDGs weren’t meant to be solved one by one. Rather, they are connected to each other. The SDGs success as a global agenda relies on the interconnectedness of all 17 goals.

#3: Solving the climate crisis will take all of us: private, public, and government sectors.

After the summit, I was honored to join Noel Kinder, Chief Sustainability Officer at Nike, and the rest of his team for a dinner celebrating their new “Move to Zero” Campaign. This campaign is spreading one simple truth: Climate is sport. The sports that grace our TV screens and have helped to shape our lives are at risk because of climate change. The Move to Zero campaign is a global call to industry leaders, influencers, and athletes alike to begin taking care of the planet and moving toward zero carbon emissions.

I’m not going to lie, I was unsure how such a big company was planning to champion climate action. I am happy to report that no one rejected my questions or concerns. As young people, we must understand that it is our right to ask companies hard questions and hold them accountable, but we must do it with pure motives and sincere intentions. It’s clear to me now that the sustainability department at Nike seeks to go beyond making sustainable shoes. It desires to be a leading voice in the fight for climate action and other SDGs. As Noel said at the event, he sees climate change as a challenge that faces all of us, and Nike’s efforts in sustainability have been embedded into their operations for decades.

Students across the world are finally beginning to earn a seat at the table and now, we must use this time not only to acknowledge past failures but also work together to create future successes.

#4: Social good starts with the actions we take every day as individuals.

I ended my time in New York City by taking part in the annual Social Good Summit at the famous 92 Y. The summit was amazing and filled with lots of energy around climate action. Plus, it’s not every day you get a VIP pass and invitation to speak on stage with some of your greatest role models! I spoke about the UN Act Now Bot and encouraged guests to take action from their seats. Here’s the video just in case you missed it.

Conclusion

The 74th UNGA was amazing! I made new friends, learned new things, and celebrated how far we’ve come in terms of climate action. While there is still so much more work to be done, I feel more confident in my role going forward as this year’s Youth Observer. This UNGA taught me that I am not alone in the fight against climate change. I have a team of young activists standing right beside me, ready to Act Now!