New Voices at the High-Level Political Forum

As the rest of the world shifts online, the United Nations has followed. And although it’s been surreal at times to trade security clearances for sweatpants, there are silver linings. Holding high-level events at UN Headquarters has historically made it harder for Indigenous peoples, youth, and others to be fully included. Even before I was washing my hands every five minutes, I’ve wrestled with what it would take to make climate summits more accessible to those truly on the frontlines. From crowdfunding flights to fighting consulates for visas, many activists have a long road to even be in the room. Last fall, the UN made a heroic effort to include young people who couldn’t afford to travel to the UN Youth Climate Summit through the Green Ticket program, and an even more heroic effort to feed us all the tapas we could physically eat. But, although the UN Youth Climate Summit included young people from over 140 countries, some virtual gatherings since have been even larger. 

Although many have wondered how school strikes for climate would adapt to school closures, COVID-19 has not halted the youth climate movement, but in some cases actually accelerated it. Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to help the UN Environment Programme move World Environment Day online. We were able to include thousands of young people from over 150 countries around the world, and the UNEP Major Group of Children and Youth also joined in preparations for the High-Level Political Forum. 

As the UN’s core pathway to review the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the High-Level Political Forum has brought together people from every corner of the globe. UNITAR, the UN’s training and research branch, is organizing a learning series on the SDGs. Almost fifty countries are holding voluntary national reviews (VNRs) streamed live for the world to see on UN Web TV. Ultimately, going virtual has brought many new voices to the table, even if that table no longer has tapas on it. The energy of the past few days – with webinars on everything from green engineering to gender equality – has been really exciting. Even in one of the most difficult and stressful times of many of our lives, the High-Level Political Forum shows that we can still do amazing things when we come together as a global community. As more and more people around the world gain access to the web, we’re heading towards perhaps the most inclusive and participatory UN system we’ve ever had. And tapas are a small price to pay for that.  

Robin Happel previously served as a UNA-USA reporting fellow for the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit, the UN Youth Climate Summit, and the Emerging Leaders Fellowship: Champions for the Earth. She is also a member of the UN Environment Programme’s Major Group for Children and Youth, which anyone can join here.