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. He was only 22 years old at the time. 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.]”
Panama says that its negotiating group at COP26 is composed of 15 people, with an average age around 29, and it represents the youngest country ever at a U.N. summit on climate change. The U.N. has no records on the ages, but they may be older. Malik Amin Aslam, a climate adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister, talking to the Washington PostOn Sunday, it was estimated that average age for those in negotiating rooms was 60. “We’re talking about 2060, 2070 [net-zero targets emissions] and none of these guys is going to be around,” he said.
Youth climate activists protested at the COP26 summit site in protest over the past week. They said that the politicians are focused too much on achieving emissions targets for decades and not enough attention on cutting them within the coming 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. The country started hosting three youth climate leadership workshops in 2018. These provide training for young people on a number of days, helping them to better understand and respond to the crisis. 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.”