Gladys Habu knows first-hand the devastation climate change is already visiting on the world. The 25-year-old has vivid memories of Kale Island, a tiny islet in the Solomon Islands archipelago where she used to swim and barbecue on the white sand beaches. It’s also where her grandparents used to live, decades back.
But Kale Island no longer exists. It was declared lost in 2016 after it fully submerged beneath the water, a victim of rising sea levels. She worries more of her home in the South Pacific could share the same fate if global temperatures continue to rise at the same pace.
“In just decades, my country’s map has changed drastically,” she says.
Habu and others who have personally experienced the worst effects of climate change took center stage at a two-week summit for young climate activists. The virtual event was organized out of frustration at the postponement of the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also called COP26, meeting between nations. Called Mock COP26, the summit was attended by more than 350 delegates from 118 countries and included speeches from activists and stakeholders from around the world, including the U.K. government minister in charge of the original COP26. In a year dominated by pandemic-related disruptions, the Mock COP26 may be one of the largest international meetings focused on climate change—even if it lacked official status.
But another goal of the event was to elevate the voices of those most affected by climate change. It’s a conscious decision based on consensus among youth activists that people in the developing world and other marginalized voices are not being represented in the climate movement, which has largely focused on activists from developed nations — be they Greta Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” or Extinction Rebellion, which was established in the U.K.
“The climate movement has been often inaccessible and is generally dominated by middle-class, white people in the global north,” says Aoife Mercedes Rodriguez-Uruchurtu, an activist from the UK Student Climate Network. “We can’t stand up to this challenge without listening to the people whose voices matter the most.”
In an attempt to be more inclusive, the virtual conference granted more delegates to what organizers call Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA), including Kenya, the Philippines and Bangladesh. These countries, and others, were granted five delegates as opposed to three allowed from most developed nations, giving them more speaking time. More than 70% of the delegates represented at the summit were from developing countries. Having more delegates also gave these countries more representation and say in the wording of the final statement from Mock COP26.
The summit culminated Monday with a statement urging the United Nations to formally recognize the human right to a safe and healthy environment. Organizers also called on world leaders to commit to an environment-friendly COVID-19 recovery plan, reiterating a clause in the Paris Agreement that asks developed nations to provide financial assistance to the most vulnerable countries.
Many behind Mock COP26 see this as a first step toward changing the emphasis of the youth climate movement. Several studies have shown that a warming planet will disproportionately affect developing countries more than developed nations. However, mainstream climate movements have often faced criticism for not being inclusive of the most vulnerable nations.
Earlier this year, Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist, was cropped out of a photo in which she posed with four activists from Europe, including Greta Thunberg. “It felt like I had been robbed of my space,” Nakate told TIME in July. “If climate justice does not involve the most affected communities, then it is not justice at all.” The photo was later replaced by the new agency that published it.
“When we include everyone, you realize how a lot of the problems are common across countries,” says Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a 22-year-old activist from the Philippines who has been volunteering at the summit and is one of the speakers representing her country. Tan has lived through extreme weather events in her native Manila, which has witnessed progressively more powerful typhoons with each passing year. She says activists like her, who have seen the life-altering damage climate change is already inflicting, can go beyond being “just sad stories and statistics” and take an active role in creating a global solution.
There’s evidence this approach might result in more effective action, too. A 2019 report by the United Nations Development Programme found that vulnerable developing countries are leading the world by enacting ambitious pledges on emissions and climate resilience. “So the narrative necessarily isn’t ‘We are drowning, we need help,’” says Sameera Savarala, a climate change policy expert at the United Nations Development Programme. “But rather, ‘Look how we have seen the consequences and taken the destiny into our own hands.’
Habu, the activist from Solomon Islands, feels that amplifying stories like hers will help people understand that the climate crisis is already a reality for people in many parts of the world. “When people who don’t believe in climate change listen to our stories, they will hopefully empathize and engage,” she says.