A Dispatch from the Youth Climate Movement



BEIJING “你们会说英语吗?“(Can you all speak English?) Kevin S. Osborne, a recent graduate from Seattle University asked before joining his partner in talking about efforts to forge Sino-US partnerships to address climate change (in English). The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) club was holding one of its regular educational meetings for its members on a Friday night in a Beijing University classroom. Kevin and his partner, a Beijing University graduate student, explained to the crowd of maybe twenty people what they have done to try and get American and Chinese youth to work together.


A few nights before I was going through my business cards looking for contacts that could help me to distribute my Chinese language survey about environmental practices. I sent an email to a group called COP 16 China Youth (website blocked in China) and as a result I ended up at this meeting at Beijing University. The distributing of the survey and the collecting of business cards are all part of efforts to do research for my dissertation.


Last week I visited a friend’s public speaking classes as a means to try and find more students to fill out my survey. I gave an example speech for them, three minutes, citing examples, and having a clear main idea. My topic was that for many youth in America today, there lives are more difficult than for their parents, with Gen X perhaps the first generation that will make less money than their parents.  A student asked a follow-up question asking me to compare politics in the United States and China.


I began to explain that I saw many similarities between China and the United States, with small-scale efforts to protect the environment in both countries. My friend interrupted to ask if the student wanted to know about movements or politics. I continued by explaining that Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830’s to understand what this thing called “democracy” was that France was slowly discovering after the revolution. De Tocqueville discovered that democracy was more than just elections but also efforts by common citizens to address issues through various organizations and community efforts outside the formal realm of government, civil society.


As I listen to US government officials and foundation staff members throw around the words civil society, I’m not sure if there is much meaning. Yet inherent in these words is the sense that civil society means that citizens can not only come together to address problems but can also freely challenge government.


In my speech I said that one of the reasons that my generation may make less money than their parents was because of the forces of economic globalization, as companies have to compete more fiercely with companies in other parts of the world. Economic globalization has meant the re-structuring of jobs, including salaries and how long one can expect to keep the same job.


Today environmental protection has also taken on a new shape. Environmental protection is no longer just about trying to make the air in one city cleaner (think Los Angeles) or trying to clean up a polluted river (take your pick). For Kevin S. Osborne, conscious of the fact that China and the United States are the two greatest emitters of carbon dioxide, environmentalism meant going to Copenhagen of his own initiative. On the sidelines of the official negotiations, activities took place among American and Chinese youth that sought to not only overcome cultural and ideological differences but also to build on common interests; civic activity no longer bound by the boundaries of a country as De Tocqueville observed.


After their presentation that Friday night back in Beijing, I spoke with Kevin and mentioned I had grown up about thirty miles to the south in Tacoma. He explained to me that he was looking for some sort of paying work that allowed him to continue to work on these issues. As we chatted we rattled off the names of various groups and networks like Beijing Energy and Environment Roundtable (BEER), Joint United States and China Cooperation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) and the Green Brothers.  I briefly explained that the American half of the Green Brothers was now working for Bloomberg in the United States, not knowing at the time that the other half of the Green Brothers, Shane Zhou had now partnered with Kevin’s project. Some move on, and others stay involved in new forms.


Two comments from the evening struck me, one in Chinese and one in English. One Chinese woman wondered if it was worth it going to Copenhagen, and she said that she thought ultimately the domestic efforts were most important. The second comment, was by Kevin, who stated that he was surprised to see that him and his partner were getting healthy media coverage in China but little in the United States. Putting aside the question about the environmental impact of global travel for a moment, there is the question of whether or not it will be a global civil society that is able to tackle environmental problems, or whether it is enough for each country to develop its own vibrant society.


After de Tocqueville’s return to France, France did not immediately replicate the same forms of civic activity as the United States. Perhaps there is a new global civil society, where youth come together from different countries to challenge government, but they still have to work with the nuances of their respective countries –  to figure out how to join public debate via the news or how to influence their fellow citizens the fifty-one weeks of the year they are not attending a COP meeting.



Civil Society