The 12-year-old who halted COP28
It is indicative of the world's total systemic failure to slow climate change that a child feels she must do the job of adults.
The United Arab Emirates has severely restricted protest activity at this year’s U.N. climate summit, placing harsh limits on what activists are allowed to say, as well as where and when demonstrations can occur.
But on Monday, one activist managed to slip past the COP28 host country’s gaze, and pull off a truly unsanctioned and uncensored disruption: 12-year-old Licypriya Kangujam, or Licy for short.
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Video of the protest posted on X shows Licy quietly walking past delegates before breaking into a sprint and rushing onstage, holding a sign above her head reading “END FOSSIL FUEL. SAVE OUR PLANET AND OUR FUTURE.”
The child then began to yell:
“End fossil fuels now! Act now! Our governments must work together to phase out coal, oil and gas, the top cause of today’s climate crisis. My generation is already a victim of the climate crisis, and I don’t want future generation to face the same consequences again.”
When a large man in a suited approached Licy, she sat down on the stage. The man bent down to whisper something in her ear, and she cried out, got up and tried to get away.
She continued her call to action:
Act now! Millions of children like me are losing their lives, losing their parents and their homes due to climate disasters. Act now! We want permanent solutions!
Two more men—these dressed in tactical police gear—then walked onstage, and Licy started to move offstage. As her protest ended, the audience applauded, and then laughed as COP28 Director-General Ambassador Majid Al Suwaidi interjected: “We’re very proud of the enthusiasm of the young people who have joined us at COP28.”
Majid Al Suwaidi urged the crowd to give the child one more round of applause. Shortly after, Licy’s mother Kangujam Ongbi Bidyarani Devi posted on X that she was detained for 30 minutes and kicked out of the summit.
“They have taken her badge and threatened with many strong words to the 12 years old kid,” she wrote. “This is unacceptable.”
How does a child become a climate disruptor?
Watching Licy’s protest, I found myself emotional. I felt deep sadness that a child felt she needed to risk arrest in a notoriously anti-protest country simply to beg for stronger action on climate change, and deep anger that sustained and willful inaction from governments and corporations forced her into this position.
I also wanted to know: How does a little kid get to this point?
Fortunately, there have been dozens of in-depth profiles about Licy from major news outlets published over the last few years, and they all tell a similar story. It starts when Licy was born in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur in 2011—the year scientists started to become confident that global heating was tangibly worsening weather disasters, a fact that would soon become relevant in Licy’s life.
In 2016, Licy and her family moved to New Delhi, where they discovered the difficult reality of living in the city’s high air pollution levels. “Partly because of Delhi's poor air,” DW reported, Licy’s family decided to move to the city of Bhubaneswar in the eastern state of Odisha—where “their home was hit by Cyclone Titli in 2018, and Cyclone Fani the following year—two of the most extreme weather events to strike eastern India in recent years.”
Also in 2018, Licy told the BBC that her father took her to a U.N. disaster conference in Mongolia, a “life-changing event” that she said inspired her activism. “I got lots of inspiration and new knowledge from the people giving speeches,” she said.
She then founded the Child Movement, a climate advocacy group through which she “spreads knowledge to other children.” And in 2019, her family moved back to New Delhi to organize weekly protests in front of the parliament in India's capital, an idea inspired by Greta Thunberg's weekly school strikes. Licy reportedly dropped out of school to do this, according to a Vice profile.
These experiences have led Licy to become a major presence at U.N. climate summits. At her first summit, COP25 in Madrid in 2019, the then-nine-year-old gave a speech urging world leaders to act faster. At last year’s COP27 in Egypt, Reuters reported that Licy’s “questioning of Britain's climate minister Zac Goldsmith about the fate of climate activists detained in his country was one of the most striking moments in the COP27 global warming talks so far.”
At this year’s COP28, Licy gave a sanctioned speech, urging polluting nations to take responsibility for the climate disruption they’ve caused to vulnerable countries. She said the adoption of a Loss and Damage fund “is a historic one… a good start but it is still not enough. What we want is not millions, but tens of billions and this shouldn’t be in the form of loan or debt trap to the developing nations.”
It is for these reasons that many in the media have referred to Licy as “India’s Greta Thunberg.” But Licy herself does not like the title, she told the BBC in 2020. “If you call me Greta of India, you are not telling my story,” she said. "I have my own identity, story."
Licy’s story will undoubtedly continue to be told after her COP28 disruption, which has been covered by dozens of media outlets around the world. And many will undoubtedly consider it inspiring.
But as a person raised in the age of the internet, I recognize a fake feel-good story when I see one. The way I see it, “Small Child Becomes Leading Voice Of Climate Movement” is a story that falls into the same trap as “Office Workers Donate Vacation Days To Pregnant Colleague So She Can Have Maternity Leave.” They are each valiant acts of altruism, and in Licy’s case, courage. But they are also acts that are only made necessary by a total systemic failure to protect children. They are not inspirational. They are horrifying.
Meanwhile, the adults in the room at COP28….
Are still fighting about whether they should phase out fossil fuels. “The COP28 climate talks went into overtime on Tuesday as countries engaged in shuttle diplomacy to bridge deep international divisions over how to deal with fossil fuels in the summit's final text,” Reuters reported. This seems like a good time to remind everyone that there are only 5 years remaining in the world’s carbon budget before the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold is breached, if emissions continue at current levels. (Carbon Brief)
Are trying to re-write history about fossil fuel influence at the summit. Kendall Dilling, who runs a trade group for tar sands producers in Canada, told the CBC that he’s proud of the progress the industry has made to slow climate change at COP28 but “wishes the industry had been at these summits a decade ago.“ The reality is the the industry has had a huge role in every single COP since they began: fossil fuel lobbyists have been given at least 7,200 passes to attend COPs over the last 20 years, according to research published by Kick Big Polluters Out.
Are making strong statements in support of a fossil fuel phase-out. "We will not go silently to our watery graves," said John Silk, minister for natural resources from the Marshall Islands, according to Sky News. And Agnes Pannier, the French Minister of Energy, called for “ambitious and clear language on fossil fuels,” according to Oil Price. “Abatement cannot be used to delay action. We need to phase out fossil fuel production and consumption.”
Are threatening to leave if fossil fuels are not included in the final draft text. “Ireland’s environment minister Eamon Ryan, who is a lead European Union negotiator on climate finance, has said the first draft text from the Cop28 Presidency is unacceptable and that the EU could walk away from the talks if it is not improved,” the Shropshire Star reported.
Catch of the Day: Via reader Sarah, this is Neeko, envisioning a food forest on this old crop land.
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