Young climate activists denounce ‘youth-washing’ in Milan

September 30, 2021 GMT
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Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, left, and Swedish activist Greta Thunberg talk during the final day of a three-day Youth for Climate summit in Milan, Italy, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.(AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, left, and Swedish activist Greta Thunberg talk during the final day of a three-day Youth for Climate summit in Milan, Italy, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.(AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

MILAN (AP) — Young climate activists denounced Italian police for temporarily detaining delegates who protested peacefully inside their Milan conference before Italian Premier Mario Draghi’s speech.

Discontent with the three-day conference had bubbled from its start. Swedish activist Greta Thunberg said the delegates had been “cherry-picked” and that organizers were not really interested in their ideas or input for a document that will be sent to this year’s United Nations climate conference.

But the frustration overflowed on the youth event’s final day, with minor clashes involving climate activists outside the venue and the police intervention with delegates inside. Half a dozen young activists demonstrated their disillusionment with world leaders’ response to global warming by flashing a cardboard sign reading “The Emperor Has No Clothes” at Draghi, chanting “People united will not be defeated,” and walking out before he addressed the group.

The delegates said police then detained them, asked to see their passports and photographed their conference badges. They said they were released after about 20 minutes, but the action left them shaken.

Italy’s environmental transition minister Roberto Cingolani, who is host of the event, said he did not have details of the police action, but said it appeared to have involved the premier’s security detail and be related to tight security around the event.

“There was no violence whatsoever. At the end of the day, it was peacefully fixed,″ Cingolani told a closing press conference.

Saoi O’Connor, an Irish activist in the Fridays for Future movement founded by Thunberg, waved at reporters the well-worn cardboard sign that she has carried in demonstrations since 2018 and had flashed at Italy’s leader.

“They are having police escort us to and from the building, and they are the same police who are brutalizing protesters and keeping our friends out,” O’Connor said. She criticized the document being finalized inside for the U.N. climate conference.

“They are going to say that this is what the youth movement wants,” she said. “And we will not let them.”

Danish delegate Rikke Nielsen estimated that at least one-third of the delegates were not happy with the process that had unfolded at the Milan conference. She said they pushed to include a demand that fossil fuels be abolished by 2030 but wasn’t sure if it would end up in the final version.

The document itself was not yet complete by the end of the conference. Organizers said the youth delegates wanted to fine-tune it and had until Oct. 25. Organizers also chafed against suggestions that it was pre-written, saying it was a compilation of suggestions they had received from delegates going into the meeting, and that the three days had been spent hammering out details.

Thunberg, Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate and Italian activist Martina Comparelli delayed a news conference where they planned to discuss their private meeting with Draghi to ensure that the detained delegates were free to move around.

In the end, Thunberg declined to speak to demonstrate discontent with police actions, organizers said.

“Come to the demo tomorrow,” the 18-year-old Swedish activist said. Thunberg plans to lead what is expected to be Milan’s largest climate demonstration on Friday.

Comparelli accused political leaders of “youth-washing” and “green-washing” -- that is using environmental terminology and recruiting youth activists to make their pledges for reducing greenhouse gas emissions seem legitimate.

“They cannot divide us into delegates and non-delegates, into activists that can talk to prime ministers and activists that cannot talk to prime ministers. Activists who are stopped because they are raising cardboard, literally cardboard,” she said.

Comparelli said that Draghi was sincere in their private meeting but that she was suspending judgment until a Group of 20 summit scheduled to start in Rome on Oct. 30, the day before the U.N. climate conference begins in Glasgow, Scotland.

Nakate said the premier had promised to use Italy’s current position as the head of the G-20 to advance their demands that governments follow through on pledges to mobilize $100 billion each year from 2020 to 2025 to fight climate change.

Cingolani, the Italian government minister, said about 60% of the 2020 pledges had been met, acknowledging it wasn’t enough.

“We are going to keep demanding for climate action, for a future that is livable a future, that is sustainable, a future that is equitable, a future that is healthy for all of us,” Nakate said outside the conference venue. “We cannot eat coal, we cannot drink oil and we cannot breath so-called natural gas.”

Not all the youth delegates were unhappy with the process. Iraqi delegate Reem Alsaffar, 21, thanked organizers for the opportunity to meet other delegates from countries like hers that are under-represented in the climate discussion.

“I think this event really gave us a new chance for hope for representing our countries bringing our thoughts and talents to the spotlight,″ she said during a closing news conference with Cingolani and Britain’s Alok Sharma, the president of the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place Oct. 31-Nov. 12 in Glasgow.