The Seine basin: the effects of climate change are already here.

”Pour ce qui est de l’avenir, il ne s’agit pas de le prévoir, mais de le rendre possible. “  – Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Citadelle, 1948

By Dylan Lee

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Pour ce qui est de l’avenir, il ne s’agit pas de le prévoir, mais de le rendre possible.“ As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” A quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (French pilot, writer and author of ‘The Little Prince’) resonates with many of the French youth whom I have spoken to about climate change activism. Last week, high school students from Ecole Perceval marched out of school to do our part for Climate Strike 2021 by taking a closer look at the Seine River.

A long series of natural disasters and extreme weather events have shown to the whole world – simultaneously in the global south and the global north – what our everyday life could look like in just a few years, reminding everyone that the climate crisis is unravelling here and now.

At the same time, young people around the world have shown increasing determination and strength in calling out global polluters and making leaders accountable for their future lives and those of next generations – asking for swift, meaningful change in climate action.

When the Seine River that runs through Paris overflowed earlier this year, officials at the Louvre Museum were relieved some of their most valuable items were safely stored in northern France. The world’s largest and most visited museum, with almost 10 million visitors annually, had already transported some 100,000 at risk art pieces to the new Louvre Conservation Center in Lievin, some 190 km north. With climate change, scientists say heavy rains that cause flooding are set to become more frequent, threatening riverside gems like the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral and the Musee d’Orsay – home to the world’s greatest Impressionist paintings.

Aside from protecting valuable treasures of art and history, plans are progressing in Paris to make Seine safe for swimming by 2024. A massive clean-up operation has to get underway. Some 360 tonnes of waste are dredged up out of the murky waters every year. Everything from bikes to scooters and old safes can pollute the waters, and these items must all be pulled out and recycled. With the 2024 Paris Olympics in mind, the city leaders are determined to make the Seine River clean and safe for swimming for athletes, and all the city’s inhabitants. It’s a promise that was made by former French President Jacques Chirac when he was mayor of Paris in 1988: he would make the Seine so clean that Parisians would be able to swim in the river.

Thirty two years later, going for a dip in the Seine waters is still not allowed. The risks of doing so are a €15 fine and probably heavier costs in doctor appointments and medication, considering the river’s pollution level.

The COP26 is one of the most-awaited events for this year; expectations are high, but the reality is that much more pressure is needed to raise climate ambitions that will make meeting Paris targets feasible. As the recent report on global emissions targets by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has shown, we are on the path towards a much higher temperature rise than the well known goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Furthermore, due to the ongoing pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions, not all interested parties will be able to attend the conference, primarily the ones that are, and will be, most affected by the consequences of climate change. Once more, the discussion about our shared future will not include all the voices that ought to be included.

It has become evident that the climate crisis is more than an environmental issue. It is as much an environmental problem, as it is a social and justice problem. As with (too) many other problems, it does not impact everybody equally, and the decision-making is accessible only to a narrow group of people.

However, this is not the case just for the COP26. The European youth climate movement should fully acknowledge its own composition. Dominated by Western Europeans, the movement is largely shaped and led by well-educated and white young people. Is the lack of demands rooted in environmental justice from the European youth climate movement a reflection of a lack of diversity and inclusivity?

It is time for the youth climate movement around the world to change by becoming more inclusive and by embracing new narratives. Yes, young people are the ones who will face the full consequences of today’s political inaction to reduce greenhouse gases emissions. This is the very reason why young people have a right, if not a legitimacy, to be fully part of climate and environmental decision-making processes.

For too long rivers and watersheds have been treated as habitats to be exploited. To achieve climate justice, we must change the practices that destroy our freshwater systems. But first, we should not forget to look around the table and make sure that everybody is seen and heard.

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