‘Our voices need to be included’: Trinidadian youth make case for strong role in climate negotiations

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Small island developing States are particularly vulnerable to climate change consequences, such as rising sea levels and heavy rains that cause flooding, increasing ocean temperatures that affect coral reefs and fishing and frequent hurricanes destroying homes and livelihoods. These countries often suffer from fragile economic conditions and don’t have the means to help their citizens to cope with these problems.

In the face of such uncertain conditions, many young people are deciding that they want and need urgent changes to ensure that they have a world worth living in. Around the world, they are leading strikes, protests and demonstrations and gaining the skills needed to find solutions.

At a coffee shop in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, UN News met some of the country’s leading young voices on the environment to find out what Trinidadians think about the climate emergency and how to address it.

Priyanka Lalla, a teenage climate activist and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) youth advocate for the eastern Caribbean, represented Trinidad and Tobago at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow; Joshua Prentice, a climate and ocean scientist, has worked with the United Nations on projects related to chemicals and waste; and Zaafia Alexander is the 18-year-old founder of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) devoted to raising awareness of the climate crisis and elevating the voices of Caribbean youth on the international scene.

UN News: What inspired you to advocate for change?

Priyanka Lalla: I grew up in a beautiful region with lush biodiversity, and I have seen the destruction and damage caused by storms, particularly after Hurricane Maria struck the Leeward Islands in 2017.

I think there’s often a narrative that individual action does not create great impact. But it does, which is why I advocate for individual action and to empower young people and show them that we do have power.

Joshua Prentice: Discussions are happening now that will shape our future, and our voices need to be included in all negotiations. This is why I decided to attend climate conferences and ensure that youth are represented, particularly from my region.

Zaafia Alexander: For me it was an excruciatingly passionate geography teacher. They helped me understand why climate change should be a key topic of conversation in Trinidad and Tobago.

Also, I was angry. It seemed to me that no one was taking any action, that no one my age was talking about the problem and that youth weren’t included in crucial decisions that affect us.

Joshua Prentice is a Trinidadian climate and ocean scientist.

Joshua Prentice is a Trinidadian climate and ocean scientist.

UN News: You have all told me that not enough young people are getting involved in advocating for climate action. Why do you think that is?

Joshua Prentice: I think that this is a by-product of it not being pushed more in the school system growing up. It trickles down from parents as well. They need to teach their children good recycling practices and why we should we take care of the environment. However, thanks to the internet and social media, young people are starting to be more engaged.

Zaafia Alexander: This is why education and advocacy are so important. So many Trinidadians are not aware of the severity of the crisis or how it directly affects Trinidad and Tobago and other small island developing States. It’s not a part of the syllabus.

Joshua Prentice: And many young farmers don’t understand how climate change is affecting their crops and their land because of things like drought and flooding.

Zaafia Alexander: It’s ironic that we are heavily affected, but so many of us don’t understand why we’re seeing fluctuating weather patterns, sea level rises and increased temperatures or that mankind is primarily to blame.

Priyanka Lalla: Yes, it’s the same marginalised coastal communities that are hit by flash flooding every year. Their homes are washed out, they lose their belongings, young children are forced out of education because their schools are destroyed and they don’t have the resources to build back. Sometimes they are forced to give up on education and are forced into child marriage or child labour.

Zaafia Alexander is Trinidadian teenage climate activist, and founder of an environmental NGO.

Zaafia Alexander is Trinidadian teenage climate activist, and founder of an environmental NGO.

UN News: Some activists advocate for changes in legislation to address the climate crisis. Is this something you’re interested in pursuing?

Joshua Prentice: As someone who practices environmental law, I can say that it’s very hard to update legislation. There needs to be immense public outcry for a law to change. However, in recent years we have made some progress because of public pressure.

But, reaching out directly to the ministries directly overseeing this area can help. Youth activists should contact them and ask for their concerns to be taken up in cabinet. There are also NGOs in Trinidad that talk directly to ministers. By getting involved with them, you have a better chance of being heard.

Priyanka Lalla: We need the support of our ministries, our policymakers, our governments. We also need the support of our young people, educators, homemakers. It needs to be a collective effort.

I think that accountability comes from the voice of the young people. We continue to keep our governments, our policymakers, NGOs and various organisations accountable. But, I think we also need to acknowledge the good that has been done already and acknowledge it to make people feel empowered and inspired to continue.

Priyanka Lalla is a Trinidadian teenage climate activist and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) youth advocate for the eastern Caribbean.

Priyanka Lalla is a Trinidadian teenage climate activist and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) youth advocate for the eastern Caribbean.

UN News: Trinidad has benefited from oil reserves over many years. Should the country stop exploiting this fossil fuel resource?

Joshua Prentice: As an advocate for sustainable development and clean energy, I think that we should stop it. However, I exist in the real world as well. There are a lot of things that need to be done in the country, and we cannot afford to just leave oil and gas, which is by far its biggest revenue generator, overnight.

There have been steps taken to diversify the country and move away from our dependency on oil and gas, and I do believe that we want to go further in this direction.

Priyanka Lalla: Within the next few decades, we need to make that transition, even though it is taking longer than we’d like, for the sake of our people and the sake of our biodiversity.



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