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The Power of Youth Voices for Climate Action: The Wild Center at COP26

January 25, 2022 3:57 PM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

In November 2021, The Wild Center sent a ten-person delegation to Scotland to attend COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties. The Museum was one of only two museums in the world to participate as observers in the Blue Zone–the area of COP where the international climate change negotiations take place and only accredited individuals and organizations are permitted within the Blue Zone. Youth climate leaders and delegates participated in the Conference of Youth (COY) – the largest youth conference related to UN climate processes. 

The Wild Center COP26 Press Conference

What is COP26?

COP26 stands for the Conference of the Parties. Each year, 197 countries come together to agree on a path for climate action. The 26th gathering was held in Glasgow, Scotland from November 1st to the 12th, 2021. 

During COP26, countries reviewed the progress made since the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement and worked on developing a concrete plan to meet the targets outlined in that agreement. 

Observer Status

“Any organization can apply to attend a UN COP event, the process is quite involved and takes close to two years from start to finish, requiring multiple steps and approval process,” said Jen Kretser, Director of Climate Initiatives at The Wild Center. There are three categories of participants at UN meetings – representatives of countries known as Parties, press and media, and Observers. “The Wild Center has official NGO Observer status and we’ve had that status since the late 2000’s,” said Kretser. “Our first UN event was COP21 in Paris in 2015 and we also were a witness to the historic signing of the Paris Climate Treaty at the UN in New York city in 2016. It was an extraordinary honor to be one of two museums in the world that attended and represented the cultural sector.” This accreditation status allowed Youth Climate Program delegates inside access to panels and discussions closed to the public. 

The Wild Center also presented with two other cultural organizations, the Science Center of Minnesota and the Phipps Conservancy in partnership with America is All In at the US Climate Action Center in a session titled Culture Over Carbon: The US Cultural Sector Advancing Climate Action. “As trusted members of communities, museums are in a unique position to serve as catalysts for addressing issues of critical importance to society–whether it’s hunger, poverty, gender equity or climate action,” said Kretser. 

The Wild Center’s Delegation

The Wild Center delegation included six college students and recent graduates who presented in multiple events throughout the conference and posted regular updates of their observations online. Youth delegates included Andrew Fagerheim from Columbia University; Gina Fiorile, Coordinator, Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network at the University of Colorado-Boulder; Elise Pierson from St. Lawrence University; Silas Swanson from Columbia University, Witter Swanson Sustainable Energy Advantage, Boston, MA; and Emma Venarde from Brown University. The Wild Center also sent three members of its leadership team; Chair of the Museum’s Board of Trustees Karen Thomas, Director of Climate Initiatives Jen Kretser, and Executive Director Stephanie Radcliffe. 

“Youth voices need to be part of the discussion on climate change action because you are going to be needed for leading climate change action,” said Radliffe. “Our Youth Climate Program has already empowered thousands of students around the world to be forces for change in their communities. Participating in COP26 is an incredible opportunity for our delegates not just to be heard, but to gain critical understanding into the way power works–and how they use it.”

Inside the Blue Zone at COP29. Left to right are Andrew Fagerheim and Silas Swanson from Columbia University and Jen Kretser, Director of Climate Initiatives at The Wild Center.

The Wild Center’s Youth Climate Program (YCP) is a global initiative that works to convene, inspire, and network young people through youth climate summits, empowering them to lead and act on climate change solutions in their schools and communities. At the center of the program is a two-day retreat, the annual Adirondack Youth Climate Summit that brings together over 200 high school and college students to learn about climate change. 

“The Wild Center has long believed in the power of youth voice to galvanize climate action,” said Kretser. Since the first Adirondack Youth Climate Summit in 2009, The Wild Center has worked to grow the network of Youth Climate Summits around the world as well as to support student-led climate action projects, and elevate youth voices for climate action. Using The Wild Center’s Adirondack Youth Climate Summit as a model, students as far away as Sri Lanka have implemented solutions in their own schools and communities. So far, almost 100 Youth Climate Summits have been held in seven countries.“The current generation of youth will be the most impacted by the effects of climate change throughout their lifetimes,” said Kretser. “[they] are the last generation with the change to lessen the impact. In climate negotiations and discussions at all scales, youth input is critical to ensure that climate targets, goals, and plans will result in a liveable future for younger generations.”


Centered –Gina Fiorile, Program and Communication Coordinator for the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN) leads a youth panel discussion.

Takeaways and Next Steps for The Wild Center

Among some of the key takeaways for The Wild Center Delegation was that local action matters a great deal. “While actions at an international and/or national scale can feel far away and overwhelming, actions at the community, regional, and state scale are manageable and achievable,” said Ketser. “The Wild Center recognizes that in order for our world to thrive, climate change must be addressed robustly across all sectors of society.”

Partnerships and collaborations are essential to our ability to reach a just and equitable transformation to a low-carbon society. “We met so many incredible people from around the world, all doing amazing work on climate change,” said Ketser. “It was inspiring to meet a team from Bangladesh who are working on building floating schools, hospitals, and even gardens to adapt to rising sea levels. Or a youth activist from Rwanda who is planting 10,000 food-producing trees across her country to help reforest and feed her people. Or an organization in Chicago that is connecting youth around the world on climate and water issues.”

The Wild Center plans to continue to build its global network of summits through its free online planning toolkit and monthly network calls to support summits. As part of the Youth Climate Program, The Wild Center will host a Climate Change Education Institute for Educators and a Youth Climate Leadership Retreat in the Adirondacks in partnership with the Finger Lakes Institute and funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Environmental Literacy grants program. 

“It is our mission to offer the public scientifically based examples and stories of how communities can work together to find solutions here in the Adirondacks and beyond through our Youth Climate Program and our new Climate Solutions exhibition and experience opening in the summer of 2022.”

The ClimateSolutions exhibition and experience was awarded $249,549 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2019 and is set to open in July 2022. “It’s a museum-wide initiative comprising a new long-term exhibition, with enhancements to exhibitions found throughout The Wild Center,” said Kretser. The core of the Solutions exhibition is a 3,000 square foot space featuring large-scale imagery, video, interactive activities, and first-person accounts from leaders in climate solutions as well as those most impacted by climate change, including youth and indigenous communities. Solutions also includes a hands-on experimental studio and education programs for K-12 students and general audiences. “Climate Solutions will focus on the people and innovations working to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change in the northeast and around the globe,” said Kretser. 

“We want to use our presence at COP26 to drive a greater awareness of the power of our Youth Climate Summit model,” said Ratcliffe. “But we also want to use our participation to highlight to all our visitors that they can take action also. This work needs to be done on multiple levels. We’re all responsible for doing what we can.”

Learn more about The Wild Center’s participation in COP26:

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