For islands and other frontline communities across the United States, ensuring a 1.5-degree temperature increase is not aspirational, it’s existential. It is the loss of legacy, culture, and identity. As an Islander, it’s personal. It’s the fight of my life.
Over the summer, I was selected by the United Nations to be one of two representatives from the United States to take part in the first Youth4Climate summit in Milan for Pre-COP26. I was slightly overwhelmed at the prospect of how to respectfully and equitably carry the diverse stories of and communicate the urgent needs for more than 330 million people, especially those of youth. But driven by my desire to be a faithful advocate, I immediately got to work, seeking out firsthand insight from community leaders, scientists, artists, social entrepreneurs, tribal affairs attorneys, and national and subnational officials. As a representative, I aimed to honor systematically undervalued and underrepresented perspectives that are rarely heard in international forums, especially in the United States.
Along with Alaska, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, Hawai’i often finds itself literally off the map and outside of official representation within the United States’ international climate change negotiations. Despite this, Hawai’i has led the nation as the first state to declare a climate emergency in Senate Concurrent Resolution 44, while also spearheading a wide constellation of robust climate policies.
Ultimately, I wanted to showcase Hawai’i as a global model of both inspiration and application. Venturing through ancient forests cloaked in clouds and looming above rainbows, I studied rare plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet. Unwinding with friends in hidden izakayas, we discussed novel frameworks for biocultural restoration of coastal areas and indigenous innovation. Talking with community leaders, I was inspired by the transformative impact of peacebuilding in nurturing hope and charting climate-resilient futures. These embodied stories and solutions from my community were woven into the tapestry of my advocacy.
The stories also gave me a lens into how SLS could empower me to bring innovative local island solutions into the landscape of global climate change policy. “Innovation” and “interdisciplinary” approaches are not brochure buzzwords for SLS, but galvanizing principles evident in the law school’s steadfast commitment to forging new frontiers.
At SLS, I’ve further honed my climate policy advocacy skill set in academic and practical work/learning by doing. Whether analyzing legal underpinnings of international climate negotiations through directed research with Professor Buzz Thompson or working on a tribal commercial code with Professor Elizabeth Reese in the Yurok Tribe Policy Lab, SLS has fueled my own impactful journeys both inside and outside of the classroom. These tangible experiences and the questions they raised shaped my efforts at the summit.
During the summit, nearly 400 delegates from 186 countries met to negotiate and draft ambitious policies for unprecedented climate action. As a “threat multiplier,” the climate crisis affects every domain and every society. Consequently, addressing this crisis necessitates a holistic and inclusive approach to generating solutions. In service of this holistic approach, approximately 100 delegates were divided into four working groups—(1) Youth Driving Ambition; (2) Sustainable Recovery; (3) Non-State Actors’ Engagement; and (4) Climate Conscious Society—each tasked with developing concrete and consensus-driven policy. In my working group, Non-State Actors, we focused on sectors ranging from food and sports to entrepreneurship and fossil fuel.
My work within the entrepreneurship and academia teams resulted in advocating for enhanced data accessibility and adaptive financial schemes for startups and existing businesses contributing to a “just transition” to a “green economy, increased non-state actor climate disclosures, and the immediate alignment of both operations and supply chains with net zero emissions.” Cognizant of the significant inequalities in the ecosystems in the Global North and South, we strongly advocated for capacity building through critical infrastructure like internet for all, mentorship, and legal advice for young entrepreneurs in the most affected and underrepresented communities.
With an emphasis on accessibility and the democratization of knowledge, my Austrian friend Kami Krista and I were tasked with writing the section on academia. Specifically, our recommended interventions included expanding access to climate research and solutions proposed by individuals affiliated with academic institutions, along with source data and other relevant methodological information. We also called for increased transparency of monetary and non-monetary sources of support, as well as actual and potential conflicts of interests, particularly those that intersect with extractive industries. Notably, for leading institutions in the Global North, like Stanford, we encouraged substantial increases in funding for, calls for proposals from, student exchanges with, and cross-tier inter-institutional research partnerships in developing countries and the most affected communities. These interventions are critical for strengthening our collective understanding of climate change and equitable solutions.
At the conclusion of the summit, we turned our draft document into a 43-page policy paper, “The Youth4Climate Manifesto,” that was presented to over 40 world leaders and ministers, including Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry. The manifesto and its recommendations were also discussed in a dedicated ministerial meeting that I attended at COP26, which was convened by Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC Patricia Espinosa, COP President Alok Sharma, and Italy’s Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani.
Climate change is the story of our species. This summit provided a meaningful avenue for youth to take stewardship and continue writing the story toward a future where we can thrive, not just survive. We haven’t given up on this fight. Youth is the refuge of hope, the wellspring of possibility. SL
Rayne Sullivan, a second-year student at SLS, served as a delegate to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and represented the U.S. at the Youth4Climate summit in Milan.