By Susan Baek
Special to Planet Princeton
The Princeton Conservation Society, a student group at Princeton University, will host a student-led international climate summit on Princeton’s campus this Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8. The Youth Climate & Conservation Summit is a conference by young people, for young people, that also brings perspectives from the Global South. The summit is free and open to the public.
Undergraduate Michael Salama, the president of the Princeton Conservation Society and lead organizer of the conference, said one barrier to organizing the summit has been obtaining travel visas for speakers.
“These are young people who go to climate conferences all over the world. They go to Egypt, they go to Amsterdam, all over Europe, Asia, South America,” Salama said. “Yet they don’t have visas to the U.S. Why is that? Because in the U.S., people don’t seem to care about having these people’s perspectives.”
Last summer, Salama did research in the Andean highlands of Peru to understand how the glacial recession has impacted small-scale agriculturalists. Even though his time in Peru was cut short due to getting bit by a rabid dog, Salama described how the experience opened his eyes to a new world. “I learned from being there for five days that there are things you learn from being somewhere that you never ever get close to learning looking online,” he said.
Salama also saw this gap in learning the previous two years when he contributed to a research report at the Nature Conservancy and did an internship at a local Panamanian NGO that helped reconstruct passages between habitats for spider monkeys. “That was when I realized the difference between people who are actually getting things done and people who are talking about doing things,” Salama said.
These experiences inspired Salama to lead the organization of the Youth Climate & Conservation Summit, which puts a spotlight on young climate activists who are getting things done. Among the activists who plan on speaking at the summit are Rahmina Paullete, Guillaume Kalonji, Mitzi Jonelle Tan, and Mohamed El-Hajji.
Rahmina Paullete is a 17-year-old activist from Kisumu, Kenya who is working to restore the ecosystem of Lake Victoria. Paullete plans on speaking about how devastating floods and droughts due to climate change have impacted agricultural production and the economy in her local communities. Paullete said she hopes the summit allows people to “connect with the front-line activists who are from these communities that are being affected” and learn how to collaborate on climate activism.
Guillaume Kalonji is a 25-year-old activist from Bukavu, a city in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, who taught himself English over the past few years in order to speak about climate activism on the international stage more. Kalonji will speak about the dangers of oil sales in the Congo Basin and the effects of war in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Mitzi Jonelle Tan is a 25-year-old activist from Antipolo, Philippines whose organization Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines has raised awareness about the experience of frontline land defenders and lobbied policymakers to protect them. Tan will speak about the dangers surrounding her activism, human rights abuses toward Filipino environmental defenders, and the oil spill in the Philippines. “I want people to become activists themselves—to fall in love with life so much that they will fight for it with every tooth and nail,” Tan said.
Mohamed El-Hajji is a 21-year-old activist from Fez, Morocco who founded Fridays For Future Morocco, a platform for young people from the Global South to advocate for climate justice. El-Hajji will speak about the effects of the Russia-Ukraine war on water scarcity and rising prices in Morocco and the Middle East and North Africa regions.
When people think of young activists working on issues related to climate change, they often think of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist who is known for challenging world leaders to take immediate action for climate change mitigation. Salama said that the summit’s focus is on uplifting voices that don’t have a large international platform yer.
“This is really about highlighting voices and communities that are disproportionately impacted, whose voices are disproportionately low. If you take someone like Greta Thunberg, I don’t think that her community is disproportionately impacted, but her voice is disproportionately loud,” Salama said.
Connie Gong, a second-year Princeton undergraduate and vice president of the Princeton Conservation Society, said the conference organizers hopes to welcome people from the Princeton community and beyond to the conference. She said that because the summit is youth-focused, the hope is that the gathering will break barriers and make climate issues more accessible.
“Aside from climate change, and whatever your stance is on that, we can really connect with each other in terms of all being young people trying to navigate through the world and trying to find what it means to take up space in the world and what it means to fight for something you believe in,” Gong said.