St Ignatius Year 13 student Madalena Alves and year 12 student Kelly Su, both studying for A-levels, are getting an unusual chance to connect with students around the world interested in the Copenhagen climate summit.
They have been participating in an international online forum called the Global Youth Panel after learning about it from their Geography teacher.
But as only two students on an island of many hundreds who could have taken part, they feel pretty lonely.
The girls are concerned that kids in Cayman aren’t learning enough about climate change or environmental topics in general.
“In Cayman, when it comes to things that impact the environment they should enforce it more for all the schools,” says Kelly.
“We do recycling here at school but it is just us, it’s not making a big difference.”
She has some suggestions, but is not sure if they will be taken up by those in charge.
“There should be more education about the landfill, about pollution in general, and throughout the grades. We only know this because we study year 12 geography,” said Kelly.
“But most kids get to choose what they study after year 10, and they will never study geography.”
Madalena was also emphatic about the need for more education, and starting at younger ages.
“The sooner and earlier you educate people the better the knowledge will be,” she said.
“Learning about issues related to the environment should be ongoing throughout school.”
They had both practical and personal reasons for taking part in climate change forum.
“I have an exam coming up and thought getting other views would help me improve my exam grade,” admitted Kelly.
“But I also joined to get a better understanding of the topic and to get other people’s points of view about climate change.”
There are a few other students in Cayman taking part, but not many.
“I’m definitely more aware of what’s happening through the debates,” said Cayman International School student Appolina Bent.
But she’s the only one at her school who’s doing it.
Bigger issues for these kids
Madalena, who plans to study human geography at university, said she thought climate change is such a big issue she felt it was important to get involved, especially at a time when the opinions of teenagers are being sought out by global decision makers.
Both St. Ignatius students said they already knew a lot about climate change from studying the topic in school, as well as from the media.
Madalena found a BBC news series which traced the specific impacts on climate change on different places around the world particularly interesting.
“I am Portuguese, but now I live in Cayman, so I have two home countries, and I certainly want to know more about its impacts on different places,” she said.
Echoing pronouncements by leaders of developing nations from tiny Vanuatu to Argentina, the students seemed to come to the conclusion that asking developing nations to make drastic accommodations was at worst unfair and at best unrealistic.
Throughout the conference, the group of 77, representing 130 nations finding support from powerhousese like China and Brazil, was able turn that issue into a deal-breaker.
“Big countries are making such a big issue about developing countries cutting their emissions,” said Madalena.
“But the developed nations have policies in place yet they are not meeting their targets – so why should the small countries be under such pressure to cut their emissions?”
The students also expressed concern that since the economy is so bad, developing nations can’t think about the environment at a time like this, even though the economy will have a huge impact on the environment.
“For instance in Africa, they need to focus on the opportunity to improve living standards, not carbon. In addition, they can see this as the richer nations trying to stop their development,” said Kelly.
Madalena noted here are so many examples of how the poorest people are the most affected by climate change, for instance desertification in northern Africa, or the flooding and storms in the Philippines.
“If poor countries don’t have the resources to deal with their economy and security issues, how can they be expected to deal with climate change issues too?,” she said.
“Yet it is the poor people who are suffering the most.”
Not much optimism about being heard
The students said that participating in the forum certainly helped them understand what other young people around the world thought, but would not change their own opinions.
“I would say it has made my own opinion even stronger,” said Kelly.
“I think the forum will have an impact because the youth and students participating may be inspired to graduate with degrees that will allow them to be the decision-makers in the future.”
Appolina was open-minded about what she learned from participating, and took away a positive lesson.
“Hearing what others have to say on climate change and seeing the opinions of government leaders sets an example for us to follow,” she said.
Madalena, however, was not optimistic about the actual impact the forum would have on climate policy in general.
“All of us young people are not strong enough to make a difference, but it helps us realize it is such a huge issue,” she said.
Kate Lanham, who works at Cayman International School and acted as Cayman coordinator for the project said that after the conference organisers will divide the panel into the students’ respective countries and will ask them to debate how they will be impacted by the outcome.
“Brazil, for example, could make its case against deforestation restrictions whilst the rest of the world argues they should suffer for the greater good. This takes what happened in Copenhagen, makes it personal, real and local and gives it a context I believe no-one else is providing.”
Trouble building interest
While Ms Lanham tried to recruit high school students in Cayman from all the schools, in the end only a few signed on to participate in the panel.
Perhaps the level of interest in the forum is related to young peoples’ perceptions of what they can achieve.
“As students, we are people without power, if we all got together then maybe we would have some influence, and we do recognize we are being given an opportunity to express ourselves but are governments really going to listen to us?” asked Madalena.
“Even here, if we went to the government here and asked them to do something about recycling, for instance, would they really listen to us?”