Kamori Osthananda, a contributor to Thailand NOW and the Bangkok Post, had the distinct honor and privilege of participating in the 28th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP28) held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates from November 30th to December 12th, 2023. What follows is a first-hand account of her experiences and impressions as a Thai youth delegate.
In Thailand, nam jai connotes generosity and compassion for one’s community, where nam means “water” or “essence” and jai means “heart” – a nod to the vital role of rivers and waterways to the Thai people. Climate change, whether it manifests as irregular rainfall or rising sea levels, is therefore an existential threat to the Thai way of life and communal spirit. As a Thai youth delegate at COP28, I found that the concept of nam jai took on new meaning as an irrefutable collaborative obligation to safeguard the Earth for future generations.
“We have a responsibility to the community that we serve,” according to Gambian women’s rights activist Jaha Dukureh, who sat across from me at a meeting room on the Global Gender Stocktake.
This Conference in particular was different. After nearly three decades of global climate conferences, not only was COP28 the first to adopt language around transitioning away from fossil fuels in an agreement, the summit also spearheaded youth inclusion. For the first time, youth voices and perspectives like mine could be heard at the highest levels of global climate action. This is how it went.
The role of culture and language in climate action
My journey to COP28 began with conducting research published in the Journal of the Siam Society. My colleagues and I examined the linguistic diversity in Southeast Asia — one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Our research revealed that the existing challenges in communicating climate change within the region are the use of non-native loan words and sole communication in dominant languages, especially in policymaking.
My call to action is to support youth-led initiatives that seek to provide equitable access to knowledge and cultural exchange within the region, such as The Southeast Asia Exchange, to foster improved cross-cultural climate communication. I was privileged to present these findings at the UNESCO Greening Education Hub at COP28 and discuss them further at side events held by the Thai Pavilion. I also had the honor of observing the developments of the High-Level Ministerial Dialogue on Culture-based Climate Action, which committed to recognizing the powerful role of culture — from arts to heritage to creative industries — in mounting inclusive responses to the climate crisis.
As a youth delegate from the multicultural, biodiverse region of Southeast Asia, I found these experiences to be both extremely relevant to my context and incredibly moving.
Youth and women’s issues intersect with climate crisis
Equally moving was recognition of gender and youth at high-level conversations, especially when gender equality indicators such as intimate partner violence, maternal mortality, child marriage, and adolescent birth rates illustrate that countries most at risk of climate change are also where women and girls experience greatest danger according to recent UNFPA research.
I observed presidency roundtables where topics such as gender-responsive transition and youth engagement were placed front and center. These focuses were further highlighted at the Youth Hub, Children and Youth’s Pavilion, and Women’s Pavilion. I found it powerfully affirming to see lifesize recordings of young leaders and their work with communities displayed at the Youth Hub, all while high-level dialogues took place within the very same walls. In the Women’s Pavilion, interactive installations spotlighted issues such as unpaid care work and food security.
The Solutions Room at the Women’s Pavilion.
Mural painted by Youth and Women Pavilion team at COP28 depicting reconnecting to our roots and embracing nature.
Mural painted by the Fearless Collective at the Women and Gender Pavilion at COP28. Source: Jitsai Santaputra via Fearless Collective
What other Thai youth delegates had to say
At the Thai Pavilion, it was incredibly inspiring to see my fellow youth delegates spearheading sessions, including Jitsai Santaputra, co-founder of Youth for Energy Southeast Asia and SDG7 Global Youth Ambassador for Southeast Asia appointed by Sustainable Energy for All and TED Countdown.
“As an energy market professional and youth in the energy advocacy space, it makes me happy to see that there are a lot more roundtable bilateral discussions between energy organizations with youth groups,” said Jitsai. “They consulted more young people about what’s happening, what we think the solution is. The fact that we are being asked for consultation as young people – this is new. They’re consulting us about what we want to see, and how we want to see it done. I want to see more of these meaningful dialogues in Thailand.”
Charinthip Techapermphon, the co-lead of a World Economic Forum project, which pilots circular economy as part of Global Shapers Bangkok, found the Conference’s inclusion and emphasis on youth inspiring. “The voices of young people were heard by decision makers, literally. Decision makers were part of the audience during youth panels,” said Charinthip.
As for Kacha Mahadumrongkul, the co-director of KBank’s Venture Studio Program at KX Ventures and part of Penta Medical Recycling, which provides prosthetic care by diverting medical waste, he agreed that youth was in the spotlight at COP28.
“Empowering the next generation of young leaders is important. My experience at the Conference was an enriching and transformative one. It opened up my eyes to the possibilities and conversations taking place in the world,” said Kacha.
Global Youth Statement Handover at COP28.
Among the many possibilities marked by COP28, he was able to witness the Global Youth Statement handover, a document containing multilateral proposals that represent the voices of young people across the globe. “There needs to be a more systematic embedding of youth into the decision making process,” he reflected.
For young people interested in joining future COPs, Jitsai suggested starting by browsing the web, and asking for opportunities. “Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst thing that may happen is people saying ‘no.’ They may say ‘maybe.’ They may say, ‘I cannot help you, but I know someone else who might be able to.’”
For organizations seeking to engage with young people, she recommended “walking the talk” by meeting young people beyond just halfway – by providing spaces for constant meaningful conversations about the needs, concerns, and ideas for collaboration.
Moving forward, mapping out co-benefits and practical next steps for meaningful youth engagement, can truly open doors for youth and create the intergenerational collaboration that is often championed at COPs but rarely practiced. Charinthip added that youth capacity building prior to future COPs, such as exposure to the current work of UNFCCC, can also be beneficial to prospective Thai youth delegates.
Our obligation to the future
“One is born with three obligations: an obligation to the past, present, and future,” according to royal correspondence between Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs and Phraya Anuman Rajadhon, both luminaries in the field of Thai heritage.
These words echoed throughout my time at COP28, where I realized that the primary enabler of Thailand’s obligation to our shared future is, in fact, our youth. Informed by the nation’s rich heritage of the past, driven by climate adversity of the present, and bootstrapped for the future by sheer duty to continue sharing Thai perspectives, youth inclusion is timely and necessary in shaping our shared future.