World leaders are gathered at the United Nations this Earth Day to take a major step in addressing the looming crisis of climate change. Representatives from 171 countries — including the United States, China, and India — signed the historic Paris Agreement, which was adopted during a landmark summit last December. While leaders from world powers are pledging to make the decisions and changes necessary to limit the dangerous effects of global temperature rise caused by greenhouse gases, the historic occasion is also highlighting the work of two teens who have been instrumental in leading the charge on climate change. Victoria Barrett, 17, and Getrude Clement, 16, have championed the issue from very different parts of the world. Both were invited to speak at the United Nations this week in advance of the signing. "Climate change poses a big problem for the entire planet," Clement, who hosts a radio show in Tanzania dedicated to the topic, told the gathered heads of state on Friday morning. "But children — especially the poorest and most vulnerable — feel most of its effects." Those potential effects of climate change on international youth are monumental. According to the BBC, if no action is taken, the world is expected to continue to warm to the tune of about 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. That's a problem that will be dealt with not by the leaders of today, but by the future leaders, who are children and young adults now. "Saving our planet is the biggest fight of our generation," Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary General's Envoy on Youth, told Refinery29 in an emailed statement. "Young people have the power as voters, consumers, innovators, and mobilizers to take action and make the world listen to their voices."
Clement is a shining example of the extent of that power. In addition to reporting on the issue, she partners with UNICEF to work on mapping the effects of climate change in her community, including lack of resources for food production and the health hazards posed by wasteful water policies. She told Refinery29 the day before her speech that she hopes state leaders will hear what she has to say and take action to work with individual citizens. "I need them to take action by cooperating with their citizens," she said. "That will help, because they can't do it themselves." Despite living half a world away, the threat of climate change is just as immediate for Barrett, a youth activist with Alliance for Climate Education who attended the Paris summit last year. Though the high school junior lives in New York City, her roots are in Honduras, and she identifies with the indigenous population that lives along the Central American country's coast. "They're being so impacted by sea level rising. Putting [climate change] into a personal context, seeing that right there in a place I call home — it's crazy," she said. But while she points expressly to the disproportionate effect on her Honduran community, her message includes her current hometown of New York City, also threatened by rising sea levels. "[Being connected to both] gives me the ability to have two different viewpoints — the viewpoint of my grandparents living in a developing country like Honduras, but then also the viewpoint of me as a New York City high school student, who might not see the exact impact. And understanding that the society I live in in one place is affecting the society of my ancestors and people in another place," she said. Barrett is one of 21 children and teens, age 8 to 19, who are suing the United States government for promoting the development and use of fossil fuels. The suit alleges that the climate change caused by fossil fuels is violating their constitutional rights by destroying public trust resources. "I'm used to marches and working on campaigns, and the idea of taking legal action was something I had never thought of before," Barrett told Refinery29. "I thought it was something that could definitely lead to actual policy change, which I think is really amazing."
Recently, the lawsuit saw its first hurdle, as the government and an alliance of fuel companies moved to dismiss it. But a judge ruled in the youths' favor, allowing the lawsuit to proceed. When Barrett heard that, she went nuts. "I got an email, and the subject was just 'EXCITING NEWS' in all caps," she said. She was leading a workshop on climate refugees when she got the message. "I jumped off the stage, I was freaking out! I was so excited," she said. The evolving fate of Barrett's lawsuit brings further hope to the possibility that climate change is finally being taken seriously by world leaders. Though Friday's signing has been hailed as an enormous step in the right direction in fighting the threat of climate change, it's far from a final resolution. The signatory nations will still have to ratify the agreement for it to go into effect, a process that's different for each country. At least 55 countries, representing 55% of global emissions, will have to ratify the treaty for it to become operational. Of the 17 nations, only 12 are beginning the ratification process immediately after the signing. "I am one young girl standing before you today, but I am not alone. We expect more than words on paper and promises," Clement said as she closed out her speech on Friday morning. "We expect action. Action on a big scale." "And we expect action today, not tomorrow." Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ms. Clement's first name.