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They're Going Hungry: A Chat With the Young Americans Fasting at COP 19

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Twelve days ago, at the opening session of the U.N. climate talks here in Warsaw, the lead negotiator from the Philippines, still reeling from Haiyah, gave an impassioned, tearful speech. His words set a somber and urgent tone for the talks. Nadervev "Yeb" Saño also declared that he'd be fasting for the remainder of the summit, or until some ambitious agreements were made.

Around the world, supporters have been "standing with the Philippines" and many have joined in a solidarity fast -- including a number of American youth here in Warsaw. I tracked down six of the "fasters" -- all part of the SustainUS youth delegation to the talks -- for a chat about their motivations, inspirations, and any complications of their action. They are Adam Greenberg, Adam Hasz, Ryan Madden, Clayton Munnings, Adam Pearson, Anita Raman, all under 25 years old, and from Cambridge, MA to San Diego, CA and all times zones in between.

To a person, these American youth were humble and reluctant to make themselves the story. I had to push to get them to really talk about themselves. Or maybe they were just tired and weak. (I kid!)

Not everyone in the group interviewed below is fasting. But they insisted -- for sake of solidarity and a philosophy of "no judgement" that they hold dear -- that distinctions not be made for this article between those who are and those who aren't. They prefer to all stand as a group, regardless of who is actually eating and who is not.

Ben Jervey: First things first, how are you all feeling?

Anita Raman: Running on adrenaline.

Adam Greenberg: Actually, I'm feeling great right now. I actually slept last night, and I think that's the secret. I woke up feeling very powerful. I'm ready to go. I could go give you 40 pushups.

Ben Jervey: So, besides the obvious signal of Yeb's fast, what inspired you personally to take on such a sacrifice?

Adam Greenberg: Yeb's a pretty inspiring person, and you don't find too many inspiring people in suits. [Note: all of the SustainUS delegates were wearing suits, and have been inspiring a lot of people.]

The sacrifice happening here isn't my fast. It's people in climate-vulnerable communities all over the world who are being thrown under the bus by refusal to act on climate. And the real inspiration is people all over the world who are fighting back, who refuse to give up, who say "we demand a livable future, a livable planet."

Ryan Madden: I think the main inspiration was a sense of hopelessness that the youth felt, especially American youth on domestic action in the U.S. We're trying to inspire people to push a little more. We know that people who are working here and working at home do truly care about these issues, but it's not enough. We just hope that the fast could be a reminder of what's really at stake here -- human life -- and try to inspire others to push that much harder.

BJ: And what of you being American? Did that give you any extra motivation to join in? Or any extra hesitation?

Adam Pearson: We don't want to take any credit at all for the solidarity fast, but we did think that it was important to show people that even if the United States was less than ambitious in the talks, there were Americans who supported broader efforts.

Everyone at these talks still looks to Americans and toward the U.S. delegation. And based on our discussions with the State Department, they can come to the table with very ambitious targets next year at Ban Ki-Moon's summit, if there is domestic regulation in place to facilitate that.

Ryan Madden: And our concern is that if there is not substantial domestic action on this, especially given the bottom up approach that has been the dialogue here at the conference, that we'll have a rehash of Kyoto where there's not enough ambitious action amongst all the parties because the United States isn't taking ambitious action.

Clayton Munnings: A specific opportunity that we have in the U.S. is the forthcoming EPA regulations that are due out in June. The president and his EPA have discretion over how aggressively to design those regulations. They can design regs that achieve negligible reductions or up to 26 percent reductions from the power plant sector by 2020. So it's basically on the EPA to determine the ambition of domestic regulation, which will therefore determine international positions. So as U.S. youth we're trying to provide regulators with that reminder that they have the discretion and responsibility to pass aggressive reductions under the Clean Air Act.

Adam Pearson: So if America is to lead at the international talks, America has to be really ambitious at the domestic level. And if America is to be really ambitious at the domestic level, then we have to push at the domestic level.

BJ: So do you have any sense of if your actions are being heard back in D.C.? Or by the delegation here?

Adam Pearson: We've been setting up meetings all week with as many reps of the U.S. government as possible to try to figure out our most effective role.

Ryan Madden: We got a little pat on the back and some signs of admiration for what we're doing. Other than that, it hasn't really translated into how this might impact a policy outcome.

Adam Pearson: A traditional role of youth in these talks is to come in and make statements and actions. Someone from the State Department acknowledged the importance of this role. Showing our passion reminds the delegates -- the folks who are caught up in the negotiations and the nitty gritty -- that there are real people craving international action on climate change.

BJ: Has the fast made you rethink your role at all as activist? Philosophically or otherwise?

Ryan Madden: I'm new to activism on the climate front, so I will say it's pushed certain boundaries of my physical and mental capacity and I'm not sure I'll know until I have a chance to digest after these hectic two weeks.

Adam Hasz: For me it's a good reminder of the relative privilege that I have as an activist -- and an American -- here to be here in this center. Food is readily available -- a lot of free food is readily available -- and then to be able to have the luxury of not choosing that. It's a good reminder of how we need to use that privilege to stand with those who do not have that.

This effort we're pushing for domestically is really about climate justice worldwide. This fast -- a very simple act, not something that is nearly at all what anyone in the Philippines is experiencing -- has been helpful for me to remember how important it is to use the privilege we have to advance whatever I can towards a more just world.

Adam Greenberg: I'm struggling with questions about 'what does it mean to step up and take risks'? I find myself wondering if the movement has gone too far towards treating arrests as a badge of honor. Sometimes you hear, "how many times have you been arrested," and there's judgement there. (Even if there's an issue with the fact that only some people have the privilege to get arrested.)

We don't want to fall into that trap that you're doing something just to feel good or heroic. So we're talking in the [U.S. youth] delegation about how if we're going to do something, we have to make damn sure there will be an impact. In Copenhagen, there were some fasters but there wasn't much attention. Here, with Yeb doing it, it's pegged to something bigger and can hopefully have more impact.

Ryan Madden: We heard about the Copenhagen fast and didn't want to fall into the trappings when a lot of civil society felt that the message didn't come through. It's not useful to call attention to yourself if there's nothing bigger to latch on to.

BJ: Do you worry that the fasting might take away from your ability to be an effective advocate here?

Adam Hasz: We talked a lot about capacity loss, because what's important is making an impact here, and not feeling good about ourselves.

Adam Greenberg: Yeb told us specifically that he was uncomfortable with the idea of youth fasting because the youth have to have the energy and capacity late in the game. So people are doing all kinds of different fasts to fit their personal needs. But we're still doing amazing work.

BJ: So how are you guys being received by friends who aren't participating? Are people avoiding you at lunchtime?

Ryan Madden: Well our meetings are at the food court every day, but we encourage people not to feel bad about eating in front of us.

Clayton Munnings: It was very clear from the beginning that there would be no judgement on the eaters.

Adam Pearson: Different people go to different efforts to make the fasters feel comfortable. Some will just bring food to a meeting and dig in. Some will ask, "is it ok to have coffee in front of you?"

Adam Greenberg: People always offer me stuff and then apologize. "Do you want some fries? Oh... sorry!" We sit all day in the cafeteria for the most part, and the food here looks really good. European cheeses and meat on platters. And my weakness as a human is chocolate, and they have really good chocolate here."

BJ: Naive question time: are you eating at all? Drinking liquids?

Anita Raman: Some of us are doing a full fast, only drinking liquids, and some of us are not eating at the COP.

Adam Greenberg: Yeb is drinking nothing but water and a special herbal tea.

BJ: But no protein shakes or anything?

Ryan Madden: Not really anything like that. No steak smoothies.

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