OREM — Youth will play a major role in the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference, which will be held in Salt Lake City in August and focus on sustainable communities, a U.N. official said Friday.
The gathering at the Salt Palace Convention Center will be the first time the United States has hosted the conference outside U.N. headquarters in New York. Paris, Mexico City and Melbourne, Australia, are among cities that have hosted the conference in the past.
"This generation has so much to offer to help determine concrete actions to make communities more inclusive and sustainable," Alison Smale, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for global communications, told students at Utah Valley University, whose affiliation with the U.N. played a key role in landing the conference in Utah.
A U.N. climate report released Thursday said the last four years were the warmest on record and 62 million people were impacted by extreme weather in 2018.
Climate change, resource use and emerging technology are among the themes that will be addressed at this year's conference, centered on U.N. sustainable development goal No. 11, "making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable."
"This is a society that is on the move. It's clearly a place where there are a lot of young people, where there is a lot of opportunity and education is a really important aspect of life," Smale, from England, said of Utah, noting these characteristics are assets in terms of generating creative solutions.
"Driving out here from the center of town, one is struck by the number of cars on the road," she added. "What are we going to do? Are we going to have conventional cars driving around for much longer? When will public transit — of which you have some great examples in Salt Lake — really become the mode of transport? Is that an impossible dream?"
Conference organizers hope to attract 5,000 attendees, including up to 2,000 from outside the United States, according to Smale.
About 40 percent of conference activities will be run by youth, said Baldomero Lago, chief international officer for the university, who was the first to suggest hosting the conference in Utah. In past years, up to a third of participants have been young people between the ages of 18 and 32, said Smale, but this year's organizers hope to break that record.
Political science major Andrew Jensen, 21, is one of six Utah Valley University students who are part of a youth sub-committee tasked with planning elements of the conference. The committee is also responsible for increasing engagement and building the groundwork for the "youth declaration," a document that will be produced by conference participants outlining goals and actions to address the world's environmental issues.
"We have the chance to be the first youth outside of New York that are involved. That's really why it's such a big deal," said Jensen.
Utah's youth committee also includes students from Weber State University, the University of Utah and Utah State University in addition to others, who are coordinating with a New York-based youth committee with international members, Jensen said.
"We're going to be in charge of the world someday," said Jensen. "The important thing for getting involved at this level as youth is understanding what's going on now: the things that are going well and what can be improved upon. Then, when we get into those positions of influence, we don't go backwards. We try to capitalize on what's successful and improve the things that need improvement."
Students are also a key reason the conference is coming to Salt Lake City in the first place, said Lago.
"The students played a significant role," said Lago. "We couldn’t do it without the students."
When Lago came into his current position at the university, he noticed there were many student groups scattered across campus working on issues related to international cooperation, peace and justice. He brought together humanitarian relief groups, business groups and faith-based groups to create a larger organization called Utah Valley United Nations.
Then, Lago helped the university apply to become affiliated with the U.N. as an accredited non-governmental organization.
"From that moment on, our relationship as an academic institution became more relevant at the U.N.," said Lago.
Utah Valley University is the only school in Utah that has such a relationship with the United Nations. Other schools with affiliate status include New York University and Columbia University.
Lago argued it was important for the United Nations to have a presence in the western United States. After getting approval from the U.N., Lago worked with the city of Salt Lake to obtain the resources required to host the conference, the city's largest international event since the 2002 Olympics.
"Throughout the world, you can see we are having serious issues with the environment. Legislators are moving forward with an agenda that in the future will have an impact on the youth, and so their voice is critical," said Lago. "We need to rally support as a community to drop carbon emissions, make sure we have clean water and clean air."
Registration for the 2019 United Nations Civil Society Conference is now open.
Smale said to students, “I really ask you to register, participate, volunteer, plan an event at your university, be active on social media, use our hashtag #UNCSC2019, starting now."