Pushing back against nationalism and isolation, a United Nations conference meets in SLC

SALT LAKE CITY -- It may be the largest international event here since the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Thousands of people from all over the world are in Salt Lake City for the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference.

"We love to host the world. We’re very good at it and I think you’ll find that out over the next few days," said Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

The opening plenary began with a greeting from a representative for Utah Governor Gary Herbert, actor Luke Mullen and non-governmental organizations. The conference will focus heavily on combating climate change and inclusivity. In a video greeting played at the event, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres noted the event comes "especially at a time when civic space is shrinking worldwide and intolerance is on the rise."

Speakers repeatedly used the word "multilateralism," the idea of countries uniting around a common goal. They decried the rise of nationalism and isolation.

At a news conference on Monday, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Global Communications Alison Smale was asked her views on the United States' positions on that. She emphasized the U.S. was a big part of the U.N.

"What I think we’re in the business of here is bringing groups together and see what strains of thought can we coalesce around," she said. "And we have emphasized that multilateralism remains increasingly important for the United Nations."

Maruxa Cardama, the chair of the UNCSC, said there are many perspectives at the conference.

"We are not just one size fits all. We are not just one set of ideas. We are a diversity of ideas," she said.

U.N. officials repeatedly praised Mayor Biskupski's environmental goal of having Salt Lake City on 100% renewable energy by 2030. The mayor said local mayors are leading out in areas where national governments are not.

"It is inclusive. It is about the issues we are facing today around the world," she said.

Beyond topics of climate change and sustainability, there is also a focus on youth and how they can work to better future generations.

"You can make a difference," said Laura Parra, a student attending the conference. "It doesn’t have to be yourself. You can do it as a community and they show you the resources to do that."

The discussions that take place at the Civil Society Conference will feed into a larger dialogue at the U.N. General Assembly.

"Here we have an opportunity for thousands of people to interact and, I think, what one needs to focus on is gathering the energy of everybody here and thinking how can we act collectively as a result?" Smale said.

The conference runs through Wednesday. It is largely closed to the public except for a general exhibition. Traffic closures around the Salt Palace are in place.

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