More than half of young people feel anxious about climate change. More than four in five believe that the actions being taken by their governments will not protect them from it. These are among the many alarming findings from a new survey of more than 1,000 young people from 91 nations about the effects of climate change on their daily lives, their mental health, and their outlook for the future.
Those of us under age 30 make up half the world’s population, but we are essentially shut out of the decision-making processes that have so far come up well short of taking the steps needed to secure a sustainable future for the world. As a 26-year-old woman from Zambia who participated in the survey put it, “young people need decision-making power, not only an invite to the table”.
The survey underpins a new report on the issues of concern to youths as part of June’s Stockholm +50 Conference, which marks 50 years of international decision-making on environmental issues, the anniversary of the seminal United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. We, the world’s youth, had not been born in 1972, when conference participants set out to protect and improve the environment and to ensure equity in human development, but we can readily see that the better world envisioned at that time has not come to pass.
“Governments handicap progress by leaving us out.”
— Robin Hocquet, SEI Oxford Research Associate
Our report articulates a vision for a future that captures the aspiration, determination and solidarity of young people to realize a healthy planet for all. To achieve this, young people must be fully integrated into policy- and decision-making circles. It is shocking that, as of 2019, only seven countries’ commitments to achieve the Paris Agreement had positioned youth as stakeholders in decision-making processes on climate action.
Governments handicap progress by leaving us out. The climate crisis requires creativity, energy, and passion – the defining characteristics of youth. Where we invest these assets powerful things happen. For example, the European Commission’s Vice President Frans Timmermans has acknowledged that the landmark EU Green Deal would not have come about without Greta Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” climate strikes, which galvanized more than 14 million people. In Kenya, small-scale farmers are being offered climate-smart irrigation solutions to help address droughts and food insecurity thanks to Eric Onchonga, the youth entrepreneur who co-founded Irri-Hub Ke. In India, turtles now lay eggs at Versova beach in Mumbai after decades of absence thanks to Afroz Shah, the young lawyer who initiated a movement of over 200,000 volunteers to clear away tons of plastic.
As history amply demonstrates, young people are change agents. We know it. Over 85% of our survey respondents think that youth can enhance current climate efforts. It is way beyond time for policymakers to take steps to allow us to unlock our full potential. We can help lead the way toward a more sustainable and just future.
“Climate change is our inheritance. We should not be bystanders to processes and decisions that determine our future.”
— Robin Hocquet, SEI Oxford Research Associate
Reforms should make room for young people in our democratic systems, including setting up youth quotas, establishing youth-only committees, and lowering the voting age. Because young people do not have the financial resources of their elders, measures should cover the costs of participation. Governments must also reform education systems to mainstream climate change into school curricula so that future generations understand the complex issues we face – a needed precursor for action.
There are other ways to boost youth involvement. One is skills development. In Nigeria, the Youth Climate Innovation Hubs have supported young people from six regions with entrepreneurship and skills development to help them turn promising ideas into concrete projects. Another is to provide funding to help ideas come to life. In Canada, the federal government supports a direct-to-youth funding program through Student Energy, a youth-led organization, to enable a series of clean energy projects. Such initiatives should be emulated and expanded elsewhere to show that governments are serious about engaging young people in climate action.
Climate change is our inheritance. We should not be bystanders to processes and decisions that determine our future. Our hands should be on the tiller to help steer decisions – not just on the stick of a placard outside of the process. To address this existential threat, we need all hands and all generations on deck.