Youth and Climate Change: A Time to move from Assertion to Assertiveness

“Men argue. Nature acts.” Voltaire

Cities are on the front lines of the growing physical risks associated with climate change. They are home to more than half of the world’s people; that’s about 4 billion people living on top of one another, working, commuting, polluting, and devising strategies for survival. By 2050, that figure is projected to rise to 68 percent and, by the end of the century, about 85% of the world’s population will be urban, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Cities are major contributors to climate change. According to UN Habitat, cities consume 78 per cent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.  The sheer density of people relying on fossil fuels makes urban populations highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

These are the stark statistics that caused Greta Thunberg to plead: “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire.”

For the past 18 months the world has been convulsed by the Coronavirus Pandemic: its causes, effects, search for and distribution of vaccines, maintaining lives and livelihoods. In terms of climate change the ‘Covid distraction’ has led to an apparent loss of public and political attention. Yet, acting on climate change remains as urgent as ever. It is still our biggest existential threat. If it were not for the virus, the devastating wildfires witnessed over the past year in the Amazon, Australia, Indonesia and the US, would arguably have made global warming a more central topic.

This article is being written on Friday 24th. September as young people around the world are taking to the streets again to demand urgent action to avert disastrous climate change. The ‘Fridays For Future’ movement began after then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg first skipped school and instead sat outside the Swedish parliament to demand climate action. The movement reached a peak in September 2019, when 7 million people worldwide joined in, including 30,000 young people in Ireland – making it one of the largest global protests in history.  The restrictions on assembly and movement, imposed by the Pandemic, resulted in a harnessing of that seismic energy.

Now it is time, once again, to bring Climate Change back to the top of the political agenda, to remind the politicians and gatekeepers of international organisations about their promises and assertions: to remind the UN of the excerpt from the, now six years old,  2030 Agenda – ‘Young women and men are critical agents of change and will find in the new (Sustainable Development) Goals a platform to channel their infinite capacities for activism into the creation of a better world.’

To also remind the EU of its Youth Goals, and the recognition accorded in particular to ‘the importance of the youth dimensions in the 2030 Agenda and the key role that young people can play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and invites the Member States to consider the needs and expectations of young people in their contribution to implementing the 2030 Agenda for all relevant policy sectors and to enable young Europeans to contribute as appropriate to achieving an ever more sustainable Union.’

The mundane language of such institutional pronouncements shouldn’t conceal the opportunities for youth to be catalysts for change. As the impact of environmental hazards intensifies over time, it is the children and young people of today who will face the worst effects.

Whether through advocacy, education, technology, science or law ─ youth are tapping into their skills to speak up for climate action. It is now time for genuine youth participation in dialogues and decision-making on policies that will affect their lives and livelihoods. It is a time for ‘transformative leadership’ as espoused by Mary Robinson. A deeper participatory democracy requires the necessary architecture, structures and mechanisms that ensures youth is not just a consultative voice.  It is time to move from assertion to assertiveness. Where will the youth voice be in COP26 in Glasgow at the end of this year? 2022 has been designated the ‘Year of Youth.’ Is it too much to ask that its legacy might add further resonance to the words of Jacques Delors?

How can we ever build Europe if young people do not see it as a collective project and a vision of their own future?


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