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Want a pivotal gamechanger in the climate crisis? We need to back youth

Young people are the way out of the climate crisis. James Sutton of Raleigh International shares why.

Young people are the way out of the climate crisis. James Sutton, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Campaigns and Communications at Raleigh International, shares why.

Months have passed since the curtain came down on Glasgow’s hosting of COP26, the global climate change conference that was hyped this time to be the real COP, the one that got its sleeves rolled up, and got the job done. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Nothing summed up the conference more than when, on the final night, Alok Sharma visibly U-turned to say that the proposed phase-out of coal wording had been diluted to “phase down”. Whatever that means…

I don’t wish to take anything away from the endless weeks of hard work and preparation that must have put in to COP26, and there were undoubtedly some victories to celebrate. The problem is, they were a bit like the striker on your team celebrating a goal when you’re already 4-0 down with 5 minutes to go.

Much has been said about why COP26 didn’t succeed and there are certainly many reasons why the decision-making at COPs may never be ambitious enough.

Politics and the idea of “Global North sacrifice” is a strong contender. This links to climate justice. The countries in the Global North expect the countries in the Global South to get on board with the same deal – despite the fact that (a) the nations in the Global South did the least in the first place to cause the climate crisis, and (b) also didn’t benefit from the economic growth that came with it, yet are now being asked to curtail their growth. No wonder India issued a last-minute veto to phase-out of coal.

Another classic reason behind low ambition levels is the behavioural instinct of humankind, and the fact we’re just not set up to react to an emergency unless we can really see the immediate threat. The global response to Covid-19 was how to respond in an emergency; how the world is responding to the climate crisis is not.

A third reason is the same effect felt when a building burns on busy street and yet no fire service is called. It’s because in a big group situation, most people not only like to leave the responsibility to someone else, but actively assume that someone else is taking responsibility. We all want to get away with doing the least possible and hoping someone else will clear up the mess – the same goes for international politics and competing governments when it comes to the climate crisis.

But I’d like to expand now on a point which you may have read less about in the context of COP ambition: Young people not being involved in decision-making.

It was good to see COP26 being the first COP at which young people were truly involved. You only had to watch the headlines or scroll through your newsfeed to see that young people, for once, were being actively invited into this space traditionally restricted for “adults”. Youth activists like Clover Hogan, Vanessa Nakate, and Phoebe Hanson were everywhere; being given airtime, and being listened to, by the world’s media and leaders.

But by and large that’s as far as it went. Young people had their voices and views amplified, but little to nothing was done to accommodate them in the actual decision-making. On a video call a couple of weeks ago with some inspirational young people from the #iwill4nature coalition, I was not surprised in the least when they pulled no punches in telling the group about how they felt COP26 had gone.

The message was clear:

Yes, great to have been listened to, but at COP27 we want to have a seat at the table and be included in the decision-making process itself.

The question for us all to consider is why would that make for more ambitious and better outcomes at COP27?

This generation of young people want more than anything for a fair and equitable world. (Take a look at Raleigh International’s “Tomorrow Is Too Late” report if you’d like to hear more). They understand the concepts of climate justice. They understand that issues of environment and climate are linked to other intersectional issues like racial justice. They are empathetic. They are (mostly) anxious about the climate emergency. They prioritise wellbeing and mental health, and they see the direct link between planetary health and human health. All of these things are ESSENTIAL – otherwise talk never gets beyond the obvious physical environmental impacts such as droughts and flooding and temperature increases, and thereby in turn doesn’t engage huge swathes of the global population.

Young people don’t bend to expectations of social behaviour. They challenge conventional thinking. They keep asking “Why?”. They’ll say the harsh truths that politicians need to hear, with zero gloss. And they’ll not take no for an answer. Young people are not waiting; they are taking action NOW. When it comes to driving ambitious decision-making at COP27, I can’t think of a single other group who would not only help set the most ambitious targets, but who would also hold world leaders accountable for those targets being achieved. The young people behind MockCOP last year demonstrated just how unequivocally clear, intelligent, and decisive they can be.

Aside from their appetite for ambitious action on climate change, here are three other valuable things young people bring to the party when invited into decision-making about the climate:

1. Young people bring hope and optimism.

They have a vested interest in fighting the climate crisis – this is something they have grown up with and they are already suffering its devastating effects. They’ve inherited a messed-up world, but are the most passionate about fixing it whilst we still have time. Their actions give us all the healing power of hope; and hope is the best motivator we have.

2. Young people are powerful at behaviour change and engaging others around them.

If the citizens of nations need to take action in the race to net zero and to switch to truly sustainable lifestyles, then young people will be the best role models and persuaders of others to change their behaviours.

3. Young people are key users of natural resources. 

They understand the relationships and challenges in which people engage with the natural world and can identify practical solutions to increase the sustainability of natural resource use on local and global scales. They’re great at developing new ways of thinking and doing. This will be needed to ignite urgent solutions to the climate crisis.

And if you’re not a young person yourself? Some people think conversations about youth mean they’re excluded if they’re older. Nothing could be further from the truth. Young people know the change they want to see in the world – but they need allies to make that change happen.

Young people need skills, opportunities to voice their views, sustainable funding, engagement in decision-making, access to comms platforms, agile ways of connecting with one another, and new experiences to develop knowledge. Any one can play a supportive role to young people by offering these things to them; this is why we adopted a new organisational role at Raleigh International.

There is hope for COP27 and cracking this climate emergency – making young people decision-makers.

When today’s youth are in the positions of power and decision-making as equals, I genuinely believe that’s when we’ll have the right people in place to get through this.


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