Major global environmental problems threaten us. Recent scientific reports show that we are falling short on tackling climate change or stopping biodiversity loss, meaning that the Earth’s climate is under threat and natural species are undergoing a mass extinction wave. While these global environmental issues persist and become more urgent, policymakers have trouble elaborating and implementing solutions helping society to adapt. Considering the paralysis of the international system, new actors have begun to engage in environmental protection worldwide: youth. Giving speeches at United Nations international summits, and organising strikes or marches across the globe, the young generation is expressing its voice to ask for change vigorously. But could youth actors actually bring about the transformations needed to catalyse more aggressive government action on climate change?
The iconic Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish woman who has attracted much attention to climate issues, first by addressing delegates at the 24th UN climate change conference in December 2018, symbolizes a complete reversal in the role that adults and children have played in policy debates traditionally. While Thunberg’s speeches to government delegates are critically important, perhaps more impressive is the reach of her messages to inspire youth actions all over the world. Greta inspired the current worldwide School Strike for Climate during which, on Fridays (known as the Fridays For Future), millions of students (and therefore future voters) walk out of schools all over the world to inform the public how seriously they take the issue of climate change.
Greta Thunberg’s actions are only the tip of the youth movement iceberg. This movement also relies on a large number of organisations that represent youth in global environmental governance. As a sign of the crucial importance of young voices, many different organisations are now representing youth. These organisations have various formats and scopes and include traditional environmental non-governmental organisations, like Friends of the Earth, which have opened their own youth branches, such as Young Friends of the Earth Europe set up in 2007; organisations specifically dedicated to represent youth interests around several environmental issues, like Youth For The Environment set up in 2010; organisations specifically dedicated to represent youth interests around precise and unique environmental issues, such as Youth for Oceans!, active since 2016; classical youth organisations that have embraced part of the global environmental agenda, like the World Organization of the Scout Movement; and youth-led networks, such as 350.org created in 2008, which are organisations not directly representing youth interests but still managed by young people.
And youth actors are also organising themselves around umbrella networks and organisations. Since 2008, the Global Youth Biodiversity Network has presented the views of youth actors on biodiversity protection during Conferences of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Since 2011, the Children and Youth Constituency to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (YOUNGO) has been the official youth constituency – gathering all youth organisations – at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. All these initiatives promise to bring new and forward-looking ideas to global environmental politics.
In addition to their diversity youth actors might catalyse change in global environmental politics because they embody different demographic characteristics compared to traditional civil society actors.
One clear distinctive feature is that young women are dominant within the youth movement. More than 66% of the student-led Fridays For Future protests have been female and young women, beyond Greta, are leading the movement: Belgians Anuna De Wever (who is 17) and Kyra Gantois (who is 20) organised the Climate March movement in Europe. And 22-year-old Nakabuye Hilda Flavia became the central youth leader for environmental protection in Uganda. This is a critically important indicator of the youth movement’s ability to catalyse change because the inclusion of gender concerns and a better gender balance within decision-making improves our ability to address environmental problems.
Change could also come from the fact that youth actors represent potential inter-generational bridges, between different generations, while overcoming differences in generational interests is a major challenge for environmental problems as most of these problems include a long-term dimension. Youth actors are particularly interesting as they also find themselves at the centre of inter-generational challenges, with part of youth suffering from difficulties such as poverty and low employment. They are therefore well positioned to link different interests within and across generations and catalyse efficient environmental policies to reconcile the competing interests between different groups.
Finally, youth actors are expressing claims that go beyond current environmental protection problems to raise broader justice, human rights, or power inequalities issues. They also critique the current business-as-usual logic that, according to some of them, benefits the already powerful. Their claims include calls for increased participation, transparency, and responsibility. They ask for a redefinition of democratic rules, to obtain a greater decision-making share. As youth actors are future voters and policy-makers, the dominant policy approach so far—mostly education programs—might be far less impactful than just working together with young people to target global problems.
Featured image credits: John Cameron, Assorted garbage bottles on sandy surface via Unsplash