Young people schooling ‘old guard’ on climate change

Ella Robertson is Managing Director of One Young World. 

‘You are the first generation who will have to live with the full consequences of climate change.’ Christiana Figueres’ warning to the young leaders assembled at One Young World in The Hague last year wasn’t one of rousing optimism – the climate shocks we are to experience in the next century are going to be felt profoundly, even if we keep global warming to below 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures – something that is looking increasingly unlikely as the 2030 deadline moves closer.

Only a few months later, thousands of school children in the UK walked out of lessons in protest at political inaction on climate change. Among the chorus of demands, the voice of 17-year-old Anna Taylor rose to the top, describing the walk outs as proof that young people were not apathetic to the future of the planet. That they were passionate about change. And that they would not stop until policymakers took decisive action.

Knowingly or not, the students were the latest in a long line of young global advocates who are forcing leaders to rethink outdated and unfit policies. One of the best known of this new school of activism is 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, who made headlines in late 2018 when she spent three weeks protesting on the steps of the Swedish parliament, calling on her government take radical action on climate change.

Youth activism in the selfie era is nothing new. In February 2018, tens of thousands of students walked out of school to fight for gun laws. Yet now the voice of the youth generation is more critical than ever before. Like gun violence and public education, climate justice is a fight over the future. Younger populations are more engaged than ever, understanding the threat doing nothing will have to their future.

Rising sea levels, drought, wildfires, storms, polluted oceans. The unsavoury shopping list of climate change consequence is endless. And yet, despite multiple extreme weather events and dire warnings from scientists that humans have only until 2040 to radically address climate change, politicians globally have not given it the attention it needs and deserves. The time for inaction is over.

Thankfully there are already people and partnerships tirelessly and creatively working to tackle the causes and consequences of climate change around the globe. As managing director of One Young World, I learn every day of another brilliant idea or achievement with the potential to tackle the ecological crisis humanity faces. A global forum for young leaders, we hold a summit each year where representatives from 196 countries present to, meet and debate with business, political and civic leaders. Following the summit, ambassadors return to their communities determined to make change happen.

In Uganda, Johnmary Kavuma founded Upcycle Africa to provide low-income earners with homes that are made partially with reused plastic bottles. The social enterprise simultaneously trains marginalised youth in construction skills, helping them learn a trade, gain employment and reduce plastic. Upcycle Africa has so far upcycled more than one million plastic bottles and trained over 100 young people.

As some of the most at-risk places, island states have emerged as centres of innovation on climate change. Yolanda Joab from Micronesia is part of that proud tradition. As a senior program coordinator at the International Organization for Migration, she runs the Climate Change Adaptation, Disaster Risk Reduction & Education Program across Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau. Under her lead, the initiatives have protected 11,000km of coastline by planting pandamous trees and erecting two sea walls. They have so far reached 192,000 people in 15 island communities with their climate change and adaptation programs.

In Canada, Crystal Tsz Ue Chow has taken technology and applied its revolutionary power to recycling with NatureCoin. By integrating blockchain, IoT and AI, NatureCoin means governments can use accurate, real-time data to plan and execute smart city initiatives with a focus on environmentally-friendly innovation.

Each project is an inspiring example of how young people are taking different but effective approaches to tackling climate change. And in each one there is a clear articulation of human solidarity – a key principle if progress is to be made.

While these examples fill me with optimism, there is much to be pessimistic about. Many of these initiatives will only have a negligible impact if carbon emissions are not drastically cut and global warming is not slowed by 2030. Our politicians and business leaders need to follow the example set by Greta and other young climate activists and begin acting with the same urgency and commitment to transformation.