Youth to Global Leaders: Act Now!

Millions of young people have taken to the streets this past year to demand that global leaders act against the climate crisis.
Fridays for Future and other activists at the climate strike in Madrid, December 6th, 2019.
Credit: David Tong / WWF-New Zealand

This blog was written by a young person and informed by youth-led talks at COP25, interviews with members of Fridays for Future, and articles that highlight the voices of youth.

Millions of young people have taken to the streets this past year to demand that global leaders act against the climate crisis. Many skip school each Friday, joining their classmates outside government buildings to put pressure on their local leaders. And children as young as 8 years old are gathered in Madrid right now for COP25, the UN Climate Conference, where they hope to see countries increase ambition and implement concrete climate action plans.

These young people will continue striking until global leaders treat climate change like the emergency that it is.

Why are young people taking to the streets?

Youth are striking because they are afraid for their futures.

According to UNICEF, there are approximately 2 billion children and youth across the globe today—the largest generation of young people the world has ever seen. Half a billion live in countries that are increasingly prone to dangerous flooding. In the Caribbean alone, the number of children who have had to leave their homes due to extreme weather events has increased six-fold in the past five years. More than 160 million children currently live in drought-prone areas, and by 2040, that number is expected to increase to every 1 in 4 children. And over 300 million are breathing toxic air—chiefly from the burning of fossil fuels—that exceeds air quality levels by six times the World Health Organization standard.

Youth know all of this—and they fear for the well-being of their generation.

Youth are striking because they are angry.

Despite being the least responsible for climate change, children and youth are bearing the brunt of the burden—especially those who are vulnerable and structurally oppressed, including Indigenous Peoples, people of color, and poor communities.

But global leaders are doing far too little to combat the horrific impacts that so many nations are already experiencing. Negotiators have spent much of COP25 attempting to finalize the rules of the Paris Agreement. In a nutshell, this involves: determining how much developed countries are to pay for the loss and damage that poorer countries are already experiencing due to climate change; laying out the procedures for global emissions trading under Article 6; and making decisions (or not) around the ambition levels of nationally-determined contributions (NDCs).

As COP comes to a close, it’s become clear to young people that these negotiations have not resulted in sufficient progress. Some countries—the United States in particular—are in fact blocking real progress by making it more difficult for developing nations to receive financial support. Just before being named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg addressed this issue straightforwardly, lamenting the fact that instead of finding “holistic solutions,” the conference “seems to have turned into some kind of opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes and to avoid raising their ambition.” Youth from around the world echoed Greta’s criticism by taking over the COP25 main stage to express their anger at the “absence of sufficient climate action.”

Youth have an international right to engage in UN processes like COP

An impressive number of young people intervened in plenary sessions, spoke at high-level events, organized press conferences, and engaged in civil society actions at COP25 this year. Youth participation in UN processes such as the COP is, in fact, a fundamental right according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under Article 12 of the Convention, children and youth are ensured the right to be heard in judicial and administrative proceedings that directly affect them—which, of course, applies to any course of action around the topic of climate change. Non-governmental youth organizations (YOUNGO) have even been granted official constituency status and thereby have the opportunity to “intervene,” or make statements, during official proceedings.

During the regular schedule of events, young people attending this year’s conference celebrated Young and Future Generations Day, held briefings with the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, and engaged in intergenerational dialogues with environmental ministers from around the world. That wasn’t enough to prompt action in the negotiation rooms, however. So young people made every day at COP25 a day for youth and future generations—by sitting silently in the entrance of the venue, occupying the main stage, standing strong when 300 Indigenous Peoples and youth activists were forcibly kicked out while protesting climate polluters, and walking out during the closing plenary to protest the failures of the negotiations.  

While COP26 is expected to be the “youth COP,” this year’s conference certainly had the energy of one.

Young activists with Fridays for Future staging a sit-down action at COP25.
Credit: Flickr

Youth need more than just a seat at the table

Youth want a voice at the table.

There are so many barriers (especially financial) that hold young people back from attending global convenings such as COP, including a lack of information about how youth can obtain a badge and participate in the conference. Youth want to be actively invited to the table and included in the conversation. But in addition to a seat at the table, youth want a voice at the table—one that is actively listened to and acted upon. Youth want NDCs and global policies that not only include and protect children, but involve them in the decision-making processes. Instead of being tokenized and labeled as beams of hope, young people want to be recognized as the agents of change that they are.  

Youth want climate education, capacity-building, and empowerment.

A necessary component of bringing young voices to the table is giving them the tools required to effectively use their platforms. Penelope Lea, a 15-year-old climate activist and UNICEF Norway ambassador, expressed that “People have a right to knowledge, and an obligation to get knowledge.” A common ask among young people during intergenerational dialogues at COP25 was for governments to improve climate education (or even require it, as Italy has now done) and increase public awareness. In order to become empowered to take action, more young people around the world need access to information and more opportunities for capacity building. Educating youth on climate issues and training them for engagement in governmental processes is the key to enhancing participation around the world.

Participants in the Youth Briefing with UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa during Young and Future Generations Day. (I’m on the right!).
Credit: Flickr

Global leaders need to listen to their message

As a 23-year-old, I’m no longer able to walk out of school in protest of the adults in power. But I can walk out of COP25, where our governments have thwarted meaningful progress and failed to increase ambition on greenhouse gas emissions reductions. I felt the fervor and exasperation around me as 300 of us were aggressively pushed out of the COP venue, threatened to have our badges taken away, and stripped of our ability to participate for the rest of the day. That clinched it for me that our voices are not being heard by the leaders in the room.

What drove me forward was the resilience and determination of the young people around me. Youth are true agents of change. They have figured out how to work together effectively and how to keep the messaging straightforward and accessible—not because they don’t understand the complicated scientific facts, but because they have the clarity needed to see the emergency as it is. It’s time to listen to their message.