“Dad, why don’t people listen to us? It’s our future and we’ll have to live with the mess”. So said my 11-year old daughter, overhearing me talking about the climate change talks in Katowice, Poland. And, to be fair, too frequently the only faces you ever see at the top table for these events are adults, and most often men. She has a point.
Think young people don’t care. Think again. A pioneering lawsuit against the U.S. government has won the right to a trial, overcoming the Trump administration's efforts to cancel it in court; and it’s pioneering because it’s being pursued by a group of 21 youths who are suing the United States government for failing to adequately protect the Earth from the effects of climate change. They claim the federal government’s promotion of fossil fuel production and its indifference to the risks posed by greenhouse gas emissions have resulted in “a dangerous destabilising climate system” that threatens the survival of future generations.
Across the globe, young people are mobilising, and we’d all do well to listen. While young people are one of the groups most affected by environmental problems like climate change, they are also the most innovative in terms of fighting for a better world.
Fortunately, there are many older people in developed countries now realising that the consequences of a high carbon lifestyle, that has been enjoyed throughout their lifetimes, represents a threat to the viability of any kind of similar life for their descendants. Grandparents care, it seems.
This realisation has spurred a wave of actions from divesting from fossil fuel related investments, to buying shares in the companies that pollute in order to have a say at shareholder meetings. There is now a growing unity of purpose between people of all ages who want to turn the tide of human behaviour.
We shouldn’t doubt the passion, knowledge and organising abilities of the global youth movements that are emerging. Take the UN’s Youth Climate Delegates (YOUNGO) for example. They show an impressive level of organisation, depth of knowledge, and clarity of message regarding what needs to happen. There’s also the required determination to achieve a set of global goals.
However, enthusiasm alone doesn’t guarantee them a voice. Back at Katowice, with 24 years of climate negotiations behind us and the situation currently at a very critical stage, surely there is no conceivable downside to allowing expert young people into the party negotiations?
After all, these young people represent the conscience of each nation and, frankly, come with a moral license to kick much harder than the weary veterans in this struggle.Why shouldn’t young people be given the opportunity to take on the role of the negotiators?
Can they do it?
Well, I spend a lot of time with young people, often working with students, and I can’t recall meeting a single one who didn’t care about global warming or social justice or trying to build a better future. Yes, millennials are a large and diverse group, and studies show how they value authenticity and transparency, and are more likely to be recyclers and conscious consumers. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘Malala effect’.
Their interest in the greater good is driving their engagement with various causes today, and their activism is on the increase. Growing up in this period of rapid man-made change, they are the most globally connected ever, building an activist community online. They may well be induced to march; they might even sue the government for its failure to protect their right to a healthy environment (as we’ve already seen). However, it starts, builds and evolves with social media (you see, it’s not all bad). We’re seeing people getting involved in social activism at a much earlier stage in life, with the capacity to arrange coordinated global protests in a matter of days.
In view of this, isn’t it time for NGOs, charities and global campaigns to learn to mobilise this movement? They need to establish effective social media management strategies, otherwise they stand to lose the 28% of young people who rely on social media as their primary source of news. And there’s the 43% of millennials who make financial donations through online platforms, or the one in two who share ideas with their friends online.
While the world leaders signing accords in conference halls are important, the real change is going to come from Generation Z. They are the consumers, employees, employers and future leaders who will see the devastating effects of climate change. Let’s give them a voice, listen to their message, and empower them to shape policies and structures that will determine their future.