Rising up: How youth are leading the charge for climate justice

December 7, 2023

Through advocacy, education and litigation, young people are leading the charge for climate justice

Every human being has one thing in common: the ability to dream. We all dream of a better future, and in this time of climate emergency, youth around the globe dream of a clean, healthy and safe environment. We dream of a world where our future generations can have a sustainable, liveable tomorrow, where climate action is achieved in a rights-based context.

Given that everyone has different capabilities to survive and is impacted by the climate crisis differently, climate change especially affects children, young people and women disproportionately and hence decreases the chances for them to survive.

Climate justice means that in the case of a crash landing, we all have equitable tools for our survival. Tools to adapt, mitigate and be resilient to the emergency and have resources to build back better and damage control the loss we might encounter during this shock. 

Climate justice means maximized inclusion, meaningful participation and equality. It means the most affected and vulnerable individuals and communities are treated as stakeholders and rights holders. They are allowed participation, without tokenism or discrimination, in the decision-making and implementation of the climate governance and policies. In case of a breach of their rights, they must have access to remedies.

Saher Rashid poses in a conference room

The author: Saher Rashid drafted the Youth4Climate Manifesto, together with young people from all around the globe.

Photo: World’s Youth for Climate Justice

Everyone has different capabilities to survive; hence the climate crisis does not have a uniform impact across the globe, with marginalized communities being hit the hardest. This reduces their chances of survival and highlights the importance of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a fundamental human right. 

At the “Youth4Climate: Sparking Solutions” flagship event I recently attended in Rome, young people advocated with their diverse voices at the Climate Justice session, highlighting that it's crucial to acknowledge that climate injustice disproportionately impacts vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities and the internally displaced. Those with disabilities face barriers in accessing information and adapting to changing environmental conditions, while internally displaced individuals, already vulnerable, are further exposed to heightened climate risks without adequate support. 

For example, Pakistan's 2022 floods submerged one third of the country and disrupted the lives of 33 million people, and half of the affected people were children. Around 780,000 houses were utterly destroyed, and 1.27 million were partially damaged. To understand the sheer extent of this devastation, here are some examples of countries with a population close to 33 million: Angola, Canada, Malaysia, Peru, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan. 

"Young people are not only the victims of climate injustice but also the hope towards a better tomorrow."

During this devastating flooding, women's vulnerability increased due to gender norms and poverty, reducing their chances of survival. The flood has disrupted access to education for over 3.5 million children, leaving many at risk of falling behind, according to World Bank data.

Imagine a sudden flood that washes away everything that you hold dear, including your access to education. This is the reality that over 3.5 million children are facing right now, according to the World Bank. Even a year later, many of these children are still at risk of being left behind.

Existing inequities such as poverty, social inequality, colonialism and systemic racism exacerbate how marginalized people experience and adapt to climate impacts. According to the United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs, there are over 1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24 in the world today. Yet, their interests and voices have long been overlooked, and they bear a disproportionate burden of the climate crisis facing the world today as they already possess weak adaptive capacities to react to these injustices that climate change triggers, thus further exacerbating the adverse effects.

Nonetheless, despite their vulnerability, young people have been at the forefront of the fight for climate justice. They demand action on the moral responsibility and obligation to protect our planet and future generations.

Young people on stage at a climate action event

Climate justice requries meaningful participation of youth in decision making. Young people and other groups that are most affected by the climate crisis must be recognized as stakeholders and rights holders.

Photo: World’s Youth for Climate Justice

Many young people are taking constructive steps towards climate justice by demanding action to address climate change. They recognize that current policies and targets fall short of what is needed and often perpetuate injustice. These young activists use traditional and innovative methods to build momentum and advocate for change. Litigation is one method they use to hold polluting industries and governments accountable. They are also amplifying the voices of vulnerable communities, particularly youth, women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, and activists from across the Global South, to confront political and business leaders over their record and plans for climate action. Together, these passionate young activists are making a meaningful impact towards achieving climate justice and paving the way for a brighter future for all.

One great example of climate litigation is a global campaign very dear to my heart as a young person from the Global South. 

In 2019, 27 law students from the University of the South Pacific embarked on an initiative to bring climate change to the forefront of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an Advisory Opinion. This initiative sparked a global youth-led movement, the World's Youth for Climate Justice (WYCJ), which aims to define the responsibilities of nations in safeguarding the rights of current and future generations against the harmful effects of climate change.

The ICJ Advisory Opinion campaign has now spread beyond the Pacific, with Pacific youth and partners working tirelessly to garner support from regional and global communities and unite young people worldwide in this noble cause. World's Youth for Climate Justice is confident that an ICJ Advisory Opinion on climate change can not only outline the existing obligations of States about human rights and climate change but also provide a progressive interpretation of those obligations, thereby promoting intergenerational equity and climate justice on a global scale.

You can access the World’s Youth for Climate Justice Handbook here.

Sahar poses with other youth leaders

Climate justice was a key topic at the recent 'Youth4Climate: Sparking Solutions' event in Rome.

Photo: World’s Youth for Climate Justice

Nonetheless, there is another powerful advocacy tool that you can use if you want to advocate for climate justice. It is the Youth4Climate Manifesto, which I drafted together with young people from all around the globe. It addresses climate justice as a multisectoral issue with specific recommendations by global youth in media and food to show solutions for a climate-conscious society. 

The space of climate activism is an ever-growing one. Hundreds of thousands of young people join this momentum each year. Nonetheless, it is a very technical space, and sometimes, it really feels like we are fighting in a system for justice that was not made for us. If you feel the same way, this climate dictionary might be helpful while you are learning more about climate justice. 

If you are a decision maker and reading this inspires you to address climate justice while meaningfully engaging young people, this guidance by UNDP explores what meaningful youth engagement in climate action looks like, conceptually and practically.

Towards the end, it is essential to note that young people are not only the victims of climate injustice but also the hope towards a better tomorrow that everyone dreams of when we think about the future. Giving up on hope is not an option; the young people are leading the way forward with solutions, and people united can never be defeated.