Tapping into the power of young people for climate action

August 12, 2022
Youth climate protest

Today, our world is 1.1°C warmer than it was in the pre-industrial era, and failure to act urgently could possibly result in increases of 1.5°C-2°C between 2026 and 2042. Climate change poses a serious risk to the fundamental rights of people of every age. Extreme weather such as droughts, floods and heatwaves, and their effects of food and water insecurity, livelihood losses, famines, and wildfires exacerbate inequalities and disproportionately affect vulnerable groups, among them young people and children.

UNDP’s Peoples’ Climate Vote, the largest ever survey of public opinion on climate change, revealed that nearly 70 percent of under 18s are most likely to believe climate change is a global emergency. Other studies show that ‘eco-anxiety’ is increasing, particularly amongst the young. A global study of 10,000 youth from 10 countries in 2021 found that over 50 percent of young people felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty about climate change, while 45 percent said their feelings negatively affected their daily lives. Countries expressing more worry tended to be poorer, such as those in the south, or those in the north that had been directly affected by climate change.

Young people continue to take on a leading role in influencing, advocating, and demanding for responsible climate behaviour and stronger political will from governments and the private sector. During COP26, young leaders presented a Global Youth Position statement, representing the views of over 40,000 young leaders demanding that their rights be guaranteed in climate change agreements. School strikes for climate have been recorded in over 150 countries, gaining widespread attention from the public and media. Young leaders have raised awareness in their communities, promoted lifestyle changes and concrete solutions, and advocated for the rights of vulnerable groups, including Indigenous people, who are often excluded from decision-making.  

Despite this, young people continue to report ageism is affecting their lives, their employment, political participation, health, and justice. This not only detracts from their wellbeing but it prevents societies from designing inclusive policies and social services that are fair for all ages. This has translated to a growing sense of hopelessness and mistrust towards governments' willingness and ability to tackle the eminent climate challenges amongst youth. 

As we celebrate International Youth Day 2022, this year’s theme is Intergenerational Solidarity: Creating a World for All Ages. Action is needed from all generations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to ensure that no one is left behind. This is particularly important in addressing climate change, which is considered the most significant intergenerational injustice of our time. It is imperative that everybody, and especially the older generations, work with young people to achieve climate justice.

A systemic change to enhance inter-generational solidarity, is urgently required to address and remove inequalities, and to tackle structural barriers to meaningful youth engagement.

At UNDP we strongly believe in the importance of meaningful youth involvement in decision-making, both as a demographic and democratic imperative to address youth rights, needs and aspirations. Our Aiming higher guidance explores critical ways to achieve this.

Climate change

It’s important to listen to the voices of young people and to join them in speaking against climate injustice. The voices of young people must be included in the decisions taken now, and steps taken to ensure that they can hold governments accountable. As it stands, and rightfully so, all renowned climate change activists are young people. But it is also important that older generations join in the activism and support responsible climate action. This has the potential to improve trust and enhance effective collaboration.

All youth voices should be given a fair chance. Amongst young people, those from rural areas in the global south are further marginalized and affected disproportionately by the effects of climate injustice, yet unlike their urban counterparts have found little voice. This is due to a number of factors including the digital divide and limited resources, including visa denials, which lock them out of the crucial stages of policy-making. Meaningful collaboration with youth and grassroots organizations provides an opportunity for all voices to be heard.

Education is an important tool. The Peoples’ Climate Vote revealed that the most profound driver of public opinion on climate change was a respondent’s level of education. Policy makers should continue to educate all generations not only on what climate change is and its effects, but even more importantly on protection and mitigation measures. The incorporation of climate smart education from basic to tertiary levels of education will play a key role in creating awareness and integrating climate solutions across all levels of society.

To inspire hope and further encourage young people towards climate action, it is important that progress is highly celebrated. This plays a key role in strengthening young people’s agency and resilience to continue pushing on and not thinking their efforts are futile. There are 1.2 billion young people and their collective input will have an impact both now and in the future. Fortunately, there is good news.

Young people played an important role in the Climate Promise. While young people were largely ignored in earlier Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) now 75 percent of Climate Promise countries prioritize youth in developing their NDCs, primarily through consultations, raising awareness and advocacy campaigns.

The cost of solar and wind power and electric vehicles have come down dramatically. Between 2010 to 2019, solar energy costs decreased 85 percent, wind energy by 55 percent, and lithium-ion batteries by 85 percent.

And in the last decade, climate finance has significantly increased, reaching US$632 billion.

The solidarity, mutual respect, and understanding between the young people of the global north and south on climate action, as well as their advocacy for marginalized groups whose voices are not heard is admirable. This emphasizes the important role that solidarity plays.

Young people have been ignored in climate decisions for far too long and can no longer be seen as merely means to an end. It is their present and their future that’s at stake. Their concerns and their solutions must be at the heart of all decision-making.

Empowering young people presents a historic, transformational, and collective opportunity to advance an inclusive green recovery, accelerate progress on the SDGs and to lay the foundation for a peaceful and sustainable future.