Youth Climate Activism Needs Nurturing. Here Are 4 Ways to Make it Happen

6 minute read
Kianni is an Iranian-American activist studying science, technology and society at Stanford University. She is the founder of Climate Cardinals and the youngest United Nations climate advisor. Daley is President and CEO of American Forests and a leader of the U.S. Chapter of He began his career in education, creating interdisciplinary environmental studies curricula for high school students

The climate movement has reached a pivotal juncture. We have an array of constructed and natural climate solutions with proven potential to reduce greenhouse gases and foster climate resilience, from renewable energy and electric vehicles to reforestation and climate-smart agriculture. There is just one catch: To avoid the worst of climate change, we must deploy these solutions much faster than ever before, as made clear by the sixth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Fortunately, we have a talented and relentless group of climate leaders ready to make this happen—young people.

Youth have shown the right kind of leadership qualities to get the climate movement from a jog to a sprint, and inspire more people and organizations to come on board. If we hope to create climate justice, we must fully empower this burgeoning youth climate movement by giving young leaders the funding, standing, and platform they need to maximize their contributions.

Young people have provided recent demonstration of their unique commitment to climate action and power to energize the whole climate movement. Take the recent COP27 climate conference in Egypt, where well-prepared young leaders directly engaged in talks with national delegations and challenged the assembled world leaders at COP27 to “stop lying” in a plenary address. This same urgency and commitment was demonstrated by American youth who waited in line for hours to tip the 2022 Midterm Elections in favor of candidates who match young voters’ attitudes on climate change.

But this youth leadership is not a new phenomenon—it has been a driving force behind the climate movement for many years. The ongoing and tireless Fridays for Future demonstrations led by young people around the world have been one of the most effective efforts to draw broad attention to the climate crisis, in addition to youth leaders’ remarkable skill in using traditional media and social media to elevate climate change as a priority issue. This leadership has blossomed into a powerful cohort of youth-led climate organizations such as Climate Cardinals, Earth Uprising, One Up Action, and Youth4Nature that are providing sophisticated, sustained, and impactful leadership for the climate movement.

We need even more of this powerful youth leadership capacity going forward if we hope to create the urgency and broad societal reach for a successful climate movement. Here are four things we can do to fully capture youth leadership potential:

Provide funding and accommodations for youth.

While well-funded climate NGOs have annual budgets running into the millions and often attend major climate events with large teams of people staying in comfortable hotels, youth organizations struggle to annually fund their work and scramble to find housing at these same events. We must provide annual funding to these organizations at a level that lets them scale their staff capacity and year-round activities, and complement this by arranging safe, affordable, and accessible accommodations for youth at important national and international conferences—particularly for young people from the global south—so they have the same comfort and security that others enjoy.

Expand formal roles and spaces for youth.

After creating power with advocacy from outside official circles, young people have earned a dedicated place in global and national climate efforts that gives them power from within the process. There is positive movement in this direction, like the annual U.N. Climate Change Conference of Youth with the first-ever Children and Youth Pavilion at COP27, the increasing presence of young people on national climate delegations, and speaking opportunities for youth to address major international climate gatherings. We should continue to expand structured and formalized ways for youth to access and influence how world leaders shape climate agreements and our actions to implement them.

Give youth the political power they have earned.

Some media coverage has downplayed the role of youth in the surprising U.S. Midterm Elections, which could unfairly limit the policymaking access youth have earned. As detailed by youth-led groups such as Voters Tomorrow, the youth vote did tip this election for a number of climate-focused candidates, which is not surprising given that they consistently place climate change as a top voting concern. This demonstrated electoral influence means that political leaders and the media should treat climate change as an issue voters care about and seek out youth perspectives on climate policy proposals that will build on the historic successes of the last two years. This includes renewal of legislative efforts to fund a Civilian Climate Corps, which was a top youth climate priority lost from the final version of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Embrace the catalytic voice and energy of young people.

Youth climate leaders have sacrificed some of their traditional freedoms and pastimes, so they can push our leaders and our broader society to meet the climate crisis with the urgency it demands. Given their seriousness and intensity, we should expect and embrace youth using their hard-earned platform to speak truth to power, like Greta Thunberg’s address to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, even when this directness makes some uncomfortable. We should also expect and embrace that young leaders are stepping up in new ways to lead climate action in our communities, from starting ecopreneurial businesses and non-profits to running for public office and leading volunteer efforts.

We call on government, corporate, philanthropic, and NGO leaders to rapidly deliver in these four areas so we can fully tap the new pace and reach youth can provide for the climate movement. We don’t have time to wait for the politics to change, to wait for some new technology to save us, to wait for public opinion and consumer choices to magically shift.

We must infuse the entire climate movement—government, corporate, and individual action—with the urgency shown by youth leaders. That means speaking plainly about the climate crisis, lifting up ready climate solutions, and mobilizing all parts of our society to help implement them at scale. We can get there together as an intergenerational climate movement if we take action to put youth climate leaders where they can help us most—right up front.

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