Our trustee Gitika Bhardwaj shares her thoughts here on challenges and opportunities for youth engagement with climate change.

 

International Youth Day is not just another day of celebration on the UN calendar. It is a unique opportunity to involve young people - who are regularly excluded from the decision-making processes that govern their futures - in the major issues affecting our world.

I have been involved with environmental issues from a young age - from encouraging my family to recycle and switch off the lights around our home in my childhood to campaigning with the UK Youth Climate Coalition as a young adult. And I want other young people to know that it is ordinary people like me - and not just scientists, academics, politicians or celebrities, who can help make a difference. All you need to do is join the movement and what better time than this International Youth Day!

The world’s population is gradually ageing yet the world has never been so young, with 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24 living across the planet. 89% of the world’s young people reside in developing countries with India alone boasting a population of 356 million young people. It is young people who have the most to lose and the most to gain from a changing climate, as they will live with the effects of climate change such as rising sea levels and increasing extreme weather-related events.

We need to hear more from young people and increase the presence of their voices in the climate change conversations. To do this, we need to overcome the challenges facing youth engagement with this issue. Recent research in the UK reveals some of these challenges and offers recommendations to overcome them.

Challenges

Many of the strategies currently being used to connect young people with climate change are failing, as has been made evident in the Young Voices project conducted by Climate Outreach. This was one of the first studies to ask young people themselves how to engage their peers more effectively, and to propose and test different climate change narratives specifically designed to engage 18-25 year olds. It identified a number of reasons that young people feel that climate change is not an issue they can raise with their friends and families.

One of the reasons is that the debate around climate change has become politically polarised: climate change is seen to be a left-wing war cry for middle class, white young people, and less so for young people from working class and ethnically diverse backgrounds or those with right-wing political beliefs. With the ideological divide widening across the world – take a look at the Democrats and the Republicans in the 2016 US presidential election race for example – this is troubling. Furthermore, a growing disenchantment with mainstream politics – and its politicians – has been found to be a significant factor for low levels of engagement among young people.

The combination of low levels of voting among young people, a desire to refrain from siding with left-wing or right-wing political beliefs, a lack of trust for our existing decision-makers and a feeling of disempowerment is leaving many young people feeling disengaged from climate change - and this is a serious problem we need to address.

Another reason that emerged in a separate study was what is increasingly being termed the psychological distance of climate change: many young people - and people of all ages - from developed countries believe that the impacts of climate change will be felt in the future and in places far, far away - not here and now.

Young people’s engagement with climate change was also found to be relative to other competing concerns including day-to-day worries such as finding a job, as well as concerns about living in a world beleaguered with instability and insecurity, with a number of new and old challenges rearing their heads: from Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, to the rise of populism in national and international politics, to the ongoing threat of terrorism.

Given this sample of the blockades to youth engagement with one of the most critical issues of our time, the question is: how do overcome this? As the biggest stakeholders in our Earth’s future, how can we successfully draft more of the world’s young people into the climate change battle in order to ensure leaders across the spectrum do everything they can to keep global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius?

Opportunities

The polarisation of climate change in many countries weakens the collective effort needed to tackle this global threat that transcends borders. Climate Outreach is one of the organisations doing cutting-edge work on building a social consensus on climate change across all ages, faiths, nationalities and sides of the political spectrum. Its centre-right programme, for example, is working to establish a more balanced climate change narrative for people with centre-right political views while their young voices work has produced practical recommendations for campaigners, policy-makers – and young people – on how best to discuss climate change with this audience.

In addition, while young people have many competing concerns vying for their attention and feel psychologically distant from the impact of climate change, we need to appeal to how the changing climate will affect young people’s everyday lives: from flooding damaging our homes to rising food prices in the supermarket, climate change isn’t affecting only people in developing countries - it’s affecting us here in the UK too. 97% of scientists agree that climate change is happening here – and now – and we need to frame our messages in order to resonate with young people’s values and ensure that our education systems teach young people about how the world’s climate is changing and what we can all do to adapt and mitigate its effects.

It’s important to remember that many young people do care and are doing amazing things to tackle climate change - and have been doing so for a long time. In 1992, 12-year-old Severn Suzuki delivered a speech before 172 governments at the UN Climate Change Conference in Brazil and told them: “If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it” earning her the nickname “The girl who silenced the world for six minutes.” Esha Marwaha, a 15-year-old London student and member of the UK Youth Climate Coalition, successfully lobbied former UK education secretary Michael Gove to keep climate change on the curriculum by delivering a petition with over 70,000 signatures. University students around the world have been calling on public and private institutions to abandon fossil fuels by pulling their investments from non-renewable energy industries - resulting in countless cities, businesses and universities divesting from fossil fuels. And many young entrepreneurs are taking to business in order to create a more sustainable world: from the Bamboo Bikes Initiative in Ghana to Hackney Energy in the UK.

There are young people from all backgrounds fighting against climate change - but we need more of them to engage with this issue and truly save the world.

Photo credit: Chloe Thibaux

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