Our trustee Gitika Bhardwaj shares her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for engaging young people with climate change issues.
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 in my childhood to campaigning with the UK Youth Climate Coalition as a young adult – and I want young people to know that it is ordinary people like me 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 youth 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 have to live with the effects of climate change, from rising sea levels to extreme weather-related events.
We therefore need to hear more from young people and increase the presence of their voices in 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.
Many of the strategies currently being used to connect young people with climate change are reportedly failing as has been revealed by 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 highlighted was that the debate around climate change has become politically polarised: climate change is seen to be a left-wing war cry for white, middle class, young people and less so for young people from ethnically diverse and working class backgrounds or those with right-wing political beliefs.
Furthermore, a growing disenchantment with mainstream politics was found to be a significant factor for low levels of engagement among young people in climate change issues.
Therefore, the desire to refrain from siding with left-wing or right-wing political beliefs, a lack of trust for our existing decision-makers and the resulting feeling of disempowerment is leaving many young people feeling disengaged from climate change – and this is a problem we need to address.
Another reason that emerged in a separate study was what is increasingly being termed as the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change: many young people from developed countries believe that the impacts of climate change will be felt in the future and in places 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 and living in a world beleaguered with instability.
Given this snapshot of some of the obstacles to youth engagement with one of the most critical issues of our time, the question is, how do we 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 1.5oC?
The polarisation of the climate change debate in many countries weakens the collective effort needed to tackle this global threat which 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 themselves – on how best to discuss climate change with a young audience.
In addition, while young people have many competing concerns vying for their attention and feel psychologically distant from the impacts of climate change, we need to appeal to how the changing climate will affect their everyday lives: from flooding damaging their homes to rising food prices in the supermarket.
It is also important to underline that climate change isn’t just affecting people living 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 crucial 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 powerful 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 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, which has resulted 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.
Gitika Bhardwaj works at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House and is a trustee of Climate Outreach.