The chances are when climate activism is mentioned, young people spring to mind. The last couple of years have heralded an unprecedented movement of youth taking action on behalf of the environment, spearheaded largely by Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for the Future movement. As a result, climate change has risen to high in the global agenda in a way it never was before, talked about by politicians and corporations alike as the global focus turns to more sustainable activity.
But why is the youth voice so important in the environmental movement, and why has it had such a large positive impact?
- Young people push for change with urgency. A 2050 deadline for government leaders or companies might sound like an ambitious target, and likely (without sounding too morbid) ones that the creators won’t be around to survive the consequences of. But for everyone outside of politics, 30 year deadlines are too long - particularly for the planet. This is particularly felt by young people, who see that they will be middle aged adults by the time these policies come into play - this is just not urgent enough, especially in the context of climate change with tight deadlines for action and fast approaching tipping points. As a result, young people are literally working to protect their futures - if they don’t see action, the future planet they’re set to live on looks very bleak indeed.
- Most young people lack an economic interest in tackling the climate crisis. Young people don’t often have financial motives to avoid or accelerate the transition towards a cleaner future, and don’t have stakeholders or voters to appease and consequently delay or soften the extremity of action to tackle the climate crisis. That means that they can voice opinions and demand change with little to hold them back.
- Young people can have the brightest ideas when it comes to addressing environmental issues. Take Boyan Slat, who founded the Ocean Cleanup at age 18 which has since cleared trillions of pieces of plastic from the ocean. Or, take Lesein Mutunkei who started the Trees for Goals project at age 12, which tackles deforestation through football and has since planted over 1000 trees around Nairobi. Or take Fionn Ferreira, who won the Google Science Fair aged 18 with his methodology to remove microplastics from the water. Climate change needs everyone to come together in creative ways to address it, and young people are far from short of ideas on how to do this.
But, the power of the youth voice goes further than having a positive impact on driving action on climate change. It helps to build a stronger sense of community in the areas youth social action take place, encourages more young people to be engaged in the political system and importance of helping others, and it even has financial benefits - the UK NCS program estimated in 2014 that for every £1 spent on the program, there were £1.70-£6.10 of benefits.
And yet, we’re not seeing enough support given to raising and amplifying youth voice across society. We don’t see enough young people represented on government and company advisory boards, where they can have a say on decisions that can and will affect their futures. Youth activists are invited to events to speak, but are often just listened to and not properly heard. And, when young people do stand up for what they believe in, they often aren’t taken seriously by the very people they want to listen - those who have the power to make urgent change but are not doing so.
What fails to be realised across society is that this rise in the number of young people making their voices heard on environmental matters in recent years is not down to the impatience of youth or a desire to cause mischief. It’s because young people simply care about the environment and the planet they share with other living species. And when they see that urgent action needs to be taken, they demand it.
So instead of belittling or silencing the youth voice, businesses, organisations, politicians and governments should be embracing it. Young people are crucial to building a stronger society and driving the change that we need to see in the world.
And ultimately, it’s not just a fight for young people - in order to address the climate crisis before it’s too late, we all need to work collaboratively and intergenerationally. We need to include the voices of both young and old in conversations around the climate crisis, and ensure that both are equally listened to and valued. Government and companies must bring generations together instead of apart by uniting behind scientific evidence and enacting urgent change to protect the environment. Climate change is an issue that will affect us all, and so it is a fight for us all. And it will take us all working together to curb the potentially devastating consequences of an irreversibly changed climate, and now.