The climate crisis is seldom framed as a tameable beast. For years, most of the messaging on the current state of climate change has either been one of over-optimism or of absolute and inevitable doom. Either way, this traditional portrayal of the climate crisis offers little to no incentive for any individual person, institution, or entity to take serious action. An entire generation has come to age since the melting of the Arctic was first detected in 2002, and the rhetoric of climate doom or dismissal has been well ingrained in their cognitive psyches. Yet, it is the same generation that will likely inherit a world that is at least one degree Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels, where rising sea levels reach a rate that has been unprecedented for 2,500 years, where 90% of disasters are classified as climate-related, where 26 million people worldwide will be forced into poverty and 140 million more displaced by 2050 if matters continue at their current trajectory. Globally, the youth are the most vulnerable to the catastrophic implications of climate change. Thus, it makes sense that, despite all the defeatist messaging, the youth are called upon to champion climate activism – and they are responding.
Across the globe, the youth are vocalizing their concerns about climate change and mobilizing the transition to a more conscious and intentional way of living. In India, Licypriya Kangujam (now 11 years old) made headlines when she protested for climate-change literacy to be mandated as part of the national school curriculum in 2020. In Mexico, Xiye Bastida (now 20 years old) similarly turned heads while advocating for systemic policy change that afforded Indigenous and immigrant communities more visibility and consideration, and she continues to rally for the same cause. In Canada, an indigenous activist from Wiikwemkoong First Nation, Autumn Peltier (now 17 years old), continues to loudly draw attention to the sanctity of clean water, demanding that access be extended to the Indigenous Peoples across the world. Suffice to say that these are just three examples of the kind of work carried out by countless young climate activists across the world in hopes of enacting a positive change, be it through campaigning for climate literacy in their circles, monitoring their consumption habits, or investing the time to learn more about the problem and the available solutions.
In its Year of Sustainability, the UAE stands as the winner of the bid to host COP-28 – the world’s largest climate conference organized annually by the United Nations – due to be held at the end of this year. At the first presidency-hosted and youth-led COP event held at Expo City, Dubai, in mid-March – Road to COP-28 – the importance of youth involvement was emphasized by all the speakers who took the stage, namely Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, President-Designate of COP28, Shamma Al Mazrui, COP28 Youth Climate Champion, Mariam Al Mheiri, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, and Razan Al Mubarak, UN Climate Change High-Level Champion for COP28 and President of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The youth-centered climate conversation was clear for all the world to see.
However, the youth – whether visible or not – have always been central to the climate discourse. For one, it is their future that is at stake. And they have been reminded of it in every climate conversation and exposed to news, research, and media on the climate crisis all their lives. If awareness of the dangers was enough, the climate crisis would have been resolved and climate anxiety would not be a reality for the majority of youth globally. What is needed to protect our ecosystem is not awareness; it is action. That is the radical promise of COP28, and the youth are, for the first time, given a seat at the decision-makers’ table. As Shamma Al Mazrui indicated in her speech, the youth’s involvement in COP28 is designed around four pillars that go beyond awareness of the threats of climate change and into action: Participation, Action, Voice, and Education (PAVE).
This decision becomes all the more cogent when one considers how the Mena region is experiencing a 'youth bulge', with approximately 55% of its entire demographic falling under the under-thirty bracket. The investment in youth by the UAE, which stands as a de facto leader of the region, is a clear mark of the nation’s cognizance of both the challenges and opportunities that are peculiar to the region. On one hand, the burgeoning youth bracket means that over 33 million jobs will need to be created by 2030 to sustain the next generation and keep unemployment within 5 percent, according to the latest UNICEF estimates. On the other, the energy of this bracket can and should be harnessed to conceive of creative solutions to global as well as regional climate threats, the most pressing of which is water and food security as dictated by the region’s particular geography. Leveraging COP28 as not only an event, but a moment where the climate discourse can finally translate into discernable global action, and the UAE’s commitment to enabling the youth to voice their ideas and concerns, is commendable.
As we draw closer to COP28, it will be tempting to lay all the burden on the world’s youth. While there is no denying that the demographic of young individuals is rife with talent, ideas, and potential, we would be remiss if we excused other segments of society from also stepping up and pitching in. Yes, the youth will continue to brilliantly champion the world towards a sustainable future, but all members of the global community are equally responsible for keeping global temperatures below the two degrees Celsius limit agreed upon in the Paris Agreement. The climate crisis is a universal issue that needs a comprehensive, cross-cutting, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational solution – one that I am hopeful will arise from the alignment of the various stakeholders, local and global, at COP28.
(The writer is a researcher and Head of Consulting section at Trends Research and Advisory.)
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