We Didn’t Start the Fire

Powerful images line the walls of the COP21 venue. They are meant to inspire delegates to reach an agreement on climate control. One such message reads: “Climate change is the single biggest thing that humans have ever done on this planet. The one thing that needs to be bigger is our movement to stop it.”

FullSizeRender1There are 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24 around the globe. What many fail to realize is their power and duty when it comes to climate change. As the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported, “young people are about to inherit an enormous responsibility for resolving many long-standing complex problems.” Because young people will outlive their elders, they are more likely to confront the direct consequences of accelerating climate change and other environmental shifts.

The need for social resilience is likely to grow, and today’s young will need in their own adulthood to be the main agents of tomorrow’s resilience. Their resilience depends in part on whether they are healthy and educated, whether they have options and opportunities in life, and whether they are fully engaged citizens whose rights are upheld.

Young people have historically participated in the UNFCCC. With additional levels of involvement via international Youth Climate Movements (YouNGO) and the Youth Portal on the UNFCCC website, youth organizations have started to view climate negotiations as a new forum for young people.

COP21 hosted an event titled “Climate Innovators: Empowering a Global Generation of Young People” this afternoon, which featured the work of both budding and experienced innovators. This event contemplated the investments needed to ensure that the newest generation can contribute to a sustainable and resilient future.

Wanjira Mathai, Chair of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, distinguished this event as one of the most important sessions of all of COP21. The role of future generations remains an essential part of the climate change solution. She finds sobering the fact that Parties are talking about ambitious targets for the Paris Outcome, yet it will be the youth who takes forward the implementation of what Parties discuss today. For this reason, she says, young people must take center stage in the Paris debates.

ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, thinks it is a mistake to say that the youth represent the future of humanity; he thinks instead that they represent the present. He sheds light on the basic issues of generational fairness and social justice. The youth are clearly not responsible for the climate crisis, but unfortunately, unless decisive action is taken urgently, they will carry this burden into the future.

Young people face problems that are not theirs, and have not been involved in the decision-making process. Do they not feel as if they have the strategies, skills, or power to effectively engage in negotiations? Are the later generations clinging to power? Do young people even understand the pressing nature of climate change? As the architects of prospective solutions, young people encompass the requisite spirit of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Enabling the youth to respond to climate change requires effective policies in the fields of education, training, and skills building. Ultimately, young people need to be given the design to become leaders.

The panel pointed out that younger generations are notoriously reckless, and do not realize the effects of what they do “until the results are in front of them.” Those concerned with our future can organize their influence by becoming role models to fellow youth, and to show them a conviction and desire to embody the change the world needs.

Young people are catalysts for change. And while we might be the last generation with the power to address climate change, it is not yet the end.