Climate Justice

Youth Power on Climate: Beyond Tokenism

Sophia Lamb
By Sophia Lamb 23PH
19 Sep 2023
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For nearly 30 years, the United Nations has met to discuss the impacts of climate change and potential solutions to this unprecedented phenomenon. While the UN continues to work towards the goal of keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, member countries have failed to successfully involve a vital group within the decision-making process: global youth.

This past June, I represented Emory University at the SB58 climate change conference in Bonn, Germany. The Bonn conference served as a preparatory platform for COP28, which will take place in the UAE later this year. Although young people have been attending this annual conference, as well as COP, for many years, it wasn’t until 2011 that the Youth Constituency (YOUNGO) became active. Since then, youth have faced a number of challenges that have limited their involvement in climate discussions such as lack of funding and inclusion in negotiations, inadequate climate education and capacity building, VISA restrictions, and linguistic barriers.

While at this year’s Bonn conference, youth representatives aimed to host youth-led discussions, side events, and capacity building workshops. They also met with their country representatives to get their views across. Members of YOUNGO even attended multiple demonstrations both within and outside the conference on issues such as VISA restrictions, the COP presidency involvement with oil and gas companies, false solutions such as carbon offsets that don’t actually reduce emissions, and more.

Many YOUNGO representatives are climate justice activists and represent organizations around the world. Hailey Campbell, co-executive director of Care About Climate and YOUNGO representative, noted that in many cases, the UN has utilized youth representation merely as a display. She stated that “There is a difference between ‘youthwashing, ’tokenism, and actual engagement.”

Introduction for the session dedicated to youth participation in climate talks
Introduction for the session dedicated to youth participation in climate talks

Fortunately, youth have been loud, and their voices have been increasingly heard. In a session about youth participation in climate talks, YOUNGO representatives noted several youth successes in recent years. For example, at COP27 hosted in Glasgow in 2021, the word ‘youth’ was used in a UN document and young people had their own pavilion, both for the first time. For COP28, youth will continue to have a pavilion and have a thematic day specifically dedicated to “Youth, Education, and Skills.” The COP28 presidency has even assigned Shamma Al Mazrui, a government minister, as Youth Climate Champion.

The Youth Climate Champion is a new addition to COP and was developed to foster youth involvement at the conference in collaboration with YOUNGO. Shamma Al Mazrui has experience working as the minister of community development and the vice chairman of the Arab Youth Centre in the UAE. She has urged youth involvement and planning at COP to enable youth-led climate action and better accessibility.

During a discussion on the role of youth, Shamma urged in a powerful speech, “We need to be in the business of challenging the status quo. We need to be in the business of looking at things as if we see them for the first time with intellectual humility and complete freedom of thought and expression. And looking at them as a team, admitting the limitations of our individual capacities and looking at them again and asking what if.”

While the UN is heading in the right direction with youth engagement, there is much more that can be done. As a collective youth group, YOUNGO presented five key issues that youth representatives from organizations hope to see addressed in the COPs to come.

Slide from session dedicated to getting youth involved at the Bonn Climate Change Conference and COP28
Slide from session dedicated to getting youth involved at the Bonn Climate Change Conference and COP28

According to YOUNGO, improved accessibility is vital. Most climate-based meetings and events related to the UN are hosted in English except for a few side events. With people from all around the world whose first language is not English, this can be a major barrier to understanding discussions and becoming involved. YOUNGO representatives proposed that meetings be held in more languages than just English. There was also discussion about displaying live captions so that people could visually read what was being stated during meetings.

Youth also need to be more involved in party delegations. While at Bonn, individuals and groups had the opportunity to schedule bilaterals, or informal meetings, with party delegates. Hailey Campbell, who has had several years of experience attending UN climate conferences, stated that while bilaterals can be a great way to inform the country’s representatives about youth goals, often times the representatives do not truly aim to address the issues that youth raise.

During the youth discussion, Camila Zepeda, the director general of global issues from the Department of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, provided an example of successful youth inclusion. Mexico has a one-year program that educates youth on UN processes and provides tools to be successful within a United Nations setting. According to Camila Zepeda, the training is producing results. When [youth delegates] come [to the UN climate conferences], they actually negotiate. They take the Mexico flag and talk on behalf of Mexico. And for the past two years, if you see any text that says intergenerational equity, that has been achieved in Glasgow and Sharm El-Sheik, that was the Mexican youth official negotiator.”

To promote inclusion, youth must also receive increased access to funding. Currently there is a separate Youth Climate Justice Fund, but it is severely underfunded. YOUNGO sees finance as a hurdle to “...organizing the regional and local conference of youth. [They] have a lack of resources, and [are also unable to attend] major climate [events outside of SB and COP],” Karishma Ansaram, a YOUNGO representative from Mauritius. Funding for youth can help address the challenges mentioned by Karishma. It can also increase youth capacity to address climate change through proper education. Increased funding can also provide better security and support for activists from countries, where speaking up about climate change can be dangerous.

Discussion on Youth4Adaptation, which aims to get youth involved in adapting to climate change
Discussion on Youth4Adaptation, which aims to get youth involved in adapting to climate change

To become properly involved, youth need to be educated on issues related to climate change, and address these issues in a local, national, and international setting. YOUNGO and related parties held a number of side events and workshops such as Youth4Capacity and Youth4Adaptation that were designed to give youth necessary skills to be successful and to educate others. These events help increase capacity building, but there is much more that can be done, especially for those who are unable to attend UN events.  

Each year before COP, young delegates meet at a Global Conference of Youth (COY). COY is a space for youth to work on capacity building, policy training, and development of youth policy papers. While the Global Youth Statement and other youth policy proposals have been presented for many years, the UN has yet to recognize these statements officially.

As Ana Maria Cortés Carrillo, a YOUNGO member from Colombia stated, “The SB58 and the COP28 need to create intersectional dialogue spaces for youth. Youth are not the future of the world. We are the present.”

Discussion on Global Youth Statement presented by YOUNGO
Discussion on Global Youth Statement presented by YOUNGO