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 Restless Youth Seek Climate Action 

Date of Publish - Wednesday, 23rd January 2019

Young people around the world are increasingly restless over the lack of foresight and urgency to address the threat of climate change. The youth have always embraced environmental activism, demanding action from world leaders from time to time. From the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro to the UNFCCC COP 24 at Katowice in December last year, young people have sought to galvanize the climate movement. The voices of discontent have grown in the past few months and youth are now crowding the streets around the world to demand immediate action on climate change. A few days back, over 12000 students walked out of their classrooms in Belgium to join the country's second youth-led climate march in a week, demanding bold action from European leaders on the global climate crisis.

For 15-year old Greta Thunberg, the girl who started the ‘school strike for the climate’ movement in August 2018, it all started with a silent protest in front of the Swedish parliament. Initially she was alone, and few took notice of the teenage protester on the pavement. When people did start to pay attention, she let them know that she would skip school until the government acted on climate change. She handed out leaflets accusing the adults of jeopardizing her future. And the environment movement had a new star. Greta’s strike has inspired tens of thousands of students in over 270 cities around the world, spawning movements like ‘School Strikes 4 Climate’ and ‘Fridays for Future’.

Back in 1992, it was a 12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki who silenced the world for six minutes at the first UN Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro. Twenty-five years later, young people across the globe are still fighting to save the planet. Wary of the repeated failure of adults to take decisive action on climate change, enterprising youth-led organizations have created successful models for a sustainable future. Others have used the law; a slew of legal actions in recent years has opened up the debate on the accountability of the present global leadership towards the future generations.

In 2002, 21-year-old Billy Parish dropped out of Yale University to help found the Energy Action Coalition, eventually renamed the Powershift Network. It became the largest youth-led clean energy advocacy network in the world, bringing together 50 environmental and social justice groups and over 340,000 members. The Energy Action Coalition motivated over 600 colleges to make commitments to climate neutrality and trained tens of thousands of young people. In March 2009, the Energy Action Coalition organized Power Shift ’09, which brought over 12,000 young people to Washington D.C., which was then the largest climate-focused training, lobby day and non-violent civil disobedience action in U.S. history.

In 2007, Plant-for-the-Planet, an initiative to raise awareness amongst children and adults about climate change and global justice, was founded by a nine-year-old German boy, Felix Finkbeiner. Plant-for-the-Planet considers tree plantation to be a practical and symbolic action in efforts to reduce the effect of climate change and has since grown into a global movement reaching its initial goal of planting a million trees in just 4 years.

The youth are actively engaged at local, national and global levels in raising awareness, running educational programmes, conserving nature, promoting renewables and inspiring personal commitments to environment friendly lifestyles. In the year 2009, in response to the growing number of youth organizations engaged in the intergovernmental climate change process, the UNFCCC secretariat had extended constituency status to admitted youth NGOs, allowing them to receive official information, participate in meetings, request speaking slots and receive logistical support at UNFCCC conferences.

In the US, 21 young plaintiffs between 9 and 20 years old, led by the environmental law nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, together with climate scientist Dr. James Hansen filed that famous lawsuit in 2015. They accused the federal government of violating the younger generations' constitutional rights to life and liberty by declining to take action against global warming. The lawsuit is still going on, while the plaintiffs have become role models for youth around the world. However, they were not the first to file a case regarding government inaction on climate change. In 2011, 17-year-old Alec Loorz, who was inspired by ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, had sued the federal government for action on global warming.

Last year, Ridhima Pandey, a nine-year-old in India filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal against the Indian government for not complying with the Paris Agreement on climate change. She urged the government to take measured and concrete steps toward reducing the country’s carbon footprint and to focus on reforestation. In Pakistan, a young farmer, Asghar Leghari, who is also a law student, filed a petition with the Lahore High Court accusing the government of failing to act on its 2012 National Climate Change Policy. He was prompted by repeated crop failure due to water scarcity and temperature shifts but clarified that he was not seeking compensation for crop losses but sought broader action against future consequences.

In the Netherlands, young activists were jubilant when the Dutch court ordered the state to reduce emissions by 25% within five years to protect its citizens from climate change in world’s first climate liability suit. Inspired by these events, a law student in New Zealand, Sarah Lorraine Thomson challenged the Government in the High Court over its failure to properly address climate change and unambitious targets on reduction of emissions. These successes have added to the motivation of younger generations to demand action for safeguarding their future.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1.5 C report last year made it clear that limiting catastrophic warming beyond 1.5 C above the pre-industrialization levels would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. The landmark report painted a dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change and gave us a little over a decade for decisive action. World leaders at COP24, following the publication of the IPCC report were expected to show some urgency and rise to the challenges. The compromise at Katowice has fueled the restlessness of youth, who correctly see climate change as an existential threat to life on earth.

While addressing the negotiators at COP24, Greta reflected the anxiety of the youth on the slow progress of climate talks in the past. “For 25 years, countless people have come to the U.N. climate conferences begging our world leaders to stop emissions, and clearly that has not worked as emissions are continuing to rise. So, I will not beg the world leaders to care for our future. I will instead let them know change is coming whether they like it or not.”

Today’s youth are the first generation to feel the impacts of climate change and possibly the last that can do something about it. Half the world’s population is now under 30 years old, and those youth are becoming increasingly powerful political and social advocates for action on climate change. The new generations have the energy and knowledge to lead our societies towards a low carbon and climate resilient future. There is no doubt that it is the youth of the world who have it in them to save us from catastrophic climate change, but do we have enough time? Perhaps it is this very thought, driven home by the IPCC 1.5 C report from last year, that makes the youth restless in the first place.

Author :
Rituraj Phukan


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