NOTE: This blog post is connected to the work of hundreds of youth across the planet as reflected in the International Youth White Paper on Climate Change: Education and Cities written in conjunction with The Centre for Global Education.
Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) hosted the “Cities and Climate Change Science Conference: Fostering new scientific knowledge for cities based on science, practice and policy” in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference aimed to generate a global research agenda by bringing together academic, practitioner, and urban policy-making communities. In a radical move, the conference organizers invited a group of young people aged 14 to 18 from all across the planet to join the expert climate scientists and economists, city mayors and international policymakers, in contributing to the agenda.
Watching these young people take Snapchat selfies in front of the conference signage, fill their backpacks with snacks during conference breaks, and sit on the conference center floors next to outlets to charge their phones and FaceTime their friends back home, a person might wonder at the IPCC’s decision. Why involve youth in a conference targeting high-hitting scientists, government officials, and policy-makers? Shouldn’t these kids be in school?
As the educator who got to spend the weeks leading into the conference working first online with these students through a virtual classroom with The Centre for Global Education – and then the 10 days prior to the conference preparing their paper and presentation – I also asked myself these very questions. Did these young people have something legitimate to contribute, or were they just going to be a great photo op for the IPCC folks, a cute group of “diverse” kids from Indonesia to Kenya, Colombia to Slovenia, who could be patted on the heads, photographed, and sent back home?
Certainly, the risk was there. Young people are rarely considered in the climate research and policy agendas, despite being the inheritors of our increasingly unstable global climate. In a pre-conference session, a well-meaning panelist called the youth to move beyond recycling and carpooling to political participation through voting. His aim was to inspire them to be politically active for climate justice, rather than limiting themselves to individual actions. The youth, while inspired, followed up with me afterwards by asking: what if I can’t vote for five more years? How can my voice “count” in political decision-making?
Good questions. And ones that are imperative for young people, who have fewer means for protecting themselves from climate disasters, relying on their families and education systems to prepare them for a changing planet, the future of which will be in their hands. Far from being naïve to climate realities, young people find these issues pressing, and their positions within their cities give youth a unique perspective on climate issues that cities could learn from.
Let me elaborate. The thousands of youth surveyed through this project indicate very real fear, concern, anger, anxiety, and helplessness in the face of climate change. They recognize that youth within their home cities are differently impacted by climate instability, due to compounding factors such as gender, race, caste, ability, social and economic status, provision of education, and more. Even those youth from privileged positions notice that other schools in their cities are more vulnerable to climate disasters than their own, closing for weeks due to flooding or high levels of smog. They also see schools that are poorly (or not at all) equipped by their local governments to mitigate climate change through contextual initiatives, ranging from development of green spaces to effective waste management in schools. These young people see and feel things that older folks may not – and they want to participate in policy-making to address these things. Yet they have few spaces to share this insight with those who “count.”
At the IPCC Conference, the young people’s ideas – on subjects including equity and inclusion, education and updated curriculum, infrastructure, project based learning, and social media and communication – were applauded and taken up by researchers and policy-makers, including Edmonton’s city mayor, Don Iveson, and members of the IPCC steering committee (you can read their final thoughts in their White Paper). Our group celebrated with selfies, dance moves, and spontaneous applause, marking this unique chance to express youth voice at an international level.
Yet these very acknowledgements also draw attention to the gaps in political engagement with youth and the limits of our democratic structures in involving youth in decision-making. While the feedback at the IPCC conference was hopeful, there are no accountability mechanisms by which the young people can hold these policy-makers to their promises.
Without being able vote, youth have few options for influencing their governments at the civic, regional, and national levels. Only one of the 14 city councils represented by the youth in our project hosts a youth council as part of civic decision-making, so youth have no official or influential voice in their cities. While cities such as Edmonton, as well as regional governments like the province of BC, are entertaining lowering the voting age to 16, this has yet to become a reality.
Further, few cities reach out to young people through schools, surveys, or social media, limiting the impact of youth on policy-makers. A few cities run or support climate projects for youth, but few consider insights from and projects by youth, so that even where some political engagement is happening, this is unidirectional – shaped by adults who may not see climate issues through young people’s eyes.
Limits such as these are built into the very structures of our governments, revealing the limits of democracy in addressing not only marginalized populations such as youth, but also in addressing future issues that may not be currently felt by the grown-ups holding decision-making power. Youth are thus caught within political systems that leave little space for their voices, their issues, and their participation since they are left out of the conversation by their framing as future constituents facing future problems. There should be space for youth to contribute to policies and government programs that are most relevant to them.
As young people in the United States are currently demonstrating in relation to gun control, youth hold great potential for influencing governments through organizing and social pressure despite their lack of official voice – and perhaps youth will increasingly mobilize around climate issues. At the same time, however, most youth in our project expressed dissatisfaction with how their education is geared towards citizenship as obedience rather than for social change. Young people could benefit from learning about social movements, organizing, and the power of social media in order to enable greater public participation.
While in many ways the IPCC conference successfully promoted youth perspectives on climate change, the limited ability of the IPCC to take up youth voice thus presents us with a need to set up meaningful and accountable public engagement with young people, not just to hear from youth but to do something with them in response. This might look different in different cities – but it is something we need to consider, if we want to ensure equitable care of the populations that share our planet.