Earth Day is a timely reminder that a coordinated global effort to address climate change has never been more urgent. Climate change, a defining global crisis, is a growing threat to lives and livelihoods. Young climate activists from Colombia to Uganda have successfully urged their governments to take meaningful action: joining international agreements to limit carbon emissions; adopting climate-focused legislation, and mitigating corruption. Young climate activists have even taken their governments to court over climate inaction. Despite bold youth-driven grassroots action and advocacy campaigns, the environmental movement has failed to achieve the political influence needed to address the climate crisis.
Why aren’t governments responding to young climate activists’ political demands?
Admittedly, the environmental movement can become more agile by appealing to a broader demographic or better coordinating with other sectors. However, the quality of democracy is a crucial indicator of successful climate interventions. While democracies, in aggregate, are far better than authoritarian regimes with climate outcomes – adopting regulations, entering into agreements and standing-up institutions dedicated to the environment – they have a mixed record on implementation and sustainability. The implementation gap is, in part, due to the interests of intervening corporate stakeholders. Nonetheless, this gap also exposes governance weaknesses – such as short-term thinking and political polarization – which are furthered by a lack of long-term mechanisms in place to keep governments accountable to citizens’ needs. These factors can help explain why governments are less responsive to youth engagement on climate change.
Why does this matter?
The unwillingness of political elites to include young people in political decision-making is a global problem. Young people of diverse identities and backgrounds are often either without a seat at the table or pushed to the outskirts in political processes. They are frequently excluded from the very decisions that most impact their lives and futures. Despite their political marginalization, young people have proven to be politically active and invested in efforts to ensure a sustainable future and peaceful climate adaptation. As the climate crisis increasingly threatens the ability of democratic governments to deliver for citizens, governments must recognize that engagement with youth climate movements is strategic: climate mitigation and adaptation policies will require sustained social, political and economic commitments. As the generation that will see these commitments through from start to finish, young people, particularly those who are disportionately impacted by climate change, must be deeply engaged in political efforts to mitigate environmental degradation. Governments must invest in young people's capacity to manage and lead complex policy implementation over the long-term. Furthermore, climate change is a critical cross-cutting issue that can harness political participation across a diversity of communities, groups, and sectors. Youth climate activists already represent a multiplicity of issues and communities – coalescing that support is an opportunity for democratic renewal and progression in countries struggling with political polarization and citizen apathy.
What should be done?
Democracy and governance support organizations like NDI can play a key role in both strengthening political systems where it matters most for climate efforts and connecting young activists with critical entry points. NDI’s Speak Youth to Power campaign is leading the way, helping young people gain power and influence over what matters to them. Through its campaign, NDI hosted a Youth In Focus roundtable dedicated to peer-to-peer sharing by youth climate activists and democracy and governance practitioners on how to influence power and policy.
Young people from around the world – with particular emphasis on engaging voices that have been traditionally sidelined during climate discussions, such as Indigenous youth and young women – came together from Kyrgyzstan, the Solomon Islands, Malawi, and beyond to compare their experiences, priorities and challenges. Democracy and governance practitioners also attended to better understand the needs and priorities of climate activists and discuss strategies for increased collaboration. The participants agreed on the importance of a unified, inclusive and collaborative approach to climate action. They acknowledged that many youth-led organizations are not fully aware of the work of their local and national governments, or of local democracy and governance support organizations. Young climate activists also recognized that in order to be most effective moving forward, they need to gain access to significant and sustained financial resources. They also discussed the importance of connecting with local networks to strengthen their political position, and engaging with international climate networks to share strategies. They can, for example, use country commitments to advance their local advocacy and draw external attention.
Young people additionally affirmed shared barriers to engaging democratic systems. The roundtable provided an opportunity for young people to explore together in a nuanced way how they are excluded from power, but to also affirm that their best path forward was to continue to engage a broad group of stakeholders, including governments. Those more seasoned in collaborating with political leaders shared their lessons learned and agreed that for climate activists to have greater impact, political decision-makers, like political parties, must be mobilized to address climate action in their own policies and campaign manifestos. The youth activists at the roundtable also emphasized the critical role that democracy and governance support organizations like NDI must play in helping their efforts. In short, in order for youth climate movements to have greater impact, political institutions must become more transparent and inclusive.
NDI’s Youth In Focus roundtable demonstrated that young climate activists are more committed now than ever to engage with their democratic systems and visibly advocate for environmental protection and climate change interventions on a local, national and global scale. Through sustained commitment to youth political participation and bolstering democracy, NDI can help break down barriers to young peoples’ exclusion in political processes. This can improve both the quality of democracy and the future of the planet.
Author: Rachel Stromsta, Program Associate, Southern and East Africa.
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.