How can we continue to discuss the world’s energy and climate future without meaningfully engaging the generation of people who will be affected most by it?
The group I am referring to is of course the youth of the world, people under the age of 25; young children who look at the world with unwavering optimism; teenagers who are beginning their educational enlightenment; post secondary students who are asking tough questions for the first time about the world around them; and new graduates who are entering the work force ready to tackle any challenge thrown their way. This is the group who in 20 years from now will be the researchers we look to for answers, the CEOs of major companies making investment decisions, and the governmental leaders of our nations. They will be in the trenches as 2050 climate targets approach and they will be ensuring the world is a place we all want to live in.
The issue of youth engagement is not a question of apathy – there is massive demand from our generation to be involved in issues around climate and energy. You don’t have to look further than the COP convention centre to know this. In the Climate Change Kiosk, a massive exhibition hall of environmentally related groups, youth organizations make up many of the kiosks. Wandering the halls you will see enthusiastic young people crowded in groups watching the negotiators address the plenary and discussing the contributions of individual countries. Or you may see a small group wearing t-shirts with very direct calls to action – “get out of the way USA” “Qatar, why host and not lead” “we are part of the solution.” These manifestations may be construed as naivety or idealism but it in all actuality it is misdirected desire for participation. This generation wants to be part of the process but is unsure of how to make a significant impact.
When I discuss this with “current leaders”, I am often asked what meaningful participation looks like. And without fail the answer that is being sought after is something very specific and simple, as if I can define specific metrics or projects that will make the youth feel as if they are being meaningfully engaged. Unfortunately, it is not that easy. While I could make hundreds of recommendations for programs or initiatives that would make youth feel included in the process the real issue is that the process simply does not recognize that youth are an important stakeholder in this discussion.
For example, in the Rio +20 draft text, a recommendation was put forth that the UN should create a “High Commissioners for Future Generations” that would represent the views of the youth and ensure that those views are put forward. The recommendation was part of the pre-conference draft but was removed in the official revision text put forward. Such a position is a specific and tangible example of what meaningful engagement can look like. Why? Because it represents recognition at the very top-level that the youth perspective is important and should be taken seriously. We could put forth a thousand small programs on mentorship, input, or engagement for young people but without a tangible action that shows the youth voice is valued; engagement will never truly be achieved.
Yes, the issues in these negotiations are technical and complex. Yes, the political interactions of nations are difficult and nuanced. Yes, there is a lot at stake and adding more voices to the discussion adds new complications. But give this generation a chance. Put faith in us. Trust that we will do our homework. Trust that we will stay positive and solutions-based in our approach. Assume that we will ask tough questions but know that we will not do this just to be difficult. We will do this to ensure a bright future for ourselves and the many generations that will come after us.