Tap youthful energies to tackle climate change

The growing sense of urgency about climate change has stirred government and institutions, but activists across the world still need apply their creative energies to keep prodding. Kirsty Schneeberger, Head of Strategic Partnerships at the environmental law charity ClientEarth, looks at the landscape of action, and sees the need for reenergised institutions with a truly intergenerational outlook.

The recent shift in the zeitgeist on climate change – catalysed by the compelling voice of Sir David Attenborough reminding us that the planet is in real peril from human impacts, the powerful call of the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg for politicians to stop prevaricating, the birth of the global Extinction Rebellion movement demanding that politics responds to the urgency of the situation – has opened up an unprecedented opportunity to truly examine what it will take to protect the planet for present and future generations.

Proposing policy changes that are required to respond to the multifarious intergenerational challenges is not entirely new territory for organisations such as the Intergenerational Foundation, whose remit has been to analyse public policy through an intergenerational fairness lens on topics ranging from housing, pensions, social justice, and environmental degradation.

Playing a “watchdog” role in the policy debate, it has provided a much-needed voice to speak up on behalf of those who have typically been underrepresented – the young and yet unborn.

Taking on the environmental issues

More recently, with environmental issues coming to the forefront of the political agenda in the UK, other efforts have been made to engage politicians on the topic and seek to “institutionalise” an intergenerational approach to public policy development and reform.

The House of Lords ad hoc committee on Intergenerational Fairness, established in 2018, reviewed the impact of various issues on different generations. Its report earlier this year developed detailed analysis on topics such as debt, housing costs, working life expectations, and tax; however, somewhat surprisingly, it did not have a dedicated focus on environmental issues – an oversight that left the report lacking in a substantial area that requires urgent policy attention.

The UK-based think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Reserch (IPPR) picked up the baton to respond to the conspicuous gap in analysis and established the “Environmental Justice Commission”. Its remit is to “respond to the challenges facing the UK by setting out an ambitious programme of reform, capable of tackling the dual problems of climate change and wider economic and social injustice.” It aims to deliver a series of short reports over a six-month period culminating in a final report of recommendations to be put to politicians and policy-makers, with the expectation of supporting their efforts in making and amending policy that will promote intergenerational fairness.

Both these examples offer a promising start to the process of embedding into the political psyche the imperative to consider the longer-term and wider-reaching impacts on future generations that law and policy will have.

Short-sightedness in business and finance activities is no longer tolerated by a socially and environmentally conscious Millennial generation who are choosing to wield their purchasing power to support ethical and socially just products and experience. Neither will it be tolerated by the climate-conscious and socially aware electorate who are using their ballot papers to demand that politicians do better on environmental issues.

The recent European elections saw the highest number of Green MEPs ever elected, and in countries such as Australia Green MPs and Senators continue to increase in number, demonstrating that Green issues are no longer fringe, but central to voting constituencies.

The political institutions are learning that they must honour their responsibility to act as representatives for not just today, but tomorrow. That they must not just burn through ecological capital, spiralling ever further into ecological debt, happy to hand on a depleted overdraft to the next generation to deal with.

The power of youth

Politics is changing – but is it changing fast enough? And how can we channel the voice of the younger generations into the heart of politics to bring their leadership and vision to the table?

I saw a meme travelling the social media channels recently that stated “If you do not have a mentor who is under the age of 30 then you are in trouble.”  Essentially, it was communicating a new self-evident truth that is emerging out of the wake of mass environmental and ecological devastation: that the younger generation are not just leaders of tomorrow, they are already the leaders of today. Unencumbered by anarchic and out-of-date thinking they are free to imagine the future as they believe it ought to be.

I recently spoke at a conference that was aptly entitled “Fixing the Future” and the stage played host to young entrepreneurs who are already developing the solutions to tomorrow’s problems.

Through the Fridays for the Future school strikes and their increasing agitation on the lack of political appetite for acting with an urgency commensurate with the problem we face, the younger generation is dedicated and committed to doing what it takes to protect their futures.

Extinction Rebellion has forged in the minds of people all over the world a new sense of what should be expected of our politicians and business leaders, demanding that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

The recent acknowledgement from the OPEC chief that climate activists are “perhaps the greatest threat to our industry going forward” is yet further evidence that activism is creating the space to search for those solutions that we so desperately need to solve the problems we are already facing. 

The combined challenge and opportunity that we are faced with is bringing these younger voices to the heart of decision-making, channelling their energy and creativity into finding the solutions that will benefit all generations.

Bringing creativity (and youth) to the institutions

Committees and reports can integrate these perspectives, but they need to be more than static consultation exercises. Our democracy needs a lively and robust process to nimbly respond to an ever-evolving external context.

The science doesn’t lie. We are living in the anthropogenic epoch and facing the sixth mass extinction. The damage we are creating is unprecedented; the solutions must also come from creativity and openness to finding new ways to deal with this.

We know that Einstein’s wisdom that we cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them is more relevant today than it ever has been. The problem of climate change and environmental degradation will be solved by the unthought, unlearned, unnamed solutions that lurk in the creative ether that is more easily accessed by younger minds. We need to provide the channels to tap into those minds and empower them to play a role in fixing their own futures, by supporting their efforts and endeavours and listening to what they have to say.

An unprecedented opportunity now exists to build institutions that are truly intergenerational in their approach and practice; to bring the younger and creative voices to the heart of decision-making; and create the space for those who will suffer from the worst ravages of climate change to have a fighting chance in protecting, fixing, and creating their futures.

To deny them of this will be to deny them of the ability to grow up into a future that will be about more than just survival. And they need hope that their future will be more than just survival. They deserve a future where they can thrive and flourish.