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Climate Change Policy: The urgency, benefits, and practical barriers to involving youth in decision-making

As the threats of climate change continue to exacerbate, so too do the lives of many children worldwide. Despite the detrimental impact of climate change on children, they often find themselves voiceless when climate decisions are being made. Why should children be given a voice, and what are some practical barriers to doing so?

Thien Dao |

Inaction on the climate crisis - a clear violation of children’s right

Today’s definition of children’s rights relies heavily upon the text of the 1989 Treaty on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Ratified by 196 countries, this pivotal treaty emphasizes the obligations of nations to ensure that children are given equitable access to essentials like clean water, healthy food, and a safe and healthy living environment. These rights are fundamental for a child's development and well-being. However, ensuring these rights in the long term necessitates addressing and removing the factors that directly infringe upon these fundamental entitlements

Recent data have shown climate change’s detrimental impact on children’s quality of life. The United Nations reported that two billion people worldwide, a significant number of whom are children, lack access to clean water. Furthermore, approximately half of the earth’s population experiences water scarcity for at least half a year - a number that will only be exacerbated by pollution and climate change. Locally, Chris Schweitzer, head of the New Haven Climate Movement, said recent impacts of wildfires have led to the “forced closure of schools” last June, disrupting children’s education. Moreover, the fact that environmental damage caused by actions such as mining, fossil fuel usage, and deforestation present creates severe disparities, leading to migration, starvation, and health crises, particularly in developing nations where young people make up a large part of the population. Last summer, a UN declaration equating inactions on the climate crisis to violations of fundamental children's rights was recognized by nations in Geneva - a move that speaks sharply to the urgency and importance of tackling the climate crisis.

There are several critical dimensions of this crisis that often remain underemphasized, the first being the importance of acknowledging and addressing intersectionality within youth demographics. Not all youth will be affected equally by climate change. Indigenous youth, youth from the Global South, and youth from impoverished regions are likely to bear the most severe impacts.  Additionally, the disconnect between those in power, typically the older generations, and those most affected, namely the youth. This generational gap is best illustrated by younger Americans, who have been exposed to the effects of global warming at a younger age than their parents and grandparents. A 2018 Gallup study, highlights a "global warming age gap" in attitudes, as just 56% of those 55 and older express concern about global warming, compared to 70% of adults 18 to 34. This difference in level of worry emphasizes how important it is to include the opinions of diverse young people when debating and making choices regarding climate change. This disparity in concern further highlights the critical need for the inclusion of young voices in discussions and decisions about climate actions. These disparities emphasize the importance of including the opinions of diverse young people when debating and making choices regarding climate change. 

The benefits of youth climate policy involvement

Young people, in complete utilization of their right to be politically involved, deserve a seat at the policy-making table. In an interview, Andrew Whelan, Communications Manager of CleanAIR NC, stated, "Young people need to be involved because young people are the ones who will be most affected.” Toni Odom-Kelly, a youth climate activist and intern at the New Haven Climate Movement, shared Whelan's views, stating that "the world is our future." She also cited the age of those in charge as another reason why young people deserve a voice in climate policy-making. "They're older," she said, "and they won't experience climate change, so they might not care so much”. 

Allowing young individuals to participate in climate policy-making is not only ethical, but it’s also advantageous. While only 8 percent of surveyed youth are confident in the world's ability to address climate change quickly, an overwhelming 89 percent believe young people can make a difference. Young people have “new ideas that can bring to the discussion and help us,” said Whelan. Schweitzer also spoke on the energy he has observed coming from young people: “ I’ve been impressed by how much work young people have put in, and how much energy they brought.” As Odom-Kelly notes, this powerful energy not only amplifies young people’s willingness to advance progress but it also recruits more people to speak out on climate issues. “People do not often expect someone so young to be an advocate, so when they see me and my peers, they're kind of inspired and wish that they got into climate advocacy when they were younger, and that's kind of the point. It's never too late, and it's never too early.”

Practical Challenges to Involving Young Individuals 

 While the benefits of youth climate involvement are abundant, practical barriers have been continuously preventing this demographic from getting involved. Whelan cited institutional bias as one factor among many: “Sometimes it’s difficult to make sure that policymakers are committed to involving young people and making sure that they are heard.” Schweitzer pointed to challenges in securing reliable sources of transportation as another barrier to involvement, “thinking about high school students, which is a lot of who I work with, you know, you live with your family, your parents can say where and when you may go places.”

Aside from institutional bias and unreliable modes of transportation, Odom-Kelly, herself a young activist, also highlighted the intense social pressure coming from opponents of climate change as a source of challenge, making it difficult for youth involvement to continue: “there's going to be a lot of people who just don't believe in climate change or tell you otherwise. I've been at events where people were heckling from the background, saying that it's all a lie and that’s their personal beliefs. It’s hard, but if you’re passionate and willing to put yourself out there, no obstacle is too big.” she said. 

What it will take to solve the difficulties of youth climate involvement.

Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach. Eighty-four percent of surveyed young people agreed they need more information to tackle climate change. Citing the need for more climate education in school, Odom-Kelly echoed the same sentiment when asked about possible solutions that could dismantle the aforementioned barriers. “We need education…knowledge is power,” she said, “the better understanding you have, the more you will be able to care.” When asked the same question, Whelan expressed that “it’s going to require commitment from decision-makers to involve young people.”  This commitment involves not only listening to their voices but also actively integrating their perspectives into policy-making. The benefits of youth-led organizations were also cited as crucial incubators of young momentums and ideas. “Going into the New Haven Climate Movement, being in that environment and being around like-minded individuals is so important because it helps you realize and understand that you don't have to be a certain age to have a voice. If you could and know something [is] wrong, you should advocate for it.” Odom-Kelly said. 

Organizations such as the New Haven Climate Movement are making significant strides in addressing climate needs at the local level, while youth-led groups like The Last Generation and Zero Hour are pioneering climate advocacy on national and international fronts. Remarkably, some young activists are leveraging the legal system to champion their cause, as exemplified by the 16 youths in Montana who recently secured a landmark victory in court. This ruling affirmed that the state's failure to protect the environment was a violation of their constitutional rights to a clean and healthful environment, health, safety, dignity, and equal legal protection. These are just some examples that go to underscores the profound impact that youth can have when they are empowered to voice their concerns and take action. The youth are not passively waiting for an invitation to the discussion table; they are proactively claiming their rightful place, asserting their presence and influence with determination and resolve.

The integration of youth in climate decision-making is not just a matter of ethical obligation or a nod to inclusivity. It is a strategic necessity. The unique perspectives, inherent concerns, and innovative ideas of the diverse younger generation are critical components in crafting robust, resilient, and forward-looking climate strategies. As the world grapples with the escalating climate crisis, the voices of the youth must not just be heard but be a driving force in shaping the future.

Writer’s reflection

As the threats of climate change increase, so too are children's risks. Through its many benefits, involving young people in climate decisions makes sense. But until the system makes it easier for them to do so, practical barriers will continue to leave many children voiceless. No words can justifiably capture the immense passion for change I observed from the three interviewees. They care because they know the distressing consequences of not doing so. As concerning as the facts in this piece may be, it only provides a slight glance into a much bigger, more alarming picture. Whether it’s anger, fear, motivation, or other feelings you may have experienced reading this piece, I hope that you channel such feelings into visible, decisive actions. We are in desperate need of structural changes, and it’s dependent upon you and me to do so. 

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