Encouraging young voices in the climate justice conversation

Jasmine Huggins | December 21, 2018

It’s the end of another year. We are readying ourselves for holiday festivities, celebrations with family and friends and much needed downtime.

This is a good time to reflect about the state we are in. As far as governmental action on climate is concerned, it’s not good. In mid-October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its most alarming report yet. If we continue our current, dangerous trajectory, they say, the earth will likely warm by another half a degree between 2032 and 2050. But other expert climate scientists not associated with the IPCC warn that positive feedback loops (as the earth warms, ice melts, causing more of the sun’s rays to directly hit the earth, leading to more warming, to name one) already present in the climate system could unleash unpredictable climactic shocks as early as the next 12 years. Urgently scaling up action on mitigation, they say, must be humanity’s priority, and on everyone’s personal bucket list.

None of the major industrialized countries have yet crafted ambitious enough national plans to reduce their carbon emissions and stabilize the earth’s temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius. Scientists say that this is necessary in order to mitigate the most damaging effects of climate change: permanent loss of ecosystems, marine diversity and fisheries; increase in the number of extremely hot days, especially in tropical countries, also often the poorest, higher risks of drought, extreme rainfall, particularly associated with frequent storms; melting glaciers that cause sea levels to rise, putting all coastal areas and islands at risk. Mitigation and damage control, they say, we still have time for, but we have run out of time to eliminate all climate risk. As we can already see – from sinking islands in the Pacific and flooding in Florida – some of their predictions are tragically being fulfilled.

Regrettably, we are not there yet – not even close. Globally, carbon emissions rose by an estimated 2 percent in 2018 to the highest levels in recorded history. Just this past weekend, in Katowice, Poland, the latest conference of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change listened carefully to the concerns of poorer countries and agreed a common Rule Book by which countries will implement their Paris pledges. But they failed to increase commitments for climate funding or raise governmental pledges on mitigation, while only grudgingly “noting” conclusions of a report they have themselves commissioned.

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions also rose again in 2018. And the Trump Administration, too, downplayed its own report, which concluded that climate change could cost the U.S. economy $1 trillion and one tenth of U.S. GDP by the end of the century. Other U.S.-based experts estimate that the cumulative cost of climate and weather-related damages since 1980 has risen to $1.5 trillion. By October this year, Americans had endured 11 weather- and climate-related disaster events, each costing more than $1 billion.

Of course, there was also some good news: new representatives were elected to the House during the mid-term elections who are committed to Congressional action on climate, including scaled-up solutions for green jobs, investments in renewable energy, just transitions and scaled-up mitigation targets. More women and ethnic minority representatives have been elected, representing communities disproportionately affected by the consequences rising temperatures. While encouraging, these measures will have to overcome unremitting Republican opposition to be passed into legislation.

This process will take time, and stall the Congressional action needed commensurate with our monumental global challenge.

Time which science increasingly is telling us we don’t have.

How interesting it is, then, that the new demographic that increasingly grasps the magnitude of our collective climate emergency is not the one that has the least time left on planet earth, but the one who has the most. This year saw emergence of a movement of youthful, teenage, and even preteen activists in the United States and all around the world, and for me it was this year’s most inspiring news.

These young people have swiftly and radically positioned themselves to challenge political leaders and demand action. Tech savvy, well informed and empowered by social media, they have organized themselves, mobilized across countries and continents, acquired funding, built campaigns and are directly challenging legal and political authorities everywhere.

Diverse in person and ethnic origin, gender identity and forms of expression, they are as young as 8. Theirs is a vision for a fully inclusive, culturally plural world, in which all have rights and a voice. Committed to peaceful action and attracted to civil action, they are calling for swift political action on a range of issues on which there has been too little policy change: gun violence and the need for controls; the right to clean water; the right to clean air and a healthy environment; indigenous rights, the end of limiting and harmful binary descriptions of gender identity and sexual orientation; sexism, racial prejudice and discrimination. And climate change.

In the United States, young people are suing the states of Washington, Colorado and Oregon. Swedish 15-year-old Greta Thunberg just addressed the UNFCCC Conference in Poland. In Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands, young people are using the judicial system to argue that their countries’ inaction on climate mitigation is a violation of their constitutional and human rights. Starting in the United Kingdom and now spreading across Europe, young people are staging school strikes to build awareness about government’s responsibilities. In Colombia, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of young people when they argued that the deforestation of the Amazon threatened their right to life. Similar cases exist in India as well as Pakistan where a then 7-year-old girl sued her government for the impact upon her of environmental destruction.

This July, CWS welcomed This Is Zero Hour, a youth-inspired public action campaign started by Jamie Margolin. The young people marched on the streets of Washington and are now asking Congressional leaders to pledge refusing political funding from fossil fuel companies, Jamie said.

Our global climate emergency needs this young movement, with all its energy and resolve. Mostly, we need their lack of cynicism, their dogged belief that systems, institutions, hearts and minds can be changed quickly enough to prevent yet further damage. Our team at CWS will do whatever we can to promote the activism of young people. If they continue to speak out, on balance our overall state of affairs will be tipped in favor of “good.”

Jasmine Huggins is the Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer at CWS.