No to ‘youthwashing’, yes to youth-led climate action

October 4, 2022

What is the meaning of “meaningful youth engagement”?

This is a question I reflected upon as the Philippine delegate to the “Youth4Climate: Powering Action” event last September in New York City. The influence of the youth on addressing the climate crisis grows stronger every year, with voices being heard from the massive strikes on the streets to inside plenary halls and conference rooms.

Governments and businesses are taking notice of this impact the sector can bring to the table. So much so that some of them are now beginning to use the youth as a curtain with which to hide their failures as decision-makers, funders, and implementors of large-scale climate solutions.

For years, the annual climate negotiations have been criticized for “youthwashing”, as if governments and corporations invite young delegates to high-profile events simply to meet a certain quota and receive a boost in their public reputation. 

We have heard politicians keep saying that the youth are the future and that they are listening to the sector’s demands. Yet the lack of urgent and sufficient global climate action to keep up with rising temperatures, along with anecdotes from those who have attended conferences and forums give validity to the following questions.

What happens after a youth delegate from the Global South delivers her speech in front of heads of states, UN officials, and other sectoral leaders? 

Once a position paper developed by a youth delegation has been presented during the negotiations, are their recommendations actually taken seriously? 

Do the organizers of high-level events select the same people from this sector for certain positions and opportunities again and again? 

While the decision text emerging from last year’s Glasgow climate summit (COP26) featured more youth-specific statements than that of previous negotiations (and the leadership of COP26 deserves some credit for it), it is clear that more work needs to be done to achieve meaningful youth engagement across all levels of governance.

This is why holding the Youth4Climate event is important in the advancement of this agenda. A follow-up to last year’s summit in Milan, it provided a space for advocates representing more than 80 nations to share best practices and progress in their respective projects related to adaptation, mitigation, social justice, and other themes. 

Focusing this time on implementation instead of ambition, the event also gave the youth participants a rare opportunity to directly engage with potential project funders from foundations, multilateral institutions, and private entities. The organizers of the event, the UNDP and the Italian Ministry on Ecological Transition, also shared ways forward for establishing more funding opportunities for implementing youth-led climate projects and activities within the next 12 months.

Answering the question

Events like Youth4Climate represent lessons of how to establish meaningful youth engagement. Many such gatherings have been one-time occurrences without any follow-up, resulting in a tokenistic course of action that is both a waste of time and resources and an act of disrespect to the ideas and passion of the youth for global change.

What we, the youth have been clamoring for are concrete ways forward. This year’s Youth4Climate provides a signal that not only are there youth-oriented strategies that would be implemented for climate action, but also that our inputs are being taken seriously by some institutions. Sharing knowledge and power in partnerships is vital for further empowering the youth to enact solutions and influence different aspects of decision-making. 

Bridging the gaps and removing barriers are also important in empowering this sector. In this aspect, the event fell short, as many of our fellow delegates were not able to participate due to travel-related issues influenced by geopolitical factors and technological difficulties. This needs to be remedied in future events to improve inclusivity for advocates, regardless of country of origin.

Ultimately, meaningful youth engagement needs generating results. There must be a commitment by current decision-makers to adopt our contributions into legally-binding documents. These contributions must be enabled and translated into measurable influence on adaptation and mitigation solutions, especially those that benefit the well-being of this sector. 

This year’s Youth4Climate event is a key step forward in further meaningful youth engagement, but it cannot be limited to within this space. Similar steps need to occur in processes under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, within spaces for regional and national governance, and even at the local levels. 

Always remember that youth participation is a human right. As the ones with the most at stake regarding the climate crisis, the youth of today and tomorrow have the right to meaningfully engage in decision-making processes for addressing this threat. The recently-recognized universal right to a healthy environment, along with existing national laws upholding such right, adds more credence to this fact.

So far, we have lived up to our end of the deal. We have been progressive, even radical at times for some activists, on challenging the individuals and systems that started and worsen the climate crisis. We have been maximizing every opportunity available to present our ideas, enforce our solutions, and influence decision-making. 

We do not just expect other leaders to mean what they say and do as they are mandated. It is time for us to demand that they follow our lead. 

John Leo is the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and a member of the interim Secretariat of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas. He is a Filipino representative to events and meetings during the New York City Climate Week last September 2022. He is a climate and environment journalist since 2016.

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