Making a difference: Intergenerational solidarity and youth engagement in climate action

February 21, 2023

Youth are a key stakeholder group that will be fundamentally impacted by the results of today’s decisions and the success or failure of actions to address climate change, conserve the environment, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Youth are almost 16% of the world's total population, with the highest number of youth in South and Central Asia. This large youth population presents a powerful resource and can help to accelerate climate action across different sectors and areas in countries like Sri Lanka. The engagement of young people on the local, national, international, and individual level will be decisive when it comes to shaping the future and finding innovative and transformative solutions to climate change and the other global challenges outlined above. 

Youth inclusion in climate-related processes

The 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which was an output of the United Nations “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, explicitly refers to the “developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations” (principle 3) as well as the need to mobilize “the creativity, ideals, and courage of the youth of the world” to “achieve sustainable development and ensure a better future for all” (principle 21).

The engagement of youth as part of society and as important actors has been included both in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (article 6) and the 2015 Paris Agreement (article 12). Work related to both of these articles is covered under the term of Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE), which has the overarching goal to empower all relevant stakeholders including youth to engage in climate action through education, training, public participation, public awareness, public access to information, and international cooperation. Furthermore, youth are also represented in the UNFCCC negotiations and other UN events related to climate change through an official youth constituency, youth delegates, youth envoys, and the Conference of Youth taking place in conjunction with the annual global climate change conferences.

The inclusion of youth in global agendas, which also includes the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the Convention on Biological Diversity, sends a powerful signal on the importance of youth as both stakeholders and change agents. There can be no solution to the crises facing the world today without looking at the younger generations who will take over as the decision-makers of tomorrow.

Intergenerational solidarity to enhance youth engagement

According to surveys and collected data, youth are often interested in engaging in climate action. However, many feel that they do not have sufficient time, knowledge, or skills to do so. Furthermore, they often find themselves faced with challenges, barriers, and constraints that can make it harder to start participating in climate action. For example, young people might not have access to all relevant information or decision-making processes; they might be constrained by limited resources and unreliable or short-term funding; they might lack awareness of different institutions, events, or processes; or they might be directly impacted by climate change in the form of reduced family income, livelihood loss, extreme weather events, or food insecurity.

Intergenerational solidarity and the creation of an enabling environment for youth-led action plays a key role in overcoming these challenges and allowing youth to reach their full potential. There are many possible activities that youth can be involved in—for example, awareness creation, capacity-building, outreach to local communities, advocacy, social media campaigns, environmental stewardship, climate-smart agriculture initiatives, creating networks, engaging in national and global processes, research projects, or climate-friendly entrepreneurship—, and many ways in which older generations can support them.

One such way is making structural changes, such as to the education sector. Through education reforms and embedding adaptation into school curricula, youth can gain core competencies, specialized knowledge, skills, and a voice as well as a sense of ownership of their actions. In addition, youth-specific challenges and considerations should be mainstreamed into policy and planning processes, and youth should have the ability to provide inputs and feedback as a key stakeholder group.

A second way could be direct exchange between generations in the form of stipends and mentorship programmes, opportunities for intern- and apprenticeships, open access to research and knowledge, and stronger intergenerational communication and exchange. Youth today find themselves in a rapidly changing world, but they can still learn from previous experiences, good practices, or success stories, for example through context-specific training courses or codified local and traditional knowledge. In return, youth can offer new perspectives and innovative ideas that can open new pathways for transformative change.

Thirdly, youth require financial support and youth-specific funding opportunities as well as logistical support, meeting and (co-)working spaces, technical assistance, and the ability to rent or otherwise access equipment. Youth-led organizations often lack access to reliable and sustained funding that would be necessary to implement mid- to long-term projects, which is especially important for areas of climate action and ecosystem conservation. This can also include proposal-writing workshops, provision of small grants specifically for youth, experts and practitioners volunteering some of their time, or capacity-building on how to handle the financial and administrative components of project management.

Climate change is a global challenge that affects the whole of society and needs to be addressed by the whole of society, including youth. Through solidarity and cooperation between present and future generations, countries and communities can unlock synergies and accelerate action to mitigate emissions, adapt to the impacts of climate change, and preserve the wealth of natural biodiversity and environmental resources while pursuing a pathway of innovation and sustainable development.

This blog post was originally published as a guest column in Daily Financial Times on August 20th, 2022, and is available here.

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About the Author
Dennis Mombauer

Dennis has close to a decade of experience working in research, and management and administration in the private sector as well as two years in coordination in the development sector. His research focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation, sustainable development, climate migration, and other topics related to climate change. He has published articles about these topics in numerous places, for example Earth Island Journal, Mongabay, The Environmental Blog, Daily FT, and Colombo Telegraph. He holds degrees in Education, English Studies, and Philosophy from the University of Cologne, Germany, and has additional qualifications in GIS mapping, video editing, translation, and publishing. ‍