Creating space for young people to affect climate policy
In a recent conversation at his home, GEF CEO and Chairperson Carlos Manuel Rodríguez heard from members of the Youth and Climate Change Network of Costa Rica about how the climate emergency is impacting young people. International relations student Judith Pereira Vásquez, sustainable development engineering student Dereck Diaz Cortés, and political advocacy coordinator and cartography professional Noelia Molina Montero shared their fears, hopes, and plans for the future.
Here is a transcript of their discussion:
I was in Morocco recently. It’s summer in the northern hemisphere, and they are suffering one of the most intense heat waves in the history of planet Earth. Seven days in the month of July broke the record for the hottest average temperatures on the planet in the last 100,000 years. And I experienced for the first time what it is like to be at 42 degrees Celsius. I was truly shocked. I understood that at 42 degrees it is impossible to live, it is impossible to develop economic activities. It is one thing to read it and another to live it.
What do you as young people in a network that works to promote climate action feel about the way the world is going now? What is missing from climate initiatives? And what are the messages that policymakers and businesspeople need to hear so they can make decisions that will help us mitigate and adapt to climate change?
We are in an extremely complex situation at the international level. You of all people know that. Climate change is already here. Extreme weather events are increasing, and we face so many challenges in our efforts to mitigate it, especially as young people.
We are not only excluded from discussions and barred from actively taking part in decisions, but we also have no avenues for action – we have no spaces. We have had to create our own spaces because we have not been given that opportunity. But we are also trying to gain access to the decision-making spaces, to see how we can have an impact.
And in the meantime, we continue to struggle with the climate crisis, with what our communities and our countries are experiencing, and we do not see the conversation moving in the right direction.
We see there are efforts being made and that gives us hope to a certain extent – the fact there are countries and people trying to change things. Still, we need to increase climate ambition. We need to speed up the talks because the crisis is already underway.
We would like to call on political leaders to address the climate crisis and to include the world’s youth in a more meaningful and participatory way in high-level negotiations – in state meetings and in decision-making spaces – in a way that addresses climate justice, where people, ecosystems, and human rights are placed at the center, and where youth plays an important role.
My colleagues have already touched on a very important issue, which is the need for young people to use this political space, for us to be heard.
I also think it is very important to emphasize that climate change affects everyone in very different ways, depending on where they live. There are regions in our country that are much more affected, with reduced access to water, which affects food, cultivation.
This results in the country’s youth having to migrate to look for economic opportunities so they can help their families and look for ways to solve these issues. This is how migration becomes 'climate migration.' That is a fundamental issue that must be addressed by both national and local governments, and young people should be included in these local government spaces.
If you had the opportunity to talk to a minister of state or a businessman from one of these large companies – electricity producers, food producers, service providers – they would tell you that society has been in a very difficult economic situation since the pandemic and that there is a dichotomy between climate action and post-pandemic economic recovery actions.
What advice would you offer a political decision-maker or a businessperson?
First, listen to the science, because the science has been very clear.
Invest in climate adaptation measures, migrate to green economies and nature-based solutions. That is the key to making the economy sustainable in the future. Fossil fuels may seem like a solution in the short term, but we have to think long-term and understand that the effects of the climate crisis will worsen as the years go by.
So, it is essential that we listen to science and that we start thinking about these transitions to ensure they are fair and will also save the economy.
That’s what will make life as we know it sustainable in the future.
I would echo my colleague: listen to science – and listen to people.
That part is essential, because people know their own needs. We must put people in a position where they can be the protagonists of the projects, programs, and plans that affect them. That is where the goals that we must achieve will come from: from science and from society.
My colleagues have addressed the fundamental points: to incorporate science, understand social structures, to ensure people are able to have an impact, and to help companies and executives to develop a sensitivity about what is happening.
Often, businesspeople look at issues through the lens of privilege. As in, I am not going through this situation, so I cannot see why it is so serious. That is why it is essential to develop this sensitivity in decision-makers and in entrepreneurs.
Thirty percent of voters are young people. They are the ones who elect a president, or a government, or deputies. And according to surveys, 78 percent of young people consider climate change an important and relevant issue.
If this is the case, why don’t politicians heed the aspirations of the 30% of their electorate and take concrete action on climate?
At the end of the day, young people under 30 are the ones who determine the result of an election. And yet in many countries where we work, the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss are not central to political campaigns.
What are your thoughts on this reality?
First of all, it is a reminder that we young people have a very, very great power. But perhaps not all of us have realized it.
We need to think hard about that privilege and the fact that we are such a strong base of voters. If we are the ones who can put them in decision-making positions, then they should in fairness respond to our demands.
It is also important to involve civil society in advocacy and political processes so we can make the most of the force for change that young people have the potential to become. Organized groups must be given spaces and funding so they can grow and reach other young people and thus be able to have an impact.
That is how we will achieve this reciprocity of, “We put you in decision-making positions. Now we expect concrete actions to address the climate crisis, which is one of the most critical issues affecting us at the moment.”
We need to break down the barrier of adult-centrism, which basically excludes the vision of youth. That is where our responsibility comes in. Young people should approach their role as a source of political influence in an active and responsible way.
If we manage to break the barrier of adult-centrism, young people must actively work to become the voice of the present and a bridge to future generations.
These spaces you are giving us are very important. The best way for us to reach more adults is through your voice.
I think often the issue of adult-centricity limits us. But having access through people like you gives young people a light we can use to illuminate issues of climate action and climate justice for more people, because this is not just an issue for youth, but also for children.
When I hear you emphasize the urgency of the climate crisis, and then I hear businesspeople and politicians, who don’t talk, act, or make decisions based on the clear perception you have that we are living in a climate crisis, it seems to me that two totally different languages are being spoken.
One, the language of young people, where they talk about the climate crisis, and the other the language of adults, who do not internalize this fact and do not mirror it.
So, I would like to know why you think there is no common language in our societies about the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity.
I believe we have to enter into a process of unlearning and we need more adult allies like you on this issue, Mr. Carlos Manuel.
We need to unlearn everything built in the past, back when we believed resources were inexhaustible and could be exploited without repercussions. We could see the enormous wealth that could be extracted and produced, but we did not see everything that would generate, or the negative effects that would have on the population.
So, as Noelia was saying, we have to enter into a process of sensitization. We need to unlearn all that and start to listen to what is happening now, to see the projections and future scenarios and listen to the people about what is happening.
We have to find that common language and, above all, the similarities we share between generations, because while the intergenerational gap can seem very wide, I think together we can find even more similarities.
We definitely need to approach the issue with more sensitivity, and we must remove economic interests from political spheres.
While it is true that the planet has the capacity to meet the needs of all the people on the planet, it does not have the capacity to satisfy the greed of the people.
So, addressing the climate crisis issue with sensitivity and empathy is what is needed to achieve these synergies between politics and young people.
Governments are elected roughly every four years, and have quite well-defined structures. I believe that we as civil society should become much better-informed. We need to understand those to whom our votes are directed, and if a party aligns with our thinking – if it supports the work that has been done over time to protect biodiversity and natural resources.
I believe it is a fundamental necessity for us as a society to inform ourselves, to know where our votes are going, and to demand that governments continue with the projects that have been carried out, many very successfully. And we need to be aware if for some reason they become limited, or economic interests lead them to support other activities.
We must demand this of ourselves as a society: to become better-informed on politics. We often see resistance to engagement on political topics. But if we are not immersed in these issues, we are not going to be heard. Nor will we be able to generate change.
Thank you to everyone. For us at the GEF, it is very important to be able to gather input that has to do with information, science, and with political space and decision-making for civil society, particularly for young people. The question of intergenerational responsibility is very interesting, but what does it mean in concrete terms?
For me, intergenerational responsibility requires that young people have a say in climate decisions. And yet the multilateral system is far from generating that opportunity. There is also the endless drive for unlimited economic growth and gigantic patrimonies, when we can live with dignity and happiness with only the basics. I also must stress the important political responsibility the world’s young have, which is not currently manifested. As 30 percent of the electorate, young people should be able to tip the balance in deciding who governs us. And yet it seems we are not yet there.
These issues are all very important to the GEF. If we want be more effective in the countries where we work, and at the global level, in the implementation of the Paris Agreement and other environmental accords, we need to understand how we can truly move the needle towards sustainability. Because the truth is that, although we have achieved important results in our 30 years of working with governments, we are not changing the system – the global system. I believe that the perspectives and participation of civil society, especially young people, in the process gives us an opportunity.
Within this context, I would like to hear what you think the GEF should be doing to engage young people. Because even though I am its head, I feel that the GEF is inaccessible to young people and that there is a lot more we could do to change that. So, any advice you can give the GEF would be most welcome.
The first thing to understand is that the world’s youth are not homogeneous. We are very diverse. Under the heading of youth, we must include women's groups, people of African descent, and Indigenous Peoples. So, in opening the door to youth, we must open the door to a very, very diverse part of civil society, to gather many voices.
We are not only people who happen to be a certain age, we are multidisciplinary groups, young professionals, people who live the consequences of climate change. Involving us means consolidating all these visions.
Our advice to the GEF is this: the closer you get to young people, the more effectively you will be able to change direction, map out routes, and make plans. So, it is crucial to consult young people. We are completely willing to collaborate because we appreciate having access to these vital places where our voices can be heard in a real and effective way, and where we play a real part in decision-making so that no decision made 'for us' is made without us.
I would like to add to my colleague’s comments by suggesting that the GEF could perhaps create a youth committee or council whose purpose is not just to provide knowledge and training, but to contribute to GEF decisions made for civil society.
We have always heard this saying that children and youth are the future. But we shouldn’t be guided by such a cliché phrase. We are suffering the impact of climate change right now. Incorporating the needs and voices of youth and children is the key to maintaining this planet and ensuring quality of life to as many groups of people as possible.
Thank you very much to Judith, Dereck, and Noelia for this opportunity to exchange opinions and impressions about the role and responsibilities not only of young people in society, but also – and very importantly – of the GEF in the future. I hope the GEF will move in this direction and that, in the near future, it will become a source of financing for the needs of young people.
I am going to say that again, and very clearly: a source of financing, because that is what is required. We need to finance your participation in international events, in the COPs, in the negotiations. We need to finance the development of more civil society and youth capacity, and this will not be possible if there is no clear understanding.
So, to all of you, I say good afternoon and thank you very much