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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Which Path Will the Youth Climate Movement Take?

By Richard Graves, originally posted at

The world is halfway through the process to create a global climate treaty to respond to Global Warming. In the halls around me, government, NGO, and UN negotiators are painstakingly working through the process to create a draft text for this treaty. The last decade has been a period where climate campaigners and negotiators knew where they stood, with the Bush Administration blocking progress, the European Union leading on the UN process, and environmental organizations facing off against the Oil, Gas, and Coal industries. Suddenly everything has changed, with Obama’s election, the EU Climate Package failing, and the Canadians having a parliamentary crisis - a financial crisis dragging down the automobile companies - and newly emergent actors like the youth movement, trade unions, and justice advocates showing up onto the global scene.

Nevertheless, with a financial crisis diverting attention from the climate crisis and backsliding among traditional advocates for strong international climate action - there is a lot of frustration and fear on the behalf of many Non-Governmental Organizations. One of the bright spots of the Poznan climate talks has been the arrival of large and energized youth delegations, including representatives of countries such as India, that have inspired many people here. Yet, despite the ever-growing level of international cooperation there remains two paths that this movement could take - that will have major consequences on the outcome of the global negotiations.

Youth have strengths that they bring to these negotiations, but nothing is stronger than the moral voice and clarity they bring to the often intentionally complicated policy discussions that occur at the UN. Youth also have the potential to move, organize, and act on a speed that is matched only by the sophisticated online organizing outfits, like, that have arisen recently. Young people represent more than the NGO sector and have government delegates, media representatives, youth union reps, and more. They also are willing to call for bold action, develop innovative strategies for advocacy, and have a passion that is palpable to anyone that has spent any time in their presence.

Yvo de Boer, the president of the UNFCCC, in an Inter-generational Inquiry on the role of youth at these negotiations, was asked as to what role young people should play in these talks. He said that too many NGOs have bureaucratized and dropped their banners to put on suits. He said young people must raise the profile of this issue in their home countries, until their governments are forced to listen, if they hope to influence the outcome. For a UN diplomat, it was quite a statement - acknowledged that governments need to be pressured publicly and NGOs were failing to act and remained myopically focused on research, policy expertise, and lobbying meetings.

Yet, it is not entirely clear which path the youth climate movement will take. Many of the delegations represented here have enormous policy teams, drawing students from research universities, that write policy submissions, follow discussions, and lobby delegates. One major proposal, has been for youth to serve as adjunct staff to delegations from Small Island and Developing States that are calling for strong action. Actions often remain rooted in efforts to influence particular policies being debated or discussed. Young people in suits are in abundance everywhere. Will these youth climate activists follow down the path of many NGOs and serve as a next generation of policy analysts, diplomats, and advocates? Will the main focus be on side-events, submissions, interventions, tracking the many ad-hoc working groups, and developing experience with the policy process?

Or will youth climate advocates take another path? Will they develop campaigns that are fearless in their demands, huge in scale, and undertake actions even if it costs them access to delegates or representatives? There are campaigners here, from groups like the Rainforest Action Network (slogan: Environmentalism with Teeth”) that are willing to pick targets and hold people accountable. and youth delegates last year served as the voice of conscience and fought a bruising battle with delegates from Japan, Canada, and USA last year. Will an international youth climate network serve as a secretariat and liaison group with the UN, or will it coordinate a global campaign that targets fossil fuel companies, politicians, and their lobbyists? Can these young people shake the pillars of power and authority with fearless tactics, digital strategy, mass mobilization, and boots on-on-the ground organizing?

Now, before someone accuses me of promoting a false dichotomy or pigeonholing a movement that embraces a diversity of tactics - I understand that any movement needs a diversity of actors, but the question remains of how the effort, energy, genius, and resources of the youth climate movement will be directed.

To read more about the emerging international youth climate movement, goto or


Anonymous said...

well i am happy to see youth participating me.

Teryn Norris said...

Richard, thanks for writing this post. You raise an important question about the role of youth. While I agree with you that young people should be more active in pressuring our leaders on climate solutions, I think it matters a great deal what kind of policy solutions we push. It's not enough to chant "80 by 50" and "green jobs." So it's important that young people have clarity about the policy analysis, especially about the scale of investments we need in clean energy technology development and deployment.

I also think the youth climate movement has ignored a vital segment of the youth population -- scientists and engineers. We've talked about "green jobs" to install solar panels and retrofit buildings, but from what Jesse Jenkins and I have seen, there's been very little focus on the "green jobs" of engineering and laboratory research. We need a generation of innovators even larger than the Sputnik generation, yet we're falling behind in STEM education. Andy Revkin wrote a great post about this yesterday on Dot Earth, “Are Chemists, Engineers on Green Jobs List?

On the college campus level, this means organizing more students to advocate for greater education and research around low-carbon energy technology and science. Instead of asking college students to simply push for campus carbon neutrality, let’s help them push to establish new majors, new professors, and new centers for clean energy innovation. Knowledge creation, education, and research – these are the comparative advantages of our institutions of higher education, and we should be doing everything we can to leverage them for climate solutions.

We also need some sort of "National Energy Education Act" -- modeled after the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which created the human capital necessary to win the space race and launch the world into the information age -- that would provide billions of federal dollars to support the creation of these university research and education centers, to provide undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships in the energy sciences, offer grants for more energy research projects, and fund ARPA-E. Jesse and I proposed an idea like this over the summer in the San Francisco Chronicle and Baltimore Sun (PDF), and Chris Mooney featured it in Mother Jones. I also gave a short interview about it here.

So yes, let’s get more young people to advocate with fearless tactics, but let’s also make sure our generation is prepared for the energy innovation challenge. We’re going to be fighting this war for the rest of our lives -- we’d better have the brains to win it.