We need youth to have a real seat at the climate table

The European Commission’s proposed €750 billion post-pandemic recovery plan is betting on a growth strategy anchored in the European Green Deal.

Aptly named “Next Generation EU”, the long-term budget promises 100 million new green jobs, massive modernization to infrastructure, and a transition towards a more circular economy.

It is an ambitious answer to the challenges ahead – but for the youth, it doesn’t go far enough.

In an open letter recently co-authored by nearly a dozen youth climate organisations, activists called for a Youth Green Recovery Dialogue that actually invites young people to contribute to the spending programme designed for their future.

They demand a democratic European Union that is fair for all, one that engages with citizens and elevates young voices. The EU’s “Next Generation” fund should rightly belong to them.

This call for the EU to ‘empower young people’ and ‘strengthen the work of youth’ comes in anticipation of the hundredth week of school strikes for the climate. Roughly 700 days have passed since Greta Thunberg stood outside the Swedish Parliament in protest, sparking a global youth movement united in the fight for a net-zero economy and climate justice.

In this time, the world has witnessed the largest climate demonstration in history amid the second-hottest year on record. Cities welcomed a surge of public action and awareness while party delegates conceded in a “disappointing” outcome at COP25. The science has sounded the alarm, while leaders have played it safe. All the while, millions of young people have charged forward, their voices strained from routine resistance drills.

Arguably, young people claim the greatest stake in a future kidnapped by the climate crisis. The glaring scientific evidence – caused by decades of over-consumption – provides only a shallow scope of the burden they will come to bear if drastic measures continue to be pushed aside for another day.

Their futures  are in jeopardy and they know it.

More than anyone, they deserve the opportunity to be seen, heard and taken seriously. It is not only unethical, but moreover it is unproductive to leave them out of the conversation, because young people have so much to bring to the table.

Unlike adults, they are not yet jaded by the realities of multilateralism and the snails-pace of incremental policy change. Their imagination expands beyond the bounds of complex systemic issues, permitting fresh perspectives untainted by the status quo. They benefit in not knowing the impossible, and they have proved themselves capable of cutting through the noise both intellectually and in the public arena. We must do a better job of leveraging these instincts and creating the pathways so that youth can access policy making, decision-making and debate from inside the tent, rather than outside.

Introducing the concept of systems thinking at an early age can prepare young people for this role, so they can recognise the long-term impacts of their consumption patterns, lifestyles and behaviours.

Properly equipped, young people can better participate in meaningful dialogues and cross-generational collaboration.

The Young Innovators programme has developed a European network of local governments, industry partners, learning designers and teachers for the purpose of incorporating systems innovation into the classroom. By teaching competencies such as complex problem-solving and climate innovation, students can learn the right tools to tackle the climate crisis head-on.

As adults in the room, we should support students by offering them the skills they need to become change-makers and lead systemic innovation in the new world, while welcoming them to the table.

For a generation plagued by disenchantment  and climate anxiety, dedicated initiatives like these don’t only offer youth a pathway to awareness and action, they offer us the privilege of hearing what the youth have to say. The question is – are we listening?

The youth can be a pivotal piece of the solution and must be supported every step of the way, not marginalised or demeaned based on their age or voting power. For all our sakes, leaders would be shortsighted to underestimate the potential of young people who are fighting for a future. 

Bram Drijvers is the Young Climathon Manager at EIT Climate-KIC