Tackling climate change: an intergenerational conversation
Background and Introduction
As part of Unicef UK’s “Global Britain” essay series, we are conscious of the importance and power of the voices of young people, particularly in the global debate about the climate emergency and how Governments, world leaders, and the public should act to ensure that our planet is able to sustain future generations. A combination of the commitment and dynamism of youth and the wisdom and experience of the elder generation can deliver powerful insights and calls to action capable of influencing decision-makes and raising public awareness and action. Hence, we brought together three young climate campaigners, from Southern Africa, the Caribbean and the UK, with the Chair of The Elders, Mary Robinson, for an intergenerational dialogue about climate change. That inspiring and positive conversation is summarised in this contribution to the Global Britain essay Collection.
Nkosi’s journey as a climate activist began 8 years ago when he was just 10. He is motivated by the real daily impacts of climate change that he sees around him in Zimbabwe, particularly the increasingly regular heatwaves, floods and droughts that affect his community near Victoria Falls. Nkosi’s work on climate has included both practical projects and global advocacy. He led the establishment of a biogas plant in his community to provide clean energy, has made videos on waste management and air pollution and has taken part in international meetings with world leaders as a UNICEF Youth Ambassador.
Isabelle, 20, is a member of Unicef UK’s Youth Advisory Board and an advocate for girls’ and children’s rights. Her family is from Kerala in India and her mother was born and brought up in Zambia. Both places have seen the impacts of climate change and Isabelle is very conscious of how the UK contributes to climate change that affects communities in other parts of the world. What happens in the UK drives climate change elsewhere, but can also make a positive difference if we act to tackle the problem.
Priyanka is 14 from Trinidad and Tobago and a UNICEF Youth Advocate for her region. Her commitment to the environment began when she was just 5 or 6 and accelerated when she was 11 after she witnessed the devastating impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria, destroying homes, communities and lives, reinforcing her commitment to stand up against climate change. She writes a regular blog on zero waste living. She says “It’s our right to a safe and healthy environment. And likewise it’s our responsibility to protect it and preserve it.”
Mary Robinson was born in 1944 and admits to coming late to the climate issue. She was President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights until 2002; but only later fully appreciated the link between human rights and climate change. She founded a small NGO, Realising Rights and was Honorary president of Oxfam, where she heard repeatedly about how much harder life was becoming for many communities because of changes in weather patterns. She is especially concerned about the impact of climate change on small island states, indigenous people and women and girls (facing, for example, longer daily journeys for water and firewood). She is also very focused on intergenerational injustice. She says “young climate activists have been telling us we’re not protecting them – we’re not taking our responsibility seriously enough.” The industrialised world built its prosperity on fossil fuels, but we have to wean ourselves off as quickly as possible through a “just transition” that provides new jobs for the communities affected by the transition. And we have not shown enough solidarity with the rest of the world as they seek to take their people out of poverty but can’t follow the fossil fuel route that we benefitted from. Today, as Chair of The Elders, Mary Robinson continues to campaign tirelessly for climate justice.
Mary believes in the power of intergenerational dialogue: “It’s a dialogue where young people are so smart; you’re much more digitally smart than I am. You’ve read the science, you’re engaging with others. I am so amazed by you and your colleagues, talking with the Ministers, asking questions of them. Actually persisting and being very ‘truth to power’ which I like very much. I love this engagement between generations. The Elders are very committed to it.”
Change happens on the ground in communities as well as at the global policy table. Mary told the story of Tony de Brum, the Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, speaking eloquently to world leaders before Paris: “do you want my people to go under, do you want us to no longer be a sovereign country, to have to migrate to somewhere else, and just be a group of people with no country, no identity of our own?” And over and over again. And then we came to Paris and he led a high ambition coalition and the idea was to get the important 1.5 degrees into the text, and that’s what we got – a new goal of staying well below 2 degrees and working for 1.5 degrees but the scientists had never studied this. They’d kind of given up on 1.5 degrees so they were asked by the Paris Agreement – what’s the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees and if we have to stay at 1.5 degrees, what do we have to do?
That was when the scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued that vital report in October 2018 on 1.5 degree warming. It was a special report and in it they said there is a huge difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial standards. At 2 degrees the arctic ice may disappear, the coral reefs will probably disappear, and the permafrost will melt which will throw up not just carbon but also methane, which in the short term is even more lethal. So they said, very clearly, the whole world needs to stay at 1.5 degrees or less and it’s do-able if you have the political will they, but we have to reduce our emissions by 45% by 2030.
Young climate activists have actually made it impossible to have important meetings now without your voice being heard. Young people took Germany to the constitutional court because they were not being protected. The court actually said that Germany is not protecting their future rights, the intergenerational rights of those young people.
I feel eagerness to make the change. It’s up to me, it’s up to the young people. It’s our time to shine, to step up. We feel stronger together because we support each other to fight climate change.
It is inspiring to see World Leaders are now taking action to recognise the efforts of youth advocates. But there is still a long way to go. Even if all existing commitments were met in full, warming would still reach 2.4 degrees. Mary says “we need your voices. We need clarity and directness from young people calling out and making sure we’re held responsible. Because my generation in particular failed the generation after me, which is in power now, and is not meeting its obligations. It’s not fair to put a burden on you as children and young people, but your voice is clear and science based, and it’s really important.”
The young people spoke about their feeling of “climate anxiety”. Isabelle said: “it’s almost like a dark looming cloud over our future. Whenever we think about our future it’s always an aspect of uncertainty. We don’t really know what to expect.” Nkosi explained how his direct experience drives his activism: “I’ve been feeling the pinch of climate change, experiencing it, for real not like in the media, reading the newspaper, but actually seeing it in my own environment and feeling that so much. And that’s why I step up for my environment and speak out because these days you talk of uncertainty and unpredictable weather patterns. These are things that affect my life each and every day and that is what’s driving my advocacy and my passion. I want to end this. I want to contribute so this can end, so that one day we can celebrate and say ‘yes, we did it’. But right now I’m so much concerned. It stresses me a lot, imagining after 15 years what will the environment be if we don’t act today.”
Priyanka added: “There’s definitely the feeling and the emotion of climate change dwelling on the minds of young people. We’re facing it, we’re experiencing it, especially here in the Caribbean. I can see the coral reefs deteriorating and I can see the forest losing its life but definitely more than anxiety I’ve always felt an eagerness. Climate change is happening right now. It’s changing our lives. I feel the eagerness through my advocacy to make the change. It’s up to me, it’s up to the young people in my community. It’s our time to shine, it’s our time to step up, with our elders, our leaders, our governments. We feel stronger together because we have the support of each other to stand up and fight climate change and help our community and our country adapt to climate change.
Mary told a story from her experience of climate conferences from Copenhagen to Cancun to Paris: “when I went to Copenhagen in 2009 I was taken aback at how dry and technical the discussion was. And frankly how male dominated – nothing about human rights, nothing about gender, nothing actually about people. It was all statistics and technical phrases. So the following year, in Cancun, I joined with other women leaders and we decided to form a network of women leaders on gender and climate. They included Ministers of the Environment from different parts of the world, the Heads of UN agencies like UN Women, and UNDP’s Helen Clark and Amina Mohammed, the UN Deputy Secretary General. Because these were Ministers, Heads of delegations, they could really influence policy and we were able to get the gender action plan together with a whole constituency of women who had been trying very hard for years but hadn’t got the power to deliver. But these Ministers knew how important it was to have in their delegations grassroots women, indigenous women, and young women – actually at the table with the other delegates. I heard those voices in the couple of years before Paris and then at Paris itself and since Paris. The compelling moral voice of those frontline workers who know exactly what the problem is, what they’re doing about it, how they’re under-funded, how we need more money for adaptation and it’s very compelling.”
I’m only satisfied if there is a young person in every big meeting. Young people are the world’s most precious natural resource. Involve us - you’ll be getting new ideas
Priyanka says that, while many of her peers understand the challenges of climate change, that doesn’t always translate into action. Even the smallest effort can have a great impact, so she decided to create her blog called “Zero Waste Life” to share practical ideas about how to live sustainably. She also now sells bamboo straws to help reduce waste and raise awareness. She speaks movingly about her experience of the damage caused by floods on her island: “It’s heartbreaking to see the losses and the displacement of families and communities. And many children and young people are denied the opportunity and the right to go to school, to an education when it floods. And they lose everything – their books and school uniforms and clothing”. Rainfall and hurricanes have an adverse impact on agriculture and fisheries and therefore on food security and the island’s dependence on food imports has been further highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic. By reducing waste and planting gardens islanders can eat more healthily, boost the local economy and reduce carbon emissions. Mary pointed out that, globally, a third of food is wasted, so Priyanka’s ideas are important.
Nkosi started an environmental club at his school and has focused on the importance of clean, carbon neutral energy as well as making videos on waste management and air pollution. He has led the establishment of the first biogas plant in his hometown. He says “as young people, we have a power to use for a greater good. I used my right, my freedom of speech, to speak out for my environment. My greatest challenge and my solution was innovation, innovation, innovation.”
Isabelle also sees air pollution as a key issue. She highlighted the recent legal case in which air pollution was ruled to have been a cause in the death of 9 year-old Ella Kissi-Debrahin London. “The Government knows that these illegal levels of air pollution could continue for 10 more years but our targets still fall short of international, World Health Organisation, guidelines.” Climate change affects the most vulnerable first and, in that context, we have to look at climate issues through an intersectional lens. In the UK, racially marginalised communities are disproportionately affected by illegal levels of air pollution and with the rise of Climate related disasters globally, the particular impact on women and girls should not be overlooked. Climate change increases inequalities and the effects on girls include being taken out of school to be married to deal with economic hardship or being at more risk of violence due to migration caused by climate disasters or changes in climate.
Mary picked up the theme of gender and how the pandemic has highlighted the frontline roles played disproportionately by women, and the related impact on them, for example through caring and home schooling responsibilities. She also expanded on the theme of air pollution, which is linked to more than 6.5 million deaths every year, including children affected by indoor air pollution from lack of clean cooking stoves.
Nkosi expanded on the theme of gender in relation to clean energy. Clean energy is safer for women and girls because they don’t need to go to the bush to collect firewood. For Nkosi this is a very personal issue. He says “I love my mother and I love the way she takes care of me and I’m trying for all means every day to make sure she is safe. I think we should channel more funds to making sure that women and girls are very safe from now on. Providing clean energy means there’s no need to fetch firewood, there’s no need to walk for miles, because we’ve got solar water pumps.”
We’re not really thinking globally, and we need to. There hasn’t been enough compassion and empathy for those suffering most because of the climate crisis.
The group discussed the Covid pandemic and how its impact has been so unequal, exacerbating existing inequalities related to race, gender and poverty. Mary highlighted 4 lessons we can learn from Covid: that collective human behaviour can actually make a difference – this also applies in the context of climate – we need to change our behaviour and do it collectively; that Government, and leadership, matters (for example, the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern helped to significantly limit the impact of Covid in New Zealand); that science matters – we all have to listen to the health experts, and we need to be exactly as attentive to the climate scientists, and young climate activists can really push that point very hard; and importantly that Covid has also brought out our compassion –people started to care about those worse off, reaching out with food parcels, with visits to elderly people. They showed more compassion and more empathy. There hasn’t been enough compassion and empathy for those suffering most because of the climate crisis. This offers an opening now that we can try to build on.
Priyanka responded that “at a time like this our world is extremely delicate and now we need inclusion: we need to look at all groups from children and young people with disabilities to women to migrant groups. We’re all facing the same problem: it’s not a problem that one country is facing, or one community is facing. We’re all facing this climate crisis and we must work together to create solutions.”
Isabelle agreed that Covid has increased compassion within our communities, but it has also shown how connected we actually are globally. The same applies to climate. But that sense of compassion and empathy has not extended sufficiently, in either case, to those in other parts of the world. The global distribution of vaccines – who gets vaccines first – has shown how we’re not really thinking globally, and we need to: “we’re not going to make change on a country by country level, we have to really work together.” Isabelle also agreed with the importance of science in both crises: “I think we’re understanding how science can really work for us and how we should all be listening to the science. I think we can take that from Covid to the climate crisis.”
Nkosi says that “I can say that Covid has unified us because we’ve all realised that we’re all humans, we’re not divided.”
When we talk about the post pandemic world, instead of talking about 'building back' better, we should 'build forward with justice, equality and sustainability'.
Mary asked the young people how they think about the positive, better, future, that they will see if we are successful in holding global heating within 1.5 degrees – re-planting trees, rewilding, increasing biodiversity, the places we live in will look much better and we won’t have the dangerous levels of air pollution because the fossil fuels will be greatly reduced.
Isabelle says that, although climate change can be a dark subject, it can also inspire us to think about the benefits of innovation and change. Nkosi spoke about reimagining a future that is more sustainable and more smart. Priyanka often asks herself “what would our world look like if these issues didn’t occur? If we weren’t facing this climate crisis, if pollution didn’t exist”? But to get there we need to take action right now: “as young people, as citizens of the world, we need to understand that if we want to reach that goal by 2030 or 2050, we need to step up and we need to take the action now because if we don’t take the action then those changes will never come, and it will just keep getting worse and worse and worse. We need to change our mindset. It’s all about how we think as consumers, as students, as business owners, as just people living, it’s changing our mindset of living sustainably and moving towards a circular economy.”
Mary argued that this focus on the positive future that we could all see if we achieve greater sustainability is vital in combatting the worries that people often have about the future – when they think about the impact of acting on climate change, they see it as something negative “I’m going to lose something in my life, I’m going to have less”. But we can actually gain so much.
Call to Action
Each participant concluded with a call to action.
Nkosi’s last word was to emphasise the importance of young people being involved in the high-level discussions about climate change that will have such a dramatic effect of their future. “I’m only satisfied if there is a young person in every big meeting. I want to see a young person from the Philippines, I want to see a young person from Africa, all at the decision tables. Young people are the world’s most precious natural resource: we are here, we are smart, we have the solutions. Involve us – you’ll be getting new ideas, new innovative ideas, from different young people”.
Priyanka agrees that world leaders can help by including young people. And for young people themselves – “we need to understand that we are the agents for change. The future belongs to us all and we need to take charge and demand policy changes that will change the way we manufacture, the way we consume, the way we commute, the way we communicate, and the way we just live our lives. As young people we have the power to start the movement to a circular economy.
We are the leaders of the future – we need to protect and preserve our planet. The time has come for young people, as we are the purchasers and the consumers of the future, to participate in redesigning and rethinking products so that there’s less waste and with a goal of no waste at all. And this is my ultimate goal: I would like to see how we can change and create a regenerative economy where there’s no waste in the life cycle of products that we consume”.
Isabelle concluded: “I call on Governments to listen to young people. Think about article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – children have the right to have a voice in all the decisions that affect them. Listen to young people, particularly on the issue of climate change. In the UK 13 million pieces of clothing go into landfill each week. We can really change this throw away culture particularly relating to fast fashion. I think we can shop more sustainably, only buy from brands that really align with our values. We can use our voices, particularly with the power of social media, to really push companies to do better. And also continue pushing on Governments with that same energy: I think we can really make change when we come together.”
Mary concluded by reinforcing all these points and adding a call for a change in the language we use when we talk about the post pandemic world we want to create. Instead of talking about “building back” better, we should move ahead “with a narrative that says build forward with justice, equality and sustainability. We shouldn’t be building back to the gross inequalities in our world that Covid has exposed. We should be building forward, to that world you’ve been talking about. That would be my encouragement to you, and make your voices heard as you’re doing.”
Please note that the views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF UK.