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Young activists are no strangers to climate summits: are we listening?

By Dr Catherine Walker
Young climate activists

As COP28 gets underway, young activists will be both at the fringes and on the centre stage.

Dr Catherine Walker, whose research centres on climate justice and young people, reviews the inclusion of young people at global climate summits and considers to what extent leaders have taken heed of their messages.

The significance of COP28

The twenty-eighth meeting of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) is underway, with representatives of States that are Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) converging on Dubai from 28th November to 10th December.

Despite raised eyebrows regarding the suitability of a venue and chairperson with intimate ties to fossil fuel industries, COP28 is already being marked as significant for other reasons. COP28 will conclude the first global stocktake of progress towards Paris Agreement targets, whilst city leaders from across the world have been invited to the first local climate action summit, signalling support for more decentralised climate action. Much of the discussion will focus on the financing of the loss and damage agreement that emerged from COP27, whereby as a key facet of climate justice, poorer countries will receive investment for climate adaptation.

Against this already crowded backdrop, young people will be front and centre. Youth representatives from around the world have already met to agree a Global Youth Statement on climate justice which conference delegates will receive in advance of the COP. As talks continue, youth delegates will present their own stocktake of progress towards the Paris Agreement, as well as holding a student energy summit and steering intergenerational discussions on peace and climate security.

Considering all of this, it seems fitting that youth have been named the latent force of climate action by conference organisers. So, what can we learn from young people’s sustained calls for action, and will these calls be heeded by world leaders?

Youth leading the way on climate activism

When most people today think of a young person calling powerful leaders to account on climate change, one name will come to mind: Greta Thunberg. But Greta was not the first young person to address a climate summit. In 1992, as the foundations were being laid for the UNFCCC framework at the United Nations ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro, twelve-year-old Canadian activist Severn Cullis-Suzuki took to the stage to address delegates, saying:

“I am here to speak for all generations to come. I am here to speak on behalf of the starving children around the world whose cries go unheard. I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet, because they have nowhere left to go […] All this is happening before our eyes and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions. I’m only a child and I don’t have all the solutions. I don't [and] I want you to realize, neither do you.”

It is sobering to read these words and think that they could be delivered by a young person today. Indeed, there are striking similarities with Greta Thunberg’s equally powerful address delivered almost thirty years later at the inaugural United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, for example:

“For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you're doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight?”

In light of these striking similarities, it is not difficult to see why young people are angry and frustrated at the lack of progress made on climate change in recent years. Away from high profile summits, in research that I conducted in Manchester and Melbourne in 2021-2022, young people shared that climate change was something that they felt they as a generation would have to contend with. As Zara in Manchester said: “You see a lot of young people now, like Greta Thunberg and people, but the generation above us, I feel like they just rely on what we’re going to do. They should take some action as well.” Akos in Melbourne also shared a concern that, if adults didn’t act quickly, “at the end of the day, the youth is going to be the one picking up the pieces.”

Grounds for hope: scientific advances and increasing access

Indeed, it does seem that young people are ‘picking up the pieces’ of climate action. And yet, in this context, at least two grounds for hope can still be found. The first relates to a key difference in the context between Greta Thunberg and Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s speeches quoted above. Whilst both activists lament the lack of action towards solutions, Greta’s reference to solutions being ‘nowhere in sight’ is not the same as Severn’s caution about leaders not having solutions. The 30 years between the speeches have seen an enormous growth in scientific consensus, technological innovation and public awareness about climate change.

The latest round of IPCC reporting states with high confidence that human activity is causing global warming, with countries that have contributed the least to these processes being among the most at risk. Young people and others are using these scientific and technological advances to call for political advances to follow.

A second ground for hope is the increasing access young people have to meaningful spaces at COP summits, and the enthusiasm with which youth have taken up these spaces. YOUNGO, the official children and youth constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was one of a number of nongovernmental constituencies admitted to observe (although not directly participate in) UNFCCC negotiations in 2009. United Nations statistics from 2022 show that YOUNGO was the fourth largest nongovernmental constituency at COP27 (making up 5.4% of attendees), after Environmental NGOs, Researchers and Business. Whilst it is important not to put undue pressure on young people, their place both on the stage and at the fringes of summits gives them a platform to call for what has become a rallying cry of their generation: climate justice.


So, will the COP28 lead to any lasting change, or should it just be dismissed as more ‘blah blah blah’ from world leaders? Crucially, COP summits give young campaigners a platform from which to call leaders to account. Progress may be frustratingly slow, but if young climate activists have not given up hope, then neither should the adults they are calling to action.

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Tags: One Planet, Research Excellence, Sustainable Development, Global