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Illustration by Emma Kay Tocci

The Role of Youth in the Fight Against Climate Change

A perspective on youth involvement in climate change policy on an international stage.

As the adverse effects of climate change worsen the situation around the world, we are slowly coming to realize that many different approaches to thinking about solving environmental issues exist. Present day issues like climate change encompass various disciplines and require different approaches to solving different problems. Be it the importance of market-based instruments in reducing the emission of greenhouse gases or the importance of trees and technological improvement in sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, problems require individual and tailored solutions. At the same time, given the global and multidisciplinary nature of climate change in particular, we also require solutions with similarly global characteristics. This highlights the importance of international legislation, policy and regulation in tackling climate change.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the most prominent international coalition that designs and regulates international action towards adapting to and mitigating climate change. While UNFCCC has been slow in designing effective and timely action, it also faces a range of difficulties. The diversity in nations’ vulnerability to climate change alongside the need for fossil-fuel induced growth means that countries prioritize climate change policies differently according to their own interests and needs. In particular, there has always been a discrepancy between developing and developed countries in who bears responsibility for combating climate change. There is tension between developing and developed nations due to the fossil-fuel induced industrialization that forms the backbone of most economies. Developed countries are pushing for a balanced narrative to focus on the implications of a continued fossil-fuel led growth by nations such as India and China to the global environment.
The first breakthrough in international climate policy came in the form of the Kyoto Protocol; a binding agreement where developed countries were required to reduce their emissions while developing countries were allowed to pursue economic growth under the theme of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” As countries such as India and China with some of the highest emissions in the world were not subject to emission reduction demands, the agreement slowly died out, its death exacerbated by the withdrawal of developed countries such as Canada. Today, the global movement is shaped by the Paris Agreement — the much anticipated successor of the Kyoto Protocol — which functions with the 197 Parties to the convention announcing and committing to their own climate ambition.
While the youth is often at the forefront of climate activism, it is mostly the older generations that are in the driving seat of international climate policy. However, the youth plays a central role in the movement against climate change for various reasons. Most importantly, the youth of today is the generation that is most likely to experience the global shifts that climate change will bring about in the coming decades. Some estimates suggest that under the current Business As Usual emissions scenario, sea levels can rise by four feet by the year 2100, wiping out entire coastal cities such as Shanghai and New York.
Acknowledging this dissonance, the UNFCCC formally established Youth NGOs as one of the nine constituencies under the UNFCCC process. YOUNGO brings incredible youth organizations from around the world together to work on the global climate movement. Members of YOUNGO not only represent their institution or country in climate negotiations around the world but are also given the opportunity to address high level segments of the negotiations, make submissions, attend workshops and meet with officials of the convention such as the Chairs of the subsidiary bodies as well as the Conference of Parties Presidency. Youth from all around the world as well as youth organizations working on global climate movement are welcome to be part of YOUNGO.
At NYU Abu Dhabi, the Green House SIG is one such youth climate think tank that performs research and advocacy concerning topics related to climate change. Students usually get involved with Green House in their freshman year. With a range of events including Mock Climate Conferences, movie nights, team dinners, guest workshops and panel discussions, students get to increase their understanding of climate policy at a deeper level yet in a fun way. The trademark event of Green House is the annual participation of a select few students in the COP negotiations as part of the youth delegation of the UAE. The students who attend COP generally specialize in a particular theme of interest to them and follow the negotiations that revolve around that theme. Currently, the Green House SIG is seeking collaboration with YOUNGO to increase the network between NYU Abu Dhabi students and other youth organizations serving the global climate movement.
Given the importance of the youth in understanding the policy behind climate change and acknowledging the role they will play in the coming decades, it is imperative for countries to scale up the involvement of the youth in national level policymaking similar to what UNFCCC has done on the international stage. It is perhaps time that the older generation of climate diplomats hand over the baton to the younger generation — or at least mentor them — as they seem to be more driven and passionate about this issue. Until then, climate groups like Green House and other YOUNGO constituencies will remain the highest level of youth involvement in international climate policy.
Rashtra Raj Bhandari and Jessica Molina Abdala are climate columnists. Email them at
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