Cover Letter

Illustration by Dhabia AlMansoori

Misusing Greta’s Legacy: Tokenization of the Climate Movement

Amid growing support for climate action, some governments and intergovernmental institutions actively undermine meaningful youth participation in decision making.

Greta Thunberg, in less than a year from starting her “School Strike For Climate”, has become one of the most influential people in the world. Her initiative catalyzed a global climate movement that brought 13 million people to the streets and put increasing pressure on lawmakers to set and achieve ambitious climate goals. However, Greta’s success seems to be correlated with the increased tokenization of the youth, which is a roadblock to meaningful youth participation in decision making.
To be clear, in my opinion, the emergence of Fridays for Future will be seen as a pivotal moment for the climate movement by any future historian, and the world “after Greta” is much better than the world “before Greta.” The young Swedish activist has rallied masses who were not moved by decades of alarm raised by scientists or the advocacy of local and international organizations. For example, in 2019, the Greens increased their number of seats in the European Parliament by 37 percent, thus becoming the fourth largest political group. This change is one of the many signs that point towards a shift in people's priorities and the increased emphasis on putting the climate first.
One of the side effects of the great success of Fridays for Future is the emergence of superstar youth activists. Greta herself is the prime example, but there are also others like Luisa Neubauer and Adelaide Charlier, who were the founding members of strikes in Germany and Belgium respectively. One of the opportunities they have enjoyed since is consulting senior decision makers like Angela Merkel and Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, on their climate goals. Having young people at the table is crucial for ensuring intergenerational equity in climate action, but this has been wildly misused by some governments and intergovernmental organizations.
In order to show their commitment to listening to youth and incorporating their ideas in climate action, an increasing number of institutions at local, national and international scales have started to invite individuals and representatives of youth organizations to dialogues on climate issues. One of the most prominent examples is the UN Secretary-General Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. Unfortunately, such events and councils are likely to undermine the idea of meaningful youth engagement because their participation is often based on arbitrary outreach and appointment by those who do not have the legitimacy to represent the youth.
Firstly, meaningful youth engagement refers to the participation of youth in decision making that is self-organized, legally mandated, well-resourced and accountable. In other words, to be able to effectively act in policy advocacy, young people must have a permanently designated space whose existence and resources are not contingent on agreement with, or support of, those in power.
Secondly, youth should be able to govern themselves autonomously. Independent governance includes mechanisms for nominating representatives of young people by young people. It is always the case that no one else but the given demographic is best positioned to determine who is the right person to represent their interest at a given occasion. In particular, outsiders are unable to understand the dynamics within the group and, by definition, will neglect marginalized communities.
Unfortunately, too many youth climate councils and round tables do not fulfill these criteria. These closed or one-off initiatives are not embedded in the legal system or serve as an accountability mechanism, but are rather only PR stunts.
Thirdly, appointment or selection that is not youth-led should immediately raise a red flag, given the undemocratic character of some institutional bodies and the chronic underrepresentation of youth in democratic institutions. If the selection process is competitive, it further erodes the ability of youth to act effectively because it stirs competition between organizations and individuals who otherwise have the same goal. Truly, it is a “divide and conquer” strategy that breaks up what could be a strong voice representing youth in local, national or international contexts.
The only solution to empower young people requires governments and other institutions to hand over control to the youth. Self-organized and open, yet institutionally recognized, structures are the most legitimate way to represent the interests of youth, and within those structures, youth can select their representatives. Previously quoted UN Major Group for Children and Youth is one example of such a space that has been operating since 1992.
These days, almost every institution, government, company and media outlet wants to have their “climate champions.” The examples I gave in this article are predominantly Eurocentric, but the trend is visible across the world. While this may have begun with good intentions, it is necessary to draw attention to the issue of tokenization. Inviting individuals as speakers and participants to conferences and councils is not problematic in itself, but it is unacceptable to claim them to be “the voice of young people.” No matter how representative a sample of the “climate champions” is — and often, it is not — it will never be able to reflect the complexity of issues faced by over 40 percent of the world's population. It is not easy to create mechanisms for meaningful youth engagement, but it is our responsibility as young people to advocate for them. Especially if we become climate superstars.
Beniamin Strzelecki is a columnist. Email him at
gazelle logo