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Climate Action and the Role of Youth-Led Activism

Updated: May 12, 2023

Climate change is a long-term problem that will have severe consequences for future generations. Young people, who will live with the impacts of climate change for decades to come, have a strong motivation to take action and demand solutions. The impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and food insecurity, disproportionately affect young people, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities. By taking action on climate change, young people can protect themselves and their communities from these impacts. The existence of the issue is undeniable. It is the seismic impacts of these events, which have quantifiable effects, that cause the younger generations to foster such grave concerns about the future of their environment. This article discusses the examples of young climate activists from around the world while addressing the rich history behind climate action and aims to contribute to the collective response to the issue.

There are many examples of young-led climate activist movements such as Fridays for Future and the Sunrise Movement, which continues to play a crucial role in pushing the Green New Deal. However, young-led activism is not only limited to these examples. For instance, Zero Hour is a youth-led movement that aims to address climate change and environmental injustice. It was founded in 2017 by Jamie Margolin, a high school student in Seattle, and has since grown to include youth activists from around the world. Zero Hour has organized protests, marches, and other events to raise awareness about climate change and advocate for policy changes. Another example is Earth Guardians, which is a youth-led environmental organization founded in 1992 by a then-13-year-old youth named Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. The organization's mission is to empower young people to become environmental leaders and address climate change and other environmental issues. Earth Guardians has organized protests, lawsuits, and other actions to advocate for climate action and has also launched educational programs to teach young people about environmental issues.

These large-scale youth-led movements which originated in Western countries are not the only examples. There are many other responses to the global threat of climate change from all around the world. Licypriya Kangujam, for instance, is a climate activist from India who, since the age of 8, has been advocating for climate action in India and around the world. She has participated in climate strikes and conferences and has been pushing for the Indian government to take stronger action on climate change. Melati Wijsen is another inspiring example who co-founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags, an organization that aims to eliminate single-use plastic bags in Bali. She started her activism at the age of 12 and has been recognized for her work by the United Nations. Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist founded the Africa-based Rise Up Movement to raise awareness about the impact of climate change on Africa and to push for action on the issue. She has been advocating for environmental justice and has been pushing for developed countries to take responsibility for their historical emissions. These are just a few examples of the many young climate activists, who are working to combat climate change and environmental injustice. Climate activism is not a new phenomenon, but the consistent efforts of these individuals and groups, on a local and international level, means that the aging issues continue to be as relevant as ever.

Climate activism has a rich history that spans several decades and has been marked by critical events and movements that have helped shape the modern environmental movement. Beginning with Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book “Silent Spring” in 1962, the movement gained momentum with the first Earth Day in 1970. The establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change further solidified the importance of addressing climate change.

When the history of climate activism is considered, Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring may be regarded as one of the earliest examples documenting the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment and on human health. It became a bestseller and sparked public concern about the widespread use of pesticides in agriculture and other industries. Carson's book was groundbreaking as it challenged the prevailing belief of the time, that pesticides were safe for humans and the environment. Silent Spring played a key role in the development of the modern environmental movement and led to the establishment of new environmental regulations and laws.

In addition to individual efforts, international and domestic institutions hold one of the most crucial roles in tackling climate change through policymaking. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a scientific body established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to provide policymakers with scientific information on climate change, its impacts, and options for adaptation and mitigation. Although these political institutions and bodies seem to be slow compared to the individual steps taken, they play one of the most important roles in creating a collective response against climate change.

Another example is The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which is a global environmental treaty adopted in 1992. The objective of the treaty is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The UNFCCC is overseen by the Conference of the Parties (COP), which is the supreme decision-making body of the Convention. The COP meets annually to review progress made in implementing the Convention and to negotiate and adopt decisions and resolutions on various issues related to climate change. The next COP, COP28, will be held in Dubai. However, again, these conferences have been criticized by activist circles, journalists, and also from the academia, for being ineffective and slow to respond.

Climate activism today is increasing its influence among young people by taking on different forms and spreading day by day. A recent example where soup was thrown on a Van Gogh painting, featured on the agenda and was widely criticized. Although some circles disapproved of such a statement and argue that activist circles are becoming increasingly violent, on the other side of the coin, there are young people who are concerned about their future and want to emphasize the importance of the climate crisis, as being those affected by the problem, not the cause of it. These ‘extreme’ acts are the manifestation of such frustrations by these young activists.

Youth activism is crucial in coping with the possible negative consequences of climate change. Young people can bring a fresh perspective to the issue, tend to have a strong sense of urgency, and are often at the forefront of social and environmental movements. They are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and have a stake in the future, which motivates them to take action and demand solutions. By raising awareness, mobilizing others, and driving change at the local, national, and global levels, young activists can help to create momentum for climate action and push for the systemic changes that are necessary to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change. Their engagement and activism are essential in building a more sustainable and equitable future for all. Taking part in climate action starts with learning more about it. Everyone can be a part of the action, both on the local and on the global level. Just checking the links above and learning more about the local actions taking place within your community can lead you to your very first step of being a part of the global climate movement.

Written by Elif Karaeğemen

Edited by Christine Nanteza


Elif Karaeğemen is a second year Human Rights and Multilevel Governance Masters student at the University of Padova. Obtained an undergraduate degree in Political Science and International Relations from the Izmir University of Economics. Founded the start-up Citizen’s Budget and volunteered at Izmir Refugee Women Council.

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