Which Path Will the Youth Climate Movement Take?

The world is halfway through the process to create a global climate treaty to respond to Global Warming. In the halls around me, government, NGO, and UN negotiators are painstakingly working through the process to create a draft text for this treaty. The last decade has been a period where climate campaigners and negotiators knew where they stood, with the Bush Administration blocking progress, the European Union leading on the UN process, and environmental organizations facing off against the Oil, Gas, and Coal industries. Suddenly everything has changed, with Obama’s election, the EU Climate Package failing, and the Canadians having a parliamentary crisis – a financial crisis dragging down the automobile companies – and newly emergent actors like the youth movement, trade unions, and justice advocates showing up onto the global scene.

Nevertheless, with a financial crisis diverting attention from the climate crisis and backsliding among traditional advocates for strong international climate action – there is a lot of frustration and fear on the behalf of many Non-Governmental Organizations. One of the bright spots of the Poznan climate talks has been the arrival of large and energized youth delegations, including representatives of countries such as India, that have inspired many people here. Yet, despite the ever-growing level of international cooperation there remains two paths that this movement could take – that will have major consequences on the outcome of the global negotiations. 

Youth have strengths that they bring to these negotiations, but nothing is stronger than the moral voice and clarity they bring to the often intentionally complicated policy discussions that occur at the UN. Youth also have the potential to move, organize, and act on a speed that is matched only by the sophisticated online organizing outfits, like Avaaz.org, that have arisen recently. Young people represent more than the NGO sector and have government delegates, media representatives, youth union reps, and more. They also are willing to call for bold action, develop innovative strategies for advocacy, and have a passion that is palpable to anyone that has spent any time in their presence.

Yvo de Boer, the president of the UNFCCC,  in an Inter-generational Inquiry on the role of youth at these negotiations, was asked as to what role young people should play in these talks. He said that too many NGOs have bureaucratized and dropped their banners to put on suits. He said young people must raise the profile of this issue in their home countries, until their governments are forced to listen, if they hope to influence the outcome. For a UN diplomat, it was quite a statement – acknowledged that governments need to be pressured publicly and NGOs were failing to act and remained myopically focused on research, policy expertise, and lobbying meetings.

Yet, it is not entirely clear which path the youth climate movement will take. Many of the delegations represented here have enormous policy teams, drawing students from research universities, that write policy submissions, follow discussions, and lobby delegates. One major proposal, has been for youth to serve as adjunct staff to delegations from Small Island and Developing States that are calling for strong action. Actions often remain rooted in efforts to influence particular policies being debated or discussed. Young people in suits are in abundance everywhere. Will these youth climate activists follow down the path of many NGOs and serve as a next generation of policy analysts, diplomats, and advocates? Will the main focus be on side-events, submissions, interventions, tracking the many ad-hoc working groups, and developing experience with the policy process?

Or will youth climate advocates take another path? Will they develop campaigns that are fearless in their demands, huge in scale, and undertake actions even if it costs them access to delegates or representatives? There are campaigners here, from groups like the Rainforest Action Network (slogan: Environmentalism with Teeth”) that are willing to pick targets and hold people accountable. Avaaz.org and youth delegates last year served as the voice of conscience and fought a bruising battle with delegates from Japan, Canada, and USA last year. Will an international youth climate network serve as a secretariat and liaison group with the UN, or will it coordinate a global campaign that targets fossil fuel companies, politicians, and their lobbyists? Can these young people shake the pillars of power and authority with fearless tactics, digital strategy, mass mobilization, and boots on-on-the ground organizing?

Now, before someone accuses me of promoting a false dichotomy or pigeonholing a movement that embraces a diversity of tactics – I understand that any movement needs a diversity of actors, but the question remains of how the effort, energy, genius, and resources of the youth climate movement will be directed.

To read more about the emerging international youth climate movement, goto youthclimate.org or itsgettinghotinhere.org.

10 Responses to “Which Path Will the Youth Climate Movement Take?”

  1. 1 KellyB Dec 7th, 2008 at 1:40 am

    Right on, Richard! You’ve said it well… true that it may not be a dichotomy, but sometimes it’s helpful to look at it that way even briefly to understand the general trend that a movement is tending to go in. Real action is urgent, and it’s gettin’ late!

  2. 2 W Robichaud Dec 7th, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Strange is it not?

    Wiesbadener Kurier, 5 December 2008

    Deutsche Welle, 4 December 2008

    AFP, 4 December 2008

    AFP, 5 December 2008

    The Green Blog, 4 December 2008

    Reuters, 4 December 2008

    Freedom Association, 4 December 2008

    The Daily Telegraph, 5 December 2008

    The Wall Street Journal, 5 December 2008

    The Clamour of the Times, 4 December 2008

    Andrew Hamilton [jahamiltonjr@gmail.com]

    The Times, 4 December 2008

  3. 3 Josh Tulkin Dec 7th, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    I agree that the young people have to remain fearless and unwavering in our convictions, particularly at these talks. We should never sacrifice our principles, and we must resist pressure from those who tell us we are “disrupting progress” through protest.

    That said, I’m proud of the young people who bring our moral views into the board rooms and the negotiating rooms. Sometimes that requires a suit, but it doesn’t mean a person has sold out, and we need to resist the urge to demonize. If I had my way, youth would be leading these meetings inside the conference center and in the streets. There is a place for both in a good strategy.

    That said, we are always at bigger risk of loosing our edge, and that is the tactic we should be most vigilant in protecting. Keep up the great work!

  4. 4 Jesse Jenkins Dec 8th, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Well said Josh. We’ve got to be savvy and skilled enough to work both inside and outside of the building, and we shouldn’t be afraid to bring the same clarity and passion we express in protests and rallies into lobby meetings and negotiations. It’s inside the building that decisions are made, and if we don’t take our place at that table, we’ll be absent when the deal is done. At the same time, we shouldn’t forget our role as a social movement – not just another NGO.

  5. 5 setenergy Dec 8th, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Awesome post and discussion!

    The more we can respect each other (streets respecting suits and suits respecting streets), the better. And if we can coordinate our actions to make maximum impact, we’ll be set for strong progress in the months and years ahead!

    Let’s see what we can do to keep emissions falling in the US and even China even when economic growth recovers (see details of ~2.5% US emissions drop in ’08 at:


    and China electricity generation falling 10+% in November at:



  6. 6 Teryn Norris Dec 11th, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    Richard, thanks for writing this post. You raise an important question about the role of youth. While I agree with you that young people should be more active in pressuring our leaders on climate solutions, I think it matters a great deal what kind of policy solutions we push. It’s not enough to chant “80 by 50″ and “green jobs.” So it’s important that young people have clarity about the policy analysis, especially about the scale of investments we need in clean energy technology development and deployment.

    I also think the youth climate movement has ignored a vital segment of the youth population — scientists and engineers. We’ve talked about “green jobs” to install solar panels and retrofit buildings, but from what Jesse Jenkins and I have seen, there’s been very little focus on the “green jobs” of engineering and laboratory research. We need a generation of innovators even larger than the Sputnik generation, yet we’re falling behind in STEM education. Andy Revkin wrote a great post about this yesterday on Dot Earth, “Are Chemists, Engineers on Green Jobs List?

    On the college campus level, this means organizing more students to advocate for greater education and research around low-carbon energy technology and science. Instead of asking college students to simply push for campus carbon neutrality, let’s help them push to establish new majors, new professors, and new centers for clean energy innovation. Knowledge creation, education, and research – these are the comparative advantages of our institutions of higher education, and we should be doing everything we can to leverage them for climate solutions.

    We also need some sort of “National Energy Education Act” — modeled after the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which created the human capital necessary to win the space race and launch the world into the information age — that would provide billions of federal dollars to support the creation of these university research and education centers, to provide undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships in the energy sciences, offer grants for more energy research projects, and fund ARPA-E. Jesse and I proposed an idea like this over the summer in the San Francisco Chronicle and Baltimore Sun (PDF), and Chris Mooney featured it in Mother Jones. I also gave a short interview about it here.

    So yes, let’s get more young people to advocate with fearless tactics, but let’s also make sure our generation is prepared for the energy innovation challenge. We’re going to be fighting this war for the rest of our lives — we’d better have the brains to win it.

  7. 7 Pangolin Dec 14th, 2008 at 6:39 am

    You’re hurting me here. If you kids knew how much you sound like ’80s college peace groups (who achieved bupkiss) you’d puke. The path that you had better take should be direct action, on the street level where everyone can see you followed by big friendly parties.

    The bike people already know this. Bicycle activism is booming, creating new classes of bicycles and attracting new riders who voluntarily refuse carnage. They do it by being visible and athletic and fun. Hall marching, suit wearing and power-phrased statements of intention reflect more on intentions to leverage careers than get anything done.

    If the youth had any balls at all they would be all over Biochar conversion of urban green waste and conversion to Terra Preta nova gardens in odd places. You’d be raising figs, and prunes and bamboo to plant in median strips to raise awareness of food miles and paper industry deforestation. You’d be building cob shacks for homeless people in full knowledge that they will be torn down just to demonstrate that homes don’t mean 2K sq. ft. for two super-commuters.

    Instead I see lame signs held up for the other conference hoppers before the trip back to the hotel room and the inevitable jet flight home. Losers.

  8. 8 Holly Dec 27th, 2008 at 12:16 am

    Love the article, but I feel like the “youth climate movement” that emerges at gatherings of global governments has chosen its path. Certainly this year’s delegation from Australia were university-educated and upper-middle class; they were not elected by youth on this continent; they did not seek input nor attempt consultation with youth broadly nor the memberships of their organisations; and they did not fund or support Australian Aboriginal youth in attending the Poznan talks.

    So long as this is the make-up and leadership of the “global youth climate movement”, the path is chosen, and it’s not “fearless”

  9. 9 Anna Jan 30th, 2009 at 11:07 am

    As a member of the Australian crew who was at Poznan, I’d like to defend myself and the other Aus youth delegates from the above comment/snark by simply saying that it’s assumptions are largely untrue, and the sentiment behind it is simply divisive and disrespectful.

    I won’t bother retaliating to each of the points raised, as it’s not worth my energy.

    The team of 20 were a diverse group, doing our best to save the climate in whatever way we know how, much like ASEN (Australian Student Environment Network). Each of the team members got a lot out of the experience. We met, learned, and shared perspectives with other activists, of all stripes, from across the world. We are individually taking back our experiences to our respective organisations – including ASEN – and we have learnt how the project could be better organised, more inclusive, and more radical for Copenhagen.

  1. 1 Climate Progress » Blog Archive » Which Path Will the Youth Climate Movement Take? Trackback on Apr 3rd, 2009 at 7:23 pm
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About Richard

Richard, VP, Business Development for Ethical Electric is a veteran of online organizing and online media, clean energy entrepreneurship, and mission-related investing. The founder of Fired Up Media and Editor of It's Getting Hot in Here, he served as VP of Project Finance for Solar Mosaic, the Online Organizer for the Webby-nominated, 17 million person TckTckTck campaign and as an angel investor in and board member to startups, such as Skyline Innovations, Faraday Bicycles, and SumofUs.org. He graduated from the Center for Progressive Leadership's Executive Fellowship and the NextGen Fellowship in Mission Related Investing, as well as Macalester College, where he developed the first student-led Clean Energy Revolving Fund. He also has been known to collect and use cooking equipment from around the world and might just make you something, if you ask nicely.

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