OPINION: Young people must have a say on climate adaptation

by Ban Ki-moon and Patrick Verkooijen | @PVV_GCA | Global Center on Adaptation
Thursday, 12 August 2021 09:45 GMT

Young people hold banners during a protest march to call for action against climate change, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Vienna, Austria, June 26, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

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We need to give young people the means to build a climate-resilient future, write Ban Ki-moon and Patrick Verkooijen

Ban Ki-moon was 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations and Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation

“At the end of the day, I had nothing. I did not harvest because of the floods; my crops were washed away.”  

These words, spoken by a young farmer in Malawi, speak not only to the grim reality of climate change, but to how the world’s youth are shouldering the brunt of the unfolding climate crisis. The farmer, Alinafe Nazombe, is only 23 years old.

Her voice and that of millions like her across Africa still struggle to be heard on the effects of climate change at a time when many of us are probably more familiar with the youth activism in the developed world of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager, and others.

Youth from developing countries already grapple with poor education and health services, low incomes and few opportunities to get ahead. On top of that they disproportionately bear most of the illnesses, injuries and deaths attributable to climate change worldwide.

Transformational potential

Yet at the same time, young people – tomorrow’s stewards of planet earth – have a critical role to play in creating a climate-resilient and low-carbon future. Those aged between 15 and 24 years currently account for 1.2 billion, or 16 percent, of the global population. The world they live in will be shaped by the decisions taken today. It makes sense to involve them now as we draw up solutions – not only because they will live with the consequences of global warming that is already baked into our planetary system, but also because young people can bring fresh thinking and energy to current adaptation work.

So how do we get more young people involved in decision-making and, crucially, how can we channel more resources for their specific climate-adaptation needs?

In our recent report Young People and Drivers and Barriers to Climate Adaptation Action, we study youth engagement in climate-adaptation action and opportunities for enhancing it. Our work included surveying thousands of young people in Asia and Africa – two of the hardest-hit regions of the world when it comes to climate disasters. Alinafe, the young farmer from Malawi, was one of the people we interviewed. She described the devastating effect of Cyclone Idai in 2019, which caused catastrophic damage and a humanitarian crisis in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, leaving more than 1,300 people dead and many more missing.

What we learnt was that, when young people are given the opportunity to understand climate adaptation, they get it. They get the cost of inaction and they get the positive payoffs from action – and they engage.

And engaging them is vital, given the mountain we need to climb to meet adaptation challenges.

Building on success

Young people around the world are increasingly demanding climate justice and are already playing a significant role in how countries, communities and businesses respond to the impacts of climate change. It’s therefore vital now to provide youth with an enabling environment to bring their voices to the table, to draw them into the discussion and support their ideas and actions, particularly in regions where youth participation in political processes may be constrained.

The Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) is calling for a decade of action to prepare younger generations for the transition toward green and climate-resilient development. Among measures countries should take, a few stand out: more inclusive national policies; directing local and regional authorities to involve young people in the design of locally led adaptation plans; ensuring comprehensive climate adaptation and resilience training that’s integrated into curriculums at all levels of formal education; and boosting job creation for youth through paid internships, new job streams in adaptation and partnerships with the private sector.

Empowering youth in Africa has particular urgency, given that its population is the youngest in the world. It is they who will have to cope with the effects of rising temperatures, more extreme cyclones, and more frequent droughts and flooding. If young farmers like Alinafe are to have a future, they need the knowledge and resources to adapt to climate change. This means giving her access to drought-resistant corn, better weather data, credit and farm insurance, new sources of income.   

For this to happen, funding for climate adaptation needs to increase five- to tenfold to meet the needs in developing countries alone, estimated at between US$140 and US$300 billion per year by 2030.

As we head to COP26 in Glasgow in November, it’s vital that youth are not reduced to passive victims at the receiving end of climate impacts. They have a critical role in transforming our societies to a climate-resilient and low-carbon future. Climate change is a problem for all of us – but that also means we can all act.

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