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The effectiveness of youth climate activism

The school strike for climate movement has gained incredible momentum. In August last year, Greta Thunberg sat alone outside Swedish parliament demanding stronger action on global warming. She has since been joined by millions of youth climate activists worldwide. 

The most recent round of strikes began on September 20th, 3 days before the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. Over the course of a week, 7.6 million protesters took to the streets urging leaders at the summit to commit to more sustainable emissions reductions targets. 

A landmark report released by the World Meteorological Organisation during the week of action spelled out how dangerously unambitious current emissions reductions targets were. The report stated that international efforts had to be tripled in order to cap warming at 2C, and increased fivefold to cap warming at 1.5C. This granted legitimacy and gravitas to the demands of protesters. 

In light of the mounting evidence of the dangers of lethargic climate policy, young people have every right to be concerned about their futures. But while many stand in solidarity with youth climate strikers, the movement has faced strident opposition. 

Media outlets have erupted into debates about whether students should miss class to protest, as well as the ethics of “exploit(ing) children for political purposes”. But these debates distract us from the purpose of the climate strikes. From a policy perspective, there’s only one question worth asking: ‘How effective is peaceful youth climate activism at influencing change?’

Let’s start with the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. World leaders acknowledge that the ambitious clean energy targets set at the summit would not have happened without pressure from young people. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, made a point of thanking the youth for “leading the charge and holding my generation accountable.” 

These comments indicate that youth climate activists have been key drivers for governments and corporate entities to step up their clean energy targets. This includes 65 countries committing to net zero emissions by 2050, 70 countries vowing to increase national action by 2020 and over 100 major businesses working to expedite the global transition to a green economy. 

Earlier this year, climate strikers also garnered bilateral support from the UK Parliament to declare a national climate emergency. This resulted in unprecedented victories for green energy usage, such as the UK going two weeks without burning coal for electricity. 

Closer to home we’ve seen youth climate groups directly influence the behaviours of major Australian financiers. In 2017 the Australian Youth Climate Coalition successfully lobbied Australia’s 4 major banks to halt funding to the contentious Adani Coal mine – delaying operations and setting a precedent for other financial institutions to follow. 

These examples are by no means an exhaustive list, but they represent the significant contributions that peaceful climate activism can make towards a sustainable future. 

Praise, though, needs to be tempered with realistic expectations. It’s often the case that climate strikers and youth activists don’t have their demands met. Most notably, at the Climate Action Summit, the world's largest emitters (China, India and the US) refused to come to the table with more ambitious targets. Without significant commitments from these nations, it is highly unlikely that global warming will be kept below 1.5C. 

But this should not undermine the efforts of youth climate activists. Social change takes time, particularly on a global scale. Reluctant governments will inevitably bow to mounting political pressure and compelling market incentives. 

Indeed, we’re already seeing how youth grassroots climate action can influence international trade agreements. French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that young people have “identified the absolute urgency that we (nations at the summit) have to respond.” Macron subsequently announced that France would not enter into trade agreements with countries that have policies counter to the Paris Agreement.

The evidence is clear. Peaceful youth climate activism can be a highly effective driver of policy change. 

Ben Grace is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs


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