Our Burning Planet

THE YOUNG COP ON OP-ED

The leaders of tomorrow are speaking up today on the climate crisis, and we must heed their calls

The leaders of tomorrow are speaking up today on the climate crisis, and we must heed their calls
Young South Africans take part in the Global Climate Strike outside Parliament in Cape Town on 15 March 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Nic Bothma)

Recently, climate activism has been characterised by the involvement and leadership of young people, and for good reason. While the immediate effects of climate change are already visible, our future world will bear the brunt of the climate crisis. It is against this backdrop that the leaders of tomorrow are choosing to speak up today, and it’s time we started to heed their calls.

‘There are so many misconceptions about youth nowadays. We are capable of doing so much more and what we want is climate action.” These are the words of a young South African female voice included in the Global Youth Letter on Climate Action, South Africa.

The city of Glasgow in Scotland has just hosted the 26th iteration of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, where the agenda was largely focused on the future, with its broad priorities being climate ambition, building resilience and lowering emissions.

Recently, climate activism has been characterised by the involvement and leadership of young people, and for good reason. While the immediate effects of climate change are already visible, such as the increased regularity of extreme weather conditions and incidence of drought, its long-term impacts – rising ocean levels and temperatures, the loss of animal and plant species and greater health risks due to changing weather patterns – all indicate that our future world will bear the brunt of the climate crisis. It is against this backdrop that the leaders of tomorrow are choosing to speak up today and it’s time that we started to heed their calls.

The Global Youth Letter on Climate Action is a call for action developed by the British Council to amplify the voices of the young on the climate crisis, ensuring that their collective views, experiences and aspirations were delivered to the stakeholders at COP26.

Between January and March 2021, the British Council, in collaboration with non-profit social enterprise Catalyst in Communities, collated the thoughts and sentiments of more than 8,000 people aged between 18 and 35 across 23 countries, including South Africa, on the climate debate. The priority was to produce research that was inclusive and as representative as possible in terms of gender, background, location and socioeconomic status. The insights were collected in rural and urban settings, from the educated and the unemployed, and from those in the mainstream and others on the periphery.

The report’s insights make it abundantly clear that young people grasp and appreciate the gravity that the climate crisis presents. The data found that about 94% of young South Africans believe climate change is among the greatest threats to the country’s future prosperity. “We are the future, and if we want to see the future, we need to keep the environment safe, also for the next generations,” reads the contribution of one unemployed South African youngster.

Education plays a pivotal role in climate activism. While some may be well versed or loosely familiar with the concept of climate change, in reality, the research found, close to 80% of young South Africans had never attended nor participated in a climate change awareness session. “Focus attention on important issues such as clean water and the planting of trees, as well as educational programmes to bring about awareness of climate change issues,” was the view of another South African.

Education also enables us to better discern fact from fiction. A common rebuttal levelled against climate activism is that a drive towards a more sustainable future will result in job losses. This is a false equivalency. We cannot afford to live in a prosperous society at the expense of our environment. The green economy is a reality and it offers a sustainable development path for all countries, including emerging economies. If supported by localised, practical and implementable action, it can form the basis of a forward-thinking and efficient society.

In South Africa, key targets include developing zero-waste community programmes, promoting resource conservation and management, and greater investment into clean energy sources in rural and urban settings.

Beyond delivering a memorandum of demands to the COP26 attendees, the goal of the Global Youth Letter on Climate Action is to position young people at the centre of meaningful dialogue and use their vibrancy as a catalyst to bring about real change. The council invites young people to join this initiative by adding their voice to the 8,000 Rising Campaign.

These initiatives form part of a larger programme called The Climate Connection. This is a global platform for dialogue, cooperation and action, connecting millions of people through shared solutions to the climate crisis. The inconvenient truth is, there is no Planet B that we have as a contingency; we must address the climate issues we face with the urgency and vigour they require.

Young people are fully aware that now is the time to act, as expressed by one unemployed South African woman who added her voice to the Global Youth Letter: “Elevating the voices of young people to protect the future of our planet is key. We are the last generation that can end climate change. We can and we will.”

Let us not impede them. DM

Susana Galván is the British Council’s Country Director for South Africa and Namibia. The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities.

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