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Youth activists are now real agents of change at global climate summits

Youth participation at COPs has significantly increased, highlighting their mission for international solidarity and radical demand for cooperation to tackle climate issues

Standing in the middle of the United Nations climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, a young undergraduate student asks to learn more about the conversations that were shaping the negotiations. She’s attending discussions around the global goal on adaptation, one of the many key themes in these latest climate negotiations.

Nearby, young negotiators sit around a table until late in the evening brainstorming for the next day. Outside this building, two young people stand holding signs with slogans that stress the need to “fill the fund” of loss and damage that provides financial assistance to the most climate-vulnerable countries.

While climate negotiators from across the globe and climate scientists gather here in the lead up to 29th Conference of Parties (COP29) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — the next major climate summit happening in Baku, Azerbaijan in November — young activists are pushing for palpable change.

As climate law and politics researchers, we liken this to the “butterfly effect”, a term first coined in the 1960s by meteorological scientists to convey minor changes in the climate system that significantly alter a tornado’s formation and path.

In the 2019 book Butterfly Politics, author Catharine A MacKinnon argues that minor human interventions in law and politics can result in systemic change. She explains that by working together, collective action can trigger significant social and cultural transformations. So fresh debate and discussions with youth activists challenging the status quo can have real legal and political weight especially when more young people speak up and demand that their voices are heard by those in power.

While opening this recent climate conference in Bonn, Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, urged delegates to see their work as an engineering task, stating: “The task now is to put that machinery to work, fully and fairly.”

One key topic on the agenda is establishing a shared funding goal for climate efforts called the new collective quantified goal on climate finance. Others include the preparation of the first progress reports as stipulated by the Paris agreement and planning of new national goals for reducing emissions.

grey room with more than a dozen young people holding climate protest signs, photographer in front of them kneeling down take a pic of them
One of many recent protests at the Bonn climate summit. Maria Nestor, CC BY-ND

We attended this UN climate meeting in Bonn with a group of young people from the University of Leeds and one of us (Susan Ann Samuel) presented the conference with a poster display about empowering eco-anxious youths.

Youth participation at COPs has significantly increased, highlighting their mission for international solidarity and radical demand for cooperation to tackle climate issues.

The presence of youth delegates is usually limited and primarily coordinated by Youngo, a network of children and youth activists set up by the UNFCCC in 2009. However, the attendance of young negotiators is bolstering the butterfly effect — transforming some of these top-level climate conversations. Diverse and engaged young people are adding fresh perspectives to political proceedings.

The importance of the agency of youth, therefore, comes from their global activism, their lawfare — that’s their increased involvement in climate litigation and legal processes — and their rise within the international political process.

Politics plays an important part in making rules to protect the environment for a long time. But they often don’t push hard enough for big changes and things stay the same, which is a problem.

On the other hand, courts can make decisions that look at both past and future actions. They give orders that shape how we should behave moving forward.

International court decisions are important because they set legal rules, even though they mostly deal with specific problems. So, courts help shape environmental laws and can slowly change how people think and value the environment over time.

The influence of youth activists has grown in recent years. The 2015 Paris agreement doesn’t mention “youth” and mentions “children” only once. Only in 2018 did youth activists’ efforts gain significant attention through Greta Thunberg’s global Fridays For Future movement.

All rise

In 2024, the 2015 Juliana v United States lawsuit by 21 youth plaintiffs was eventually dismissed by the ninth circuit court. In the interim, it has inspired an exponential increase in climate litigation by young people. We feel such rise in climate litigation is a promising response to young people’s political marginalisation.

By December 31 2022, around 34 cases were filed by or on behalf of children and youth, largely grounded in human rights, intergenerational justice and equity, public trust doctrine or constitutional rights. The number of cases has skyrocketed since then, with more than 200 new cases annually, proving how the “soft power” of youth is “greening international law”.

In 2019, 27 students from Vanuatu initiated the process that led to the request for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on climate change, gaining support from grassroots youth movements over the course of two years. That’s especially apt for small island nations such as Vanuatu in Oceania and others including Samoa and Mauritius that face rapidly increasing threats of sea level rise and natural hazards.

An advisory opinion is a legal opinion provided by a court or tribunal in response to a request from an authorised body or nation. Advisory opinions are not legally binding, but serve to clarify legal questions and provide guidance.

With three international courts providing advisory opinions (ICJ, the International Tribunal for Law of Sea (ITLOS) and Inter-American Court of Human Rights) in tandem, mutual support in these opinions is highly anticipated by the international legal community. For instance, ITLOS’s advisory opinion, delivered on May 21 2024, just days before the Bonn Conference, supports the ICJ’s upcoming opinion on climate change.

In “lawfare” such as this, where legal trailblazing is challenging political action, the influence of the young activists is strategic and pioneering. The change in conversations by young people is causing transformative systemic change through law and politics. We are noticing that Youngo’s work is helping to make climate action more transparent by connecting the dots between different climate goals and actions.

Young people are also pushing for money to help adapt and become resilient to climate change. On June 7, the Loss and Damage Youth Coalition, which was formed at COP26 in 2021, pushed for the loss and damage fund to work faster.

Around the world, young people want to make climate education and action stronger. With the youth climate champion role now part of COP28 and future COPs, the connection between young people and climate leaders is stronger than ever before.

Through the butterfly effect, the agency of youth will continue to help shape climate action at COP29 in Baku and beyond, so that all generations can make a valid contribution.The Conversation

Susan Ann Samuel, PhD Researcher, School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds and Maria Antonieta Nestor, Research Associate, Lucy Cavendish College & Centre Fellow, Cambridge Centre for Property Law, Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.





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