UN turns to young people for hope and vitality in climate fight

The United Nations hopes the presence of hundreds of young people will motivate governments and corporations to take bold climate action when world leaders meet in New York City for the annual UN General Assembly next week.

On Saturday, one day after thousands of people across the planet hold marches, rallies and strikes to demand an end to the use of fossil fuels, the UN will host its first-ever Youth Climate Summit.

“It makes utter sense that their voice be front and centre going forward now,” says Bill McKibben co-founder of, one of the main organizers of Friday’s Global Climate Strike.

The current generation of young people is the largest in human history, McKibben says. There are an estimated 1.8 billion people aged between 10 and 24.

That should make it harder for leaders to be cynical and obstructionist, “when there are young people saying, ‘guys our lives are on the line,'” McKibben says.

“Older people are at their best when they are thinking about the generations that come after them, when they are actually, really worrying about their children and their grandchildren.”

We’re very creative in developing novel solutions and aren’t afraid to create radical solutions that are completely out of the ordinary.– Brandon Nguyen, Canadian participant

Young people are expected to bring a mix of enthusiasm, innovation, and guilt to the climate discussion that organizers hope will help jolt countries into raising their national pledges when it comes to reducing heat-trapping emissions.

”Basically, we need to duplicate, and in some cases triplicate, what the countries have pledged in Paris to keep the temperature below to 1.5 C,” Luis Alfonso de Alba, the UN special envoy on climate change, said this week.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of, one of the main organizers of Friday’s Global Climate Strike, says the current generation of young people is the largest in human history, making them harder to ignore. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

Young people represent a “powerful force” in the fight to achieve the targets set out in the landmark 2015 agreement, he said.

”They are consumers, they are voters, they are professionals … their own commitments could be quite significant.”

Harjeet Singh, the global lead on climate change with the charity ActionAid International, says he’s not surprised the UN has decided to give “a formal seat at the table” to young people.

“This is where the UN system is finding the most energy and positivity.”

Green ticket winners

The reluctant star of the Youth Climate Summit will undoubtedly be 16-year-old Swedish phenom Greta Thunberg, who started a global movement one year ago when she skipped school to sit in front of the Swedish parliament demanding political leaders do more to protect the environment.

Thunberg will be joined in New York by some 700 young activists, including 100 “climate champions” from around the world who have been awarded so-called green tickets to attend the summit.

The UN has provided them with “fully-funded, carbon-neutral travel to NYC” and about $430 US in per diems to cover food and lodging.

Brandon Nguyen speaks at a Toronto Youth Cabinet conference in 2016. He holds one of Canada’s ‘green tickets’ to the climate events at the United Nations starting Sept. 20, 2019. (TOYouthCabinet)

Pramisha Thapaliya from Nepal felt “honoured, privileged and a huge sense of responsibility” when she was told she’d won a free ticket to the summit.

The 22-year-old holds a degree in agricultural science and hopes one day to become the minister of Forest and Environment in her country.

Read the complete program for the Youth Climate Summit here

“Young people are bold and desperate,” declared Maja Starosta from Poland. “What we can do is push [leaders] with our presence.”

The 25-year-old lawyer develops programs on climate education, sustainable investing and options for shifting to renewable energy jobs. Her wish is to convince fellow lawyers to stop working for fossil fuel industries.

Young see more at stake — poll

“Imagine,” she says, “we could end global warming.”

A majority of teenagers in the U.S. believe global warming is caused by humans and that it will personally hurt them and their generation, the Washington Post reported earlier this week, citing a poll it did with the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Young people have a lot more at stake when it comes to these issues,” says Brandon Nguyen, Canada’s green ticket winner. The 19-year-old university student created a forum to connect high-school environment clubs in Toronto.

He also worked with NGOs to develop curriculums on renewable energy for teachers across Canada. “Collaboration on this scale and backed by the UN is basically unprecedented,” says Nguyen.

He also thinks the youth summit is a no-brainer. “We’re very creative in developing novel solutions and aren’t afraid to create radical solutions that are completely out of the ordinary.”

Komal Kumar plants mangrove seedlings along the shoreline in Suva, Fiji, in September, 2019. Once mature, the trees protect against storms, reduce soil erosion, and absorb large amounts of carbon. Photo credit: (Alliance for Future Generations-Fiji)

Haya Almansoori from the United Arab Emirates admits she’s “not that into sciences” but likes exploring which is what led her to discover a new way to generate electricity using heated sand when she was sixteen and still in high-school.

She plans to give out copies of her research to policymakers and business leaders when she is in New York. The 20-year-old also helped build a greenhouse out of 25,500 plastic water bottles at the American University of Sharjah, north of Dubai, where she is taking international studies.

“It was really fun,” said  Almansoori of  the three-year project.

And yet while some explore alternative solutions, others are quickly running out of options.

Komal Kumar says at least three villages in Fiji have already been relocated to higher ground because of rising sea levels — caused by melting ice sheets and glaciers — while another 435 communities have been identified as being “at risk.”

The 27-year-old has a degree in public health. She’s now doing a master’s with a focus on climate-induced relocation.

“It’s very sad to know that this is actually happening,” says Kumar.

Planned relocation guidelines

People are not just leaving behind the land where their ancestors are buried. Many in the Pacific region also feel like “they’re leaving behind their identity.”

In December, the government of Fiji laid out its Planned Relocation Guidelines. Kumar is looking into the impact the new policy is having on affected populations.

She will join Thunberg and Secretary General Antonio Guterres in delivering opening remarks at the Youth Climate Summit on Saturday.

Commitments put forward by the participants will be presented via video during the opening ceremony of the leaders’ summit on Monday.

Scaled up and replicated

Thunberg and two other young people will take to the stage with the UN secretary general to present climate demands and solutions to world leaders gathered in the General Assembly hall.

The UN says those ideas “which can be scaled up and replicated” will be included in the secretary general’s outcome report.

“Everyone is really looking forward to it,” says Kumar. “Just to point out to the world leaders ‘you know, this is what we want, and this is what you have to do, so you will have to accept it because this is our future that you are talking about, and you don’t have the authority to come over and tell us that … we cannot meet your demands.'”

The leaders’ summit, which will include private sector pledges, is being used as a springboard to 2020, when as many as 30,000 delegates will meet in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of the Parties, known as COP26, and the crucial implementation phase of the Paris Agreement is set to begin.

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