A rising youth movement picks up where governments have failed

The youth movement is diverse and contains many political currents, but above all it is an expression of positive action, hope for the future, and readiness for far-reaching change.

SOURCEInterPress Service
Image credit: UN Photo/Kim Haughton

When the Youth Climate Summit concluded last week, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres predicted that if governments still lack the political will to make peace with nature, “there is huge hope in what the youth is doing all over the world”.

“And the youth is clearly telling my generation that we need to change course and that we need to do it now. And it is saying it in a very strong way,” declared Guterres, even as he warned of impending droughts, floods, hurricanes, and heatwaves triggered by climate change which has already displaced millions and killed thousands worldwide.

The rise of a new generation determined to lead the fight against climate emergency has led to a major youth movement worldwide, resulting in protest marches, with thousands of young people demonstrating in the streets of New York and in several world capitals.

And Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s pointed question at world leaders– “How dare you?” — was the rallying cry at the UN’s climate action summit on September 23.

Greta Thunberg addressing the UN Youth Climate Summit September 21.

Addressing delegates, she said: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth,” said Thunberg. “How dare you!” 

James Paul, a former executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, told IPS the young Swedish activist has been a major inspiration, with an ability to think clearly, speak directly and engage in powerful truth-telling

There have been spirited marches and rallies, as well as strikes, disruptions and other actions in cities around the globe. Nothing quite like it has ever been seen before, he said. 

In just over a year after she began a lonely vigil outside the Swedish parliament, Thunberg has drawn millions of students into this movement by her spirit and determination.

As Greta herself has often pointed out, the climate crisis is particularly an issue for youth, who are increasingly aware of the dangerous future world they may have to live and die in, he said. 

Disenchanted by the grown-up world and its lack to action, they are choosing to rise up, said Paul, author of the recently-released book titled “Of foxes and Chickens: Oligarchy and Global Power in the UN Security Council.”.

Paul said the younger generation is connected together worldwide by social media and the internet.  They are exposed to climate information and news as never before. 

“And they see the dying planet in front of their eyes.  The relatively sudden youth mobilisation has been very impressive, but where do we go from here?” he asked.

Ranton Anjain, 17, from the Marshall Islands, speaks at a press conference announcing a collective action being taken on behalf of young people facing the impacts of the climate crisis. UNICEF/Radhika Chalasani

Joseph Gerson, President, Campaign for Peace Disarmament and Common Security, told IPS that Greta Thunberg spoke of political leaders’ “betrayal” for doing little or “nothing: in the face of the climate threat to human survival.

“Much the same can be said about the nuclear weapons and umbrella states resistance to fulfilling their NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) and ICJ (International Court of Justice) obligations for nuclear disarmament,” he said.

“A youth strike would certainly be a very important contribution”, said Gerson, who is also Disarmament Coordinator American Friends Service Committee and Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau.

“That said, we have a long way to go in helping people who came of age after the Cold War and certainly in this century to understand the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons.”

He said they can see the impacts of the climate crisis from day to day and understand its threat to their futures, while the nuclear danger feels more abstract. (unless their families are down winders, atomic vets, etc.).

“Hopefully, with intersectional education and organising, linking the two existential threats we can regenerate a powerful force for both climate sustainability and disarmament,” declared Gerson.

“That’s one of the goals of our World Conference and mobilisation next April in New York on the eve of the NPT Review Conference,” he predicted.

Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change at ActionAid, said young people have exposed the shameless lack of leadership from heads of state who have looked the other way for decades, as the climate crisis has escalated and the planet burned.

“At this late stage, when the window of opportunity is shrinking, we need leaders to show courage, not cowardice.”

Paul said the youth movement has taken hold in nearly every country and produced local leaders of impressive capability. 

The United Nations and other institutions have rushed to grab hold of this movement and bring the newly-produced leaders into the fold.  This is not entirely a bad thing.

“But we can also see that the process of co-optation has begun,” he noted. 

“Can the youth movement retain its militancy and its connection to a base if it sits down for “dialogues” with governments and business leaders?  Perhaps Greta will stick to her principles.” 

But what of the “youth leaders” who have themselves been selected by governments or UN officials?  Even Exxon will be looking for a “youth wash,” so to speak, warned Paul.

Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said the young climate leaders have made it clear that they will not stop until they see action, and Oxfam continues to stand in solidarity, calling on politicians, business leaders and private citizens to join the life or death fight to save our planet for future generations.

Paul said: We would be well-advised to consider comparisons to the other global movements that reached maximum visibility in recent decades: the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and the NGO movement, for example. 

“Will this newcomer build more strength and show more staying power then they managed to achieve?  Will it break out into a new level of global political energy?  We must hope so, without forgetting the enormous strength of the powers-that-be.”

To look on the bright side, he pointed out, the youth in the movement are offering important ingredients for a liveable future – ideas about international cooperation, solidarity and respect for nature. 

They are rightly skeptical about the political institutions that they are inheriting and about global consumer capitalism with its worship of growth and its culture of possessive individualism, he added. 

They also offer a welcome mix of fearless understanding and readiness for taking action – while most adults duck the truth and prefer to retreat into comfortable inaction, argued Paul.  

“Of course, the youth movement is diverse and contains many political currents, but above all it is an expression of positive action, hope for the future, and readiness for far-reaching change.”

As they say: “Another world is possible.”

The planet is probably not going to be rescued by youthful enthusiasm and determination alone, Paul said.

“But it just might be possible, though, in our eleventh hour, that the global youth movement would trigger a multi-generational, unstoppable process, that would transform our lives and our future. Youth of all ages had better sign up!  It’s now or never!” said Paul.

Meanwhile, as the movement spreads, climate leaders, including youth climate strike organisers, young entrepreneurs and activists will take centre stage at the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen, October 9-12..

Young people, from 30 countries will join 70+ mayors from around the world to develop concrete plans for greater global climate ambition.

Building on the momentum of the Global Climate Strikes, the C40 World Mayors Summit will include an important platform for youth voices driving urgent climate action. C40 mayors have welcomed the #FridaysForFuture movement, and in Copenhagen, mayors will invite young activists to join an open dialogue about how today’s leaders can create the future they deserve. 


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Thalif Deen, IPS UN Bureau Chief, has been covering the United Nations since the late 1970s. A former deputy news editor of the Sri Lanka Daily News, he was a senior editorial writer on the daily Hong Kong Standard. He has been runner-up and cited twice for “excellence in U.N. reporting” at the annual awards presentation of the U.N. Correspondents Association (UNCA). In November 2012, he was on the IPS team which who won the prestigious gold award for reporting on the global environment-- and in 2013, for the second consecutive year, he shared the gold medal, this time with the Associated Press (AP), for his reporting on the humanitarian and development work of the United Nations. A former information officer at the U.N. Secretariat, and a one-time member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, Deen is currently editor-in-chief of the IPS U.N. Terra Viva daily electronic newsletter, published since March 1993. Beginning with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, he has covered virtually every major U.N. conference: on population, human rights, the environment, social and economic development, food security, humanitarian aid, nuclear disarmament, water, energy and education. A former military editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group in the U.S, a columnist for the Sri Lanka Sunday Times and a longtime U.N. correspondent for Asiaweek, Hong Kong and Jane's Defence Weekly, London, he is a Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree in journalism from Columbia University, New York.