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Illustration by Topias Dean / Sitra, Photo by Susanna Lönnrot / Sitra

Published August 5, 2019

Hope lies in youth

Young activists are leading a climate movement which has caught worldwide attention. At the World Circular Economy Forum 2019 young people presented their concerns and demands.

The opening ceremony of the World Circular Economy Forum 2019 was filled with entertainment and powerful speakers. Yet in the midst of the festivities the stage was suddenly overrun by young protestors. Dozens rushed the stage, chanting, stomping and holding up signs such as “No plastic in the ocean,” “No nature no future” and “Act Now!”

Disruption is a common practice among protestors, but in this case the young people were invited to the WCEF2019. They were members of the World Summit of Students for Climate (WSSC) and WCEF participants wanted to hear their views. About 135 students from 70 countries were in Finland to not only learn about climate change, but to express their feelings and demonstrate their actions.

“We wanted to wake up WCEF participants,” says Riitta Silvennoinen, Specialist at Sitra. “We want them to think about how important this is for young people and how it affects their future. This highlights the urgency of taking immediate actions and scaling up.”

“Skolstrejk för klimatet”

Young climate activists are increasingly expressing frustration about the lack of progress to fight climate change. Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old Swedish student, has inspired millions with her school strike for climate and her eloquent – and scathing – speeches to politicians. Millions of students from hundreds of countries have followed her example.

“I see many young climate activists going on school strikes,” says Sofia Savonen of Finland’s Youth Agenda 2030 group. “But they have also made personal decisions to act and make a positive difference. They might go vegetarian or recycle. They are too young to vote and don’t have their own money with which to make consumption decisions, but one thing they do is influence the decisions made by their parents and adults. This is a huge roll which is often overlooked.”

The young people did much more than rush the WCEF2019 stage. At the We Want Future festival at Helsinki Central Library Oodi they participated in hands-on activities such as learning how to make soap from used cooking oil or how to build their own solar panels.

The young people at the festival also created a message for adults which was encapsulated in a poster. Their demands included items such as telling the real risks of climate change, funding R&D and designing things with re-use in mind.

Anger can turn into positive action

At the circular economy in lifelong learning parallel session a young person from India was part of the panel discussion. Paavani, Student Ambassador for India from the WSSC, was asked how to integrate the circular economy into school. She gave concrete examples of what her class does, but also had a message for the adults in the room:

“You’re asking a twelve-year-old girl how to integrate the circular economy into school. Twelve-year-old girls and boys should be playing and not working on complex situations like these,” Paavani said. “We are sacrificing our childhood for this. The world leaders know the solutions, but they are not doing it. It’s like a sick person has medicine but won’t take it. You have to beg him to take it.”

The frustration of these activists is apparent, but many decision makers want to reassure them that their voices are being heard. There are adults who care and there is hope.

“I understand the pessimism. You only hear news about climate destruction, and the media is very good at giving bad news,” Savonen says. “But there is hope and that needs to be spread. If you are angry turn that into positive action. Actions will help.”

The youth have power

“The youth are more powerful than they realise,” says Anthony Cox, Deputy Director of the OECD’s Environment Directorate. “They have raised the profile of the climate issue and changed the political conversation. In particular they have put the intergenerational question on the table. Decisions we make today will impact our children and grandchildren.”

Political decision-making is often driven by the short-term political cycle and coming elections. Yet young people have forced a more long-term view into public discussions. At the very least, politicians know that soon the young climate activists will be of voting age and their views must be taken into consideration.

“Governments need to respect youth and their ability to move the political needle,” Cox says. “We have to have more meaningful engagement with them, such as including their voice in an institutional framework. One way to do this is with a youth ombudsman or representative.”

Different priorities but one planet

Some critics of the youth activists say that they should be in school instead of protesting. Cox rejects this view.

“My advice to them is to speak up and speak loudly,” he says. “They should engage in the process and demand access to the political process. In particular, they should take action in their own lives, such as through recycling and what they can do at home and in school. This is not just a matter for Western or developed countries. The youth in developing countries need to be engaged as well. They have different priorities, but we all live on one planet.”

“We wanted to bring hope to the youth by organising the We want future event and bringing young people onstage,” Silvennoinen says. “We want young people to know that there are adults who care and are doing their best for a better future. The circular economy has lots of good tools to tackle the challenge. Young people are not alone with their concerns and hopes. We hear their voices and hope everyone else does too.”

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