Youth Deserve a Seat at the Climate Negotiation Table

While youth are highly aware and willing to take climate action, they are barely represented in relevant decision-making bodies, including at the UN. To restore trust, we need to rethink our current structures and shift power from nations to stakeholder groups.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that we are in the midst of a man-made climate crisis, and we are feeling the effects already today. While we the youth contributed the least and are excluded from political and economic macro decision-making, we will live with the consequences the longest. Generations before us have changed the composition of the atmosphere to a point where climate and related crises are an existential threat to life as we know it today. Ours is the era of the Anthropocene.

A vision and strategy are needed. In 2015, all United Nations Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as well as the Paris Agreement on Climate Action, providing a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet as well as unprecedented climate action. Yet, we are far off track to achieve the goals set by decision-makers of the older generation. As a result, young people are scared, frustrated and depressed. Eco- and climate anxiety are common fears amongst youth.

No More Empty Promises

We can no longer watch decision-makers driving us even further into a climate catastrophe. Hence, we are united in an unprecedented global movement fighting the climate crisis. Already before Greta Thunberg started her school strike for climate in August 2018, there have been actions led by young people holding decision-makers accountable. But only Greta Thunberg’s Friday’s for Future movement engaged youth and later on adults around the globe to call on politicians and decision makers to take immediate unprecedented actions – youth is taking #NoMoreEmptyPromises.

There are many studies showing that youth are more concerned and willing to take bold climate actions than older generations. While there is no clear evidence on the reasons for the gap between generations, there are some plausible explanations, including the willingness to absorb new ideas on climate action and the fact that youth will live to experience more severe effects of climate change.

While youth are more aware and willing to act, we are barely represented in decision making. The current youth population is the biggest ever, with those under 30 years old making up over half of the world’s population. For example, in the main conferences of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), there is no person below the age of 26 represented in a governmental leadership position.

Restoring Youth’s Trust in Climate Policies – Marie-Claire Graf on her Topic Brief
We Need Structural Changes in Who Makes Decisions

While young climate activists are keen to move from the streets to negotiating seats, there are plenty of obstacles in our way. The probably biggest deficit of today’s international organisations such as the United Nations in terms of integrating the opinion and interests of the young generation lies within the structure itself. The UN is a government-driven process allowing only governments to take decisions, leaving almost all youth behind.

In order to have a seat at the decision-making table, youth must either convince older decision makers or become part of the delegations and get a negotiation mandate. While youth is working to inform and influence decision making with policy briefs and recommendations since the adoption of the UNFCCC in 1992, we are still sitting in the back row and our voices are listened to only when we don’t criticise existing structures.

While we aim and envision a climate positive and just society living in harmony with nature and the planet, we need an empowered youth driving meaningful, impactful and positive change locally, nationally and internationally. For this we need a UN where youth is fully equipped sitting at the decision-making tables and is taken seriously.

How Do We Get There?

The trickiest part are the next steps, defining what needs to be done to overcome the challenges and reach the vision in time. As outlined, youth needs to become part of country delegations to be able to sit at the tables in UN decision making – of which we fortunately start to see examples. But to make these positions effective, there needs to be an appropriate mandate, prior capacity building, adequate preparation time and support at the negotiations itself. Additionally, there needs to be a cultural shift as young people are still facing a lot of age discrimination.

A personal story: at the 25th UNFCCC Conference I had the honour and privilege to be part of the Swiss federal delegation as a negotiator. During the negotiation an older male negotiator from a European country asked me for the contact of our negotiator. I replied that I am representing Switzerland in these negotiations. He reiterated that he wants to talk to the Swiss negotiator. He clearly could not cope with the reality that a young female negotiator is sitting at the table.

We do not only need youth in delegations, but we moreover need older delegates to be supportive of youth taking over seats and decisions. In addition, we need more youth in domestic politics and legislative bodies, as ultimately international delegations mirror national inequalities.

We could also think a little bit more outside the box on how the UNFCCC itself could evolve and give youth and future generations a veto power in decision-making through YOUNGO – the official UNFCCC constituency on youth which represents the voice of children and youth in the formal negotiation processes. Inspired by the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, what if we can raise a veto in case public decisions conflict with our fundamental right to a liveable future? For this we need to rethink our current decision-making structure and shift power from nations to stakeholder groups, in order to leave no one behind and restore trust.

Trust comes with responsibility and we the youth are ready to take on responsibility. Now we need the structures to change.

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