Climate Action

The Arab world’s best weapon against climate change? Its young people

Jordanian students in traditional costume take part in activities as part of the "King Abdullah II Award for Physical Fitness" project at Tlaa' Al-Ali High School sports complex in Amman October 22, 2008

Young people across the Arab world are taking up the climate action mantle. Image: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Neeshad Shafi
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Middle East and North Africa

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity. The IPCC’s recent report on global warming shows how no country is immune to the effects of climate change, including the Arab world. The region’s geological and ecological particularity puts it at a high risk of water scarcity, food insecurity, drought, heat waves, disease and many other significant issues. These problems are already being witnessed. Moreover, there is a huge lack of awareness about this issue, especially among the young people who might be able to speak up for regional and global climate action. Young people, as inheritors of this planet, are crucial stakeholders in humanity’s response to the climate crisis. Climate change cannot be dealt without a high level of youth participation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region or anywhere else.

Image: IPCC

This need for awareness comes with the realization that the Arab world is already facing enormous problems as a result of climate change. According to research by MIT, “within this century, parts of the Persian Gulf region could be hit with unprecedented events of deadly heat as a result of climate change, according to a study of high-resolution climate models”. The research contains details of a business-as-usual scenario for greenhouse gas emissions, but also shows that curbing emissions could forestall these “deadly temperature extremes”.

Some believe it is already too late. Others, meanwhile, believe we can act to limit further damage to our environment. Yet this whole issue of climate crisis seems to be overwhelming, and governments are skeptical and slow to act. Long-running social issues and conflicts in the Middle East have pushed climate change down the agenda of both public opinion and news outlets in most Arab countries. Moreover, many Arab countries share a semi-authoritarian media system, which seems to aggravate this tendency. In order to avoid crossing editorial red lines, climate change reporting is mostly copied from international news agencies. Local reporting is sparse, as it may easily touch on sensitive issues concerning inadequate governance. Consequently, climate change has traditionally been covered as foreign news with a focus on international climate change negotiations — and with, therefore, limited relevance for a regional readership.

However, new information technology and an increasing focus on raising awareness of climate change points toward alternative channels of climate change communication in MENA countries. Moreover, young people - who constitute the largest section of the Arab world’s population - are becoming involved in the issue through various means. One way to equip young people to deal with environmental concerns is through more effective environmental education. Through environmental awareness, younger generations will get a chance to contribute positively to a peaceful and sustainable future, while also building their own skills and experience. They can actively participate in advocacy, national adaptation and mitigation actions, along with international negotiations like the United Nations Climate Change Conference to understand what is at stake and how global agreements are made. Such strong environmental awareness and capacity building will further unite young people, enabling them to negotiate with a single voice at the global level.

A changing scenario

There was a time when the MENA region was considered one of the weakest in terms of climate change, both in advocacy and awareness. There was little demand from civil society for increased consideration of this global problem, while the political instability in the region, in the form of wars and political turbulence, have made it even harder to put climate change high on the agendas of the Arab governments. But the landscape has changed, because a tremendous enthusiasm has developed among young Arabs to take climate change seriously. This is a positive sign for a better and sustainable future for all.

 Activists from the Arab Youth Climate Movement participating in a climate change March in downtown Doha, Qatar
Activists from the Arab Youth Climate Movement participating in a climate change March in downtown Doha, Qatar Image: IndyAct/Issam Abdallah

Younger Arabs have both special concerns and responsibilities in relation to the environment. A number of environmental risks and hazards disproportionately affect young people, who will have to live with the deteriorating environment bequeathed to them by earlier generations. Young Arab youth will - sooner rather than later - be compelled to engage in new forms of activism in order to generate effective responses to ecological challenges. The drastic change in awareness emerged after Qatar hosted COP18 back in 2012, which proved to be a really significant step; the Arab Youth Climate movement (AYCM), the largest climate change awareness and advocacy group in the MENA region with chapters in more than 15 Arab countries, was formed in its wake.

The link between environmental and social responsibility in the context of enforcement can best be illustrated through environmental education and public awareness initiatives. Youth awareness and participation is important in all aspects of enforcement, not only in understanding basic environment, but also in fostering a sense of responsibility and proactive environmental citizenship.

Environmental education has an important role to play in the promotion of environmental awareness in the Arab world. The knowledge base of an Arab society is one important aspect of its capacity to address and cope with environmental issues. Environmental education and awareness-raising can include many reforms, such as reorienting current programmes to incorporate environmental concerns; basic education and awareness programmes in schools and universities); adult and community education and awareness programmes; and education, training, and awareness programmes for professional, technical, and more importantly through NGO-based mass awareness campaigns.

Thus, increasing education and awareness about environmental issues will benefit, strengthen and enable young people in the Arab region. This will in turn empower them and build their capacity to create and activate community participation in environmental issues. Younger Arabs will have stronger awareness and a greater stake in long-term sustainability efforts and innovation that will genuinely improve the quality of life within the MENA region, with dramatically better outcomes for human wellbeing, economic growth and health. That opportunity is there today, and we need to grasp it.

Have you read?

Young people are the inheritors of Mother Earth. Because of their longer life expectancy, they will have to live for quite some time with the consequences of a deteriorating environment left to them by their parents. Fortunately, young people have a special talent for invention and for developing new forms of action and activism. Addressing the concerns of future generations is difficult in the context of present policy-making in the Arab world; however, it won’t be long until their voices are heard at the decision and policy-making levels.

The IPCC report crystallizes what we already knew about the risks of climate change and throws the challenge into stark relief. The scale and speed of transformation will require not just new technologies but innovative ways of organizing ourselves. This calls for greater efforts to be made to ensure young people are ready to take advantage of new environment-oriented employment opportunities. Innovative technology is a real part of the solution to climate change and many of our best and brightest young people are inspired to work on new energy and climate-friendly technologies and institutional approaches.

Refocusing on building this technological innovation apparatus, educating students globally in relevant fields, providing the right structures for early-stage financing, and bringing these technologies to market are core parts of the solution. Growing attention to climate change and sustainable development offers an ideal opportunity for green economic growth in the Arab world. Green education not only provides much-needed awareness for young people, it also gives them an outlet through which they can contribute directly to the fight against climate change by adopting green behaviour in the workplace as well as in their private lives.

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