Stop calling young people 'leaders of tomorrow'

Elizabeth Wathuti meeting 8-year-old Delphine Fraser following the COP26 opening ceremony.

Elizabeth Wathuti
Founder, Green Generation Initiative
Lindsey Prowse
Lead, 1t.org North America and Youth Engagement, World Economic Forum
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  • Young people are proving to be increasingly important partners in delivering local action to tackle the climate crisis.
  • When youth-led solutions are underfunded or excluded from informing climate negotiations and implementation processes, it undermines efforts to save our future.
  • Following COP26, young climate activists will be monitoring how the billions pledged are responsibly allocated to fund grassroots organizations and local communities.

Young people are leaders of today, not tomorrow

The global youth-led climate movement and Fridays for Future school strikes continue to show world leaders to see the climate crisis for what it is: a crisis.

Since the movement began in August 2018, 16 million school children and strikers have hosted over 100 thousand strike events in over 8 thousand cities across 200+ countries. Their demands for immediate action have influenced the way that the media, politicians and even businesses speak about climate change.

A few months ago, Elizabeth (one of the authors of this piece) was among several youth leaders to address more than 100 world leaders at the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow. The audience was reminded about the climate-related droughts people in Kenya are facing, putting over 2 million Kenyans at risk of starvation. World leaders were asked to open their hearts and take immediate action to protect us all from the climate crisis.


But what they came up with - the Glasgow Package - still spells great danger for the African continent. Despite the historical number of nature and climate-related commitments made, we are still not on track to limit warming to the 1.5C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. This does not bode well for communities across Africa, who will experience increases in temperature extremes, heat stress, coastal flooding, and more by the mid-century.

Many young people vocalized similar stories about how climate change is impacting their homeland – even going as far as calling COP a "two-week-long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah".

As we enter a new year and look towards important moments for the restoration agenda, young people will be monitoring for proof of credibility and integrity of the ambitious climate commitments made last year with zero tolerance for “greenwashing”. Particularly, to ensure that the billions pledged by private and public sectors are responsibly allocated to fund grassroots organizations and local communities doing the work on the ground.

Partner with youth leaders to deliver local climate action

Young people are proving to be increasingly important partners in delivering local action. Last year, the #GenerationRestoration Youth Hub, a global community of 50 youth leaders for nature-based solutions and ecopreneurship convened by 1t.org and the Global Landscapes Forum-Youth in Landscapes Initiative, co-designed an UpLink Challenge to bring youth-led solutions to the forefront of discussions on climate action.

Solutions led by the 14 winning youth ecopreneurs addressed a range of ecosystem challenges, including deforestation and forest degradation, decline in pollinators, and the lack of conservation training for young people to become equipped with the tools to protect nature.

Among the winners was Green Generation Initiative, an initiative founded by Elizabeth Wathuti to nurture young peoples’ love for nature and teach them to be environmentally conscious by growing food forests. This work is educating young people about the value of nature-based solutions to address the climate crisis and simultaneously seeks to address food insecurity at the local level.

Other examples include Bukidnon-born Marine Biologist Frances Camille Rivera who co-founded Oceanus Conservation, a science-based non-profit environmental organization which aims to protect and restore blue carbon habitats and the surrounding wildlife to contribute to the conservation, education, and community development of the Filipino people. Their philosophy is to sustain biodiversity in order to provide ecosystem services such as food security for the Filipino people in the years to come.

At the age of 26, cartographer and environmentalist Molly Burhans documented the first global data-based landholding maps of the Catholic Church. She founded GoodLands to enable the Catholic Church to use its extensive landholdings for good. Among their priorities is GoodLands’ Conservation Planning and Comprehensive Master Planning which leverages remote sensing and mapping technology combined with scientific expertise to help their clients who own large tracts of land to identify parcels that have the greatest positive impact on ecosystems health.

Despite the promise of youth-led action on the ground, less than 40 percent of youth-led climate organizations have paid staff as they are chronically underfunded and underestimated, according to the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship (FES). Access to capital, incubators, and funding support that traditional entrepreneurs often receive will be key for those who will inherit the worst of climate change.

Put young people at the heart of decision-making

As the late Professor Wangari Maathai said so eloquently, “The generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price. That is the problem”.

Every day that business and political leaders fail to act at a scale and speed necessary to meet the climate crisis represents a gross intergenerational injustice to the youth movement. Decisions made today to cut emissions and invest in the protection and restoration of nature, high carbon sinks and ecosystems – or not – will have a direct impact on youth’s livelihoods.

It’s no surprise that a recent study by Avaaz shows that 75% of children feel that the future is frightening as they wrestle with feelings of “eco-anxiety” and betrayal.

Young people are also challenged by the lack of inclusion in key climate decision-making processes. With this in mind, organizations like Youth4Climate presented key recommendations at COP26 in their youth-led manifesto requesting countries and relevant institutions to urgently ensure that youth drive ambition, including but not limited to:

  • Meaningful Participation – youth involvement should be across all climate-related decision-making from planning policy to design, implementation, and evaluation at all levels.
  • Capacity Building – efforts should be taken to scale-up financial, administrative and logistical support to empower youth to effectively drive concrete action and climate ambition.
  • Funding – funds should be dedicated and made readily accessible to support youth participation in climate decision-making processes at all levels.
  • Education – comprehensive and universal climate change education and climate literacy should be funded and available to empower people of all ages with the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to address climate change.

Waiting to lead is not an option

From making their voices heard to developing their own solutions – young people understand that waiting isn’t an option.

They can not wait to be the “leaders of tomorrow”. They can not wait to be in positions of power themselves before change happens. They know they need to act now if they want a safe future and a liveable world.

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