New York City — Last weekend, young people around the world rallied behind a common cause: urgent climate action. On Friday, students from some 150 countries skipped school to participate in the largest climate protests ever. These were the high point in a year of youth climate strikes that began with just one teen, Greta Thunberg, now 16, taking action. She sat outside the Swedish parliament again and again (before later speaking to delegates of a United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland). On Saturday, she and more than 700 other young climate leaders took action once more — here, at the first United Nations Youth Climate Summit.
To kick off the summit, Thunberg addressed the attendees. “Yesterday, millions of people across the globe marched and demanded real climate action,” she said. “We showed that we are united and we, young people, are unstoppable.”
The historic event is the largest-ever convening of youth and young adults on climate at the United Nations. This international body was created to build world peace through diplomacy. António Guterres is the U.N. secretary-general. He credited youth for the recent momentum behind the climate movement.
Guterres was titled the “keynote listener.” That’s because his job for the day was to listen and learn from young leaders. “Indeed, I’ve been more times keynote speaker than a keynote listener. But that is one of the problems of global leaders,” he said. “They talk too much and they listen too little.”
The young climate leaders came with a clear message for world leaders. “Is it really too much to ask you to stop wasting time and walk the talk?” said Komal Karishma Kumar. She’s a young climate activist from Fiji. That’s an archipelago of more than 300 islands in the South Pacific.
“From young leaders all over the world, we are here in our rightful place to demand consequential climate action,” said Kumar.
She came ready with a list of demands. These included the phasing out of fossil fuels and a boosting of climate education. She also demanded the inclusion of youth in policy decisions. And she called upon global leaders to fulfill their commitments to the U.N. Green Climate Fund. This international agreement assists low-income countries affected by the climate crisis. Fiji is one of those nations.
All of these commitments are necessary to fulfill the goals of the 2015 Paris Accord. At that time, 195 nations agreed to a goal of limiting global warming to less than 2° Celsius (3.4°Fahrenheit). Reaching this goal will be difficult. That’s because much of the world depends on burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal for energy. (And the United States has since withdrawn from the agreement.)
“It's tricky because at this point our entire economic and social system is based on the energy we use,” Kallan Benson told Science News for Students. “And that energy comes from burning fossil fuels,” she notes. Benson is a 15-year-old organizer with FridaysforFuture in Washington, D.C. She says, “We have to get rid of such a key part of our society [those fossil fuels] in order to solve this crisis.”
Youth are now organizing and calling on those in power to act because they feel that time is limited. The longer it takes to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, the more Earth’s atmosphere will eventually warm.
Youth demand more than a seat at the table
To meet global climate goals, youth activists say they need to be included in solutions. The U.N. Youth Climate Summit is one step toward upping their involvement.
“We appreciate that youth are now at the table where the discussions are being held,” Wanjuhi Njoroge told a crowded U.N. council chamber. “But our voices and our inputs must be allowed to influence these decisions,” she said. Njoroge is a climate activist in her 20s from Kenya.
Later in the day, Nina Möger Bengtsson, a young climate activist from Denmark, echoed this idea. “We speak up in our local communities. We change our diets. We change our habits. We take to the streets,” Bengtsson told global leaders and fellow youth. “Yet we’re not included in the formal decision-making process.”
Bengtsson pointed to the work Denmark has done to bridge the gap between youth and policymakers. For instance, her country has established a national youth council with direct access to the prime minister.
The summit also marked the launch of the Kwon-Gesh Pledge. The Marshall Islands (southwest of Hawaii) and Ireland initiated the pledge. It asks U.N. leaders to include youth in carrying out goals of the Paris Accord. This pledge is perhaps the most concrete measure to include youth in policymaking.
Anfernee Nenol Kaminaga is a climate leader working to engage youth in climate activism in the Marshall Islands. In a panel discussion about the pledge, he said that the youth he works with want “to be taken into consideration in decision-making models and to not be tokenized.” By tokenized, he means being offered symbolic, but not meaningful representation.
Climate change is impacting youth now
Many young climate leaders at the summit said they were acting to save not just their future, but also their current homes. Some have seen first-hand the ways climate change is already disrupting the environment and affecting people.
Kristen Brown, 17, is among them. She lives on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. “Climate change is impacting my home environment through erosion,” she said. “On different parts of the island there is a lot of coastal erosion that is causing the roads to crumble into the sea.” She added, “This is happening right before our eyes.” And erosion is just one of the many impacts she has seen near her home.
In her role as the Hawaii State Logistics Director with the U.S. Youth Climate Strike Hawaii, Brown has been working toward a better future for everyone. “We need to fight for climate justice,” she told Science News for Students. “Climate justice” is a framework for thinking about equality and social issues alongside climate change.
Edgar Sanchez, 14, is working to protect his home of Monterrey, Mexico. “I live in one of the most polluted cities in Latin America. And it’s a problem that I wake up to each day,” he told Science News for Students. “Sometimes I can’t go to recess because it’s just so polluted. We can’t run. We can’t go outside.”
To change this, Sanchez has been giving presentations on the climate crisis. He also has been encouraging more people to carpool. Vehicles are responsible for most of the city’s pollution, he says.
Faatupu Simeti, 24, is working to protect her country of Tuvalu. This low-lying island nation is quickly being engulfed by rising seas. “We are really, really affected by climate change,” she told Science News for Students. As a data analyst for the country’s Department of Climate Change and Disaster, she is working to better assess the island’s vulnerabilities and then to come up with solutions.
While some places are more vulnerable to climate change than others, no place is immune. Even the very ground along the East River, on which the U.N. headquarters sits, could flood due to sea-level rise as soon as 2100.
Josie Benton, 15, is a climate leader from New York City. She points out that in order to make real change, we’ll have to first start acknowledging how dependent people are on the environment. “Nature isn’t this thing that's far off in the distance,” she points out. “It's something that we live with.”
Youth-driven and just climate solutions
Young activists didn’t just demand action from global leaders. They also came ready with solutions and turned to other young adults for solutions. Before a panel of judges, climate leaders under 30 pitched some of their proposals to address climate change and related inequalities through technology.
Brighton Mabasa is an early-career meteorologist. He works at the South African Weather Service, near Johannesburg. He has proposed a weather app for small, rural farmers. These farmers often fail to get the climate information they need. And when they do get it, he said, it is not widely understood. His app works by crowdsourcing data so that farmers can have more accurate, localized data. Farmers can use their smartphones’ sensors to collect information for use by others. In this way, the farmers become citizen scientists.
Monika Selina Seyfried is in her 20s and lives in Poland. She proposed an innovative solution to cut the high carbon footprint of data. She’s referring to the fact that the collection, storage and use of data require a lot of energy. DNA, though, is a far more efficient way to store information, said Seyfriend. Her initiative, Grow Your Own Cloud, looks to store the world’s data in liquid DNA.
It’s not just tech solutions that will solve problems triggered by a changing climate. Throughout the summit, youth climate leaders emphasized the need for interdisciplinary solutions to address emerging crises.
“I learned that the climate crisis cannot be siloed into buckets,” Priyank Hirani, 30, told Science News for Students. He’s an electronics engineer who has moved into tackling environmental issues in his home nation of India. Water, he notes, has become “an economic crisis, institutional crisis, political crisis.” Today he leads a project, Water-to-Cloud, that builds platforms for monitoring river pollution in India.
“Climate justice is crucial,” he adds. “The communities that are most affected by climate change are often the ones that least contributed to it.” By that, he’s referring to the fact that the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change have come mostly from wealthy countries. Yet low-income nations will feel many of the effects.
Youth leaders made clear that they are not afraid to fight for a world where climate justice flourishes. “I speak on behalf of the organized Youth for Climate student movement of Argentina,” said Bruno Rodriguez, 19. “Our movement understands that power concedes nothing without struggle.”
(Note: This story was corrected on September 25, 2019, to better describe Priyank Hirani.)
activist Someone who has strong opinions about some issue and works hard — indeed, actively (hence the name) — to bring others around to that same point of view.
app Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.
archipelago A group of islands, many times forming in an arc across a broad expanse of the oceans. Examples include the Hawaiian islands, the Aleutian islands and the more than 300 islands in the Republic of Fiji.
carbon footprint A popular term for measuring the global warming potential of various products or processes. Their carbon footprint translates to the amount of some greenhouse gas — usually carbon dioxide — that something releases per unit of time or per quantity of product.
citizen science Scientific research in which the public — people of all ages and abilities — participate. The data that these citizen “scientists” collect helps to advance research. Letting the public participate means that scientists can get data from many more people and places than would be available if they were working alone.
climate The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.
climate change Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.
concrete To be solid and real. (in construction) A simple, two-part building material. One part is made of sand or ground-up bits of rock. The other is made of cement, which hardens and helps bind the grains of material together.
crowdsourcing A term coined in 2005 for the collection of data from a large community of volunteers — often over the internet. For instance, those volunteers may collect information intentionally (such as data on cloud cover, the appearance of a particular butterfly or a recording of the call of a certain bird), then send the data to some researcher. Alternatively, an app downloaded on someone’s phone might collect light, vibrations or some other information periodically — and automatically — and then relay it over the Internet to researchers.
diplomacy (adj. diplomatic) Compelling adversaries (usually different countries or warring groups) to change their attitudes, policies or actions based on discussions that make a case with logic or compromise.
DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.
environment The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).
erosion (v. erode) The process that removes rock and soil from one spot on Earth’s surface, depositing it elsewhere. Erosion can be exceptionally fast or exceedingly slow. Causes of erosion include wind, water (including rainfall and floods), the scouring action of glaciers and the repeated cycles of freezing and thawing that occur in many areas of the world.
fossil fuel Any fuel — such as coal, petroleum (crude oil) or natural gas — that has developed within the Earth over millions of years from the decayed remains of bacteria, plants or animals.
fuel Any material that will release energy during a controlled chemical or nuclear reaction. Fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum) are a common type that liberate their energy through chemical reactions that take place when heated (usually to the point of burning).
green (in chemistry and environmental science) An adjective to describe products and processes that will pose little or no harm to living things or the environment.
greenhouse gas A gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing heat. Carbon dioxide is one example of a greenhouse gas.
Latin America Nations in the Americas south of the United States, most of which now speak Spanish as their native tongue. The major exception within this region: Brazil, which speaks Portuguese.
meteorologist Someone who studies weather and climate events.
Paris Accord The language for a United Nations treaty that was negotiated in Paris, France, on Dec. 12, 2015. Its key, stated aim was to strengthen the response of nations around the world to the threat of climate change by keeping the average global rise in temperature by 2100 under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), as compared to pre-industrial levels. It would also work toward (if possible) holding the temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
policy A plan, stated guidelines or agreed-upon rules of action to apply in certain specific circumstances. For instance, a school could have a policy on when to permit snow days or how many excused absences it would allow a student in a given year.
politics (adj. political) The activities of people charged with governing towns, states, nations or other groups of people. It can involve deliberations over whether to create or change laws, the setting of policies for governed communities, and attempts to resolve conflicts between people or groups that want to change rules or taxes or the interpretation of laws. The people who take on these tasks as a job (profession) are known as politicians.
sea An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.
sensor A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly. (in biology) The structure that an organism uses to sense attributes of its environment, such as heat, winds, chemicals, moisture, trauma or an attack by predators.
smartphone A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the internet.
social (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.
society An integrated group of people or animals that generally cooperate and support one another for the greater good of them all.
summit (in public policy) A meeting between officials of some organization or governments, often with the goal of negotiating new rules, policies or treaties.
technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
weather Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.