Graphic design of girl calling attention to climate change

4 Youth Activists Speak Up for the Earth, and Out On Climate Change

Four young campaigners, who are all fighting the environmental problems we face today in unique ways, spoke to leaders at UNICEF and about the importance of climate advocacy. Our kids, but certainly all of us, could learn a thing or two from what they had to say.

The new year is a time for resolutions and making changes for the better. It's also the perfect time to reflect on promises made around the livability of our planet—promises that have yet to be fulfilled.

Two months ago, the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties, known as COP26, met in Glasgow, Scotland. Lesser known, COY (Conference of Youth) preceded that larger UN gathering. At COY16, young people from 140 countries gathered to train and collaborate to demand action from global leaders—including policies to help the world reach the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7 °F) above pre-industrial temperatures.

"Unfortunately, it was a mixed bag," Gautam Narasimhan, global lead for climate, energy and environment at UNICEF told Coming out of COP, there were some good signs of progress: a global agreement on addressing deforestation, on reducing methane emissions (more hideous than carbon dioxide), and some progress around financial institutions moving toward climate, Narasimhan explained.

On the negative side, we're not where we need to be.

"We need to cut the production of greenhouse emissions by almost half over the next decade— and we're nowhere close to that," says Narasimhan. Even if emissions were to stop tomorrow, there's so much greenhouse gas emissions and global warming baked in, that the impacts of climate change will continue for decades to come, he explains. "Now it's a question of how quickly we can put the brakes on."

After COP26, sat down virtually with two senior leaders at UNICEF working on climate change and four youth activists from around the world—experts in their own right, impressive communicators participating in national delegations. They shared their perspectives about the state of our planet, their experience at COP, the place of youth in the spaces where it matters most, and the power of inclusion as an antidote to fear in the face of a perilous future.

What Is COY Infographic

In Conversation With Climate Changemakers

What follows are excerpts from that discussion, edited for clarity and length, with:

Leaders at UNICEF


Youth Climate Activists




"Being included means really being listened to. I believe youth should have possibility to directly participate in climate decision-making...It means that someone who will live with the decisions being made is represented."


On Involving Young People in Climate Talks

Sophia Kianni: How can we better integrate young people, like youth activists on this panel, into the COP processes and outcomes?

Gautam Narasimhan: What was hopeful was that there was so much more attention being paid this year to young people. It's still not enough. But there's a greater recognition and the needle is moving the right way in terms of recognizing that young people aren't just victims...they have energy, enthusiasm and they are already showing the leadership to move planet action in the right direction.

What we can be doing now is to make sure that there's greater integration so that there isn't this perception that COY is somehow the kids' table and that the real conversation is happening at COP. What you're seeing now is a greater movement among some of the bodies that run COP to have greater integration between COY and COP, and I think that would be fantastic.

Eric Njuguna: There is engagement, and there is meaningful youth engagement, where our inputs are reflected on policy. But there's also youthwashing of these spaces—like having the youth [present, but] our input is not reflected in the outcomes, and that sometimes is frustrating, at a time when we need our voices in the decision-making spaces.

Penelope Lea: As Eric said, being included means really being listened to. And in my experience, being included makes me feel less scared. I also get less scared when I know that all the young people—and people from the most affected areas and places—are being included in the decision-making because it means that someone who will live with the consequences of the decisions being made is being represented. Because we need to be able to hold our leaders accountable for their actions and inactions. And we need to make greenwashing and loopholes—and how the oil and gas industry influence politics—visible for everyone. And we know that when our democracy is threatened, the youth movement is even more important. I believe youth should have the possibility to directly participate in climate decision-making.

Young people should be given the same opportunity to get the same resources as other political delegates, and we need advocates and political counselors that can work closely with youth delegations to support in representing our rights and the interests of youth, all over the world, and also by preparing actual political tools to make that happen.

Kelly Ann Naylor: I totally agree. Definitely there's this serious question about meaningful participation... What does that look like in practice?... What are the other decision-making opportunities and participation opportunities that influence COP?

Once you get to COP, a lot has happened to build up to that space. Eric, I always think it's so great when the decision-maker takes your points, and says them out of their own mouth. How do we influence that dialogue so that when the countries and the negotiators are coming to COP, they have these parts as their agenda?

Youthwashing Infographic

On Youth Being Heard By Policy-Makers

Russell Raymond: Do you have advice on how the youth in their individual countries will be able to easily reach out to their governments when seeking advice for climate-related projects? What happens is that the youth can have a loud voice and they can speak out and they ask for assistance, but oftentimes the governments don't really give them the lending hand, or the air that they deserve.

Kelly Ann: I can certainly share some things that we see. For example, in the water space, there are youth parliaments in some countries that have come up with young people's manifestos that then become presented to leaders where you can influence...Sometimes we have done briefings to parliamentarians [consultants on parliamentary procedure]. We did a briefing to a congressional caucus around injustices on water access and sanitation access.

I think sometimes it's not a magic bullet, but sometimes finding allies that can help elevate your voice or create platforms for you through their channels. But that's drawing back from my youth activism days.

Sophia: I think as part of the UN's Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, I've had the tremendous opportunity to be able to engage in dialogue with the UN Secretary General and to be able to provide meaningful input on his climate strategy. But I recognize that the issue is that there are only seven of us on this Youth Advisory Group, and I think that over and over what we see is that the same young people get platforms, the same young people get the opportunity to go to conferences like COP. So in a way, the youth movement when it comes to high level dialogue, is still very very exclusive in terms of the opportunities that are spread around.

I think that one example of a great democratic way of integrating young people into these processes was Youth4Climate, which was a pre-COP conference that was held with the support of the Italian government. Over 400 young people from over 100 countries were able to come together and create four outcome documents around four different themes—really integrating their demands to world leaders about what they wanted to see from COP and what they wanted to see generally. The great thing was that anyone could apply to represent their country and to be part of this process.

But I would say more generally, although I've loved the experience that I've had on the Youth Advisory Group...I think that if the UN Secretary-General—one of the highest levels of the UN— is able to implement a Youth Advisory Group, it shows that any organization, any institution, any government has the facilities to be able to implement something like this to meaningfully include youth voices.

Eric: I totally agree with what Sophia was saying—having the same youth in the same spaces. I think this is something that I have felt. We need a lot of diversity because the climate crisis affects [every community] differently—we need diversity in this space. We hear from the same youth because of privilege… The creators of these spaces are having youth engagement as a checkbox scenario. We need to be conscious of the nuances of the spaces so we have diverse voices that go toward policymaking. That will make the policies themselves reflective of the diverse society that we have and it will be more inclusive in terms of the outcome and implementation.

Penelope: I so agree with Sophia and Eric... it's so important. And I have been working as leader of The Children's Climate Panel here in Norway for some years. We collect thoughts from children and their views on the climate crisis... We try to collect them and make a report about it to bring to decision-makers so that every child's voice will be represented.


"At a young age, you should let children know [about the climate crisis]; it's real. And have them, if possible, get a firm grip on the reality of the situation. Then maybe as the child is growing up, they can become more active in trying to curb climate change."


On Overcoming Fear Through Advocacy

Melissa Bykofsky: I know Penelope, you've spoken before about the fear of when you were younger and first learning about the climate. A lot of kids and teens—young people who want to get involved—are faced with this overwhelming level of information coming at them, and there is a fear and a burnout that comes with educating yourself about what's going on with the climate right now. How would you continue to encourage other young people to be active, despite this? And how can parents be a support and a resource for their kids who want to do more?

Penelope: First of all, yes, I obviously get scared when I read about the facts of the climate crisis. I really do. And I believe if you really believe about the climate crisis, you will get scared. That's a natural feeling. And personally, I remember, from when I first started as an activist when I was 8, I got way more scared every time I sensed that adults, or our policy-makers, didn't tell the truth. And often, I experienced that politicians or decision-makers or some adults tried to hide truth just to make children less scared. And the youth movement, they have been accused of scaring younger children just by telling the truth.

For me, it's the opposite. Activism is a way for me to cope with the fear. So to act on my fear helps me. I believe that adults today need to read about the climate themselves—and be sure they've not only read opinions on the climate crisis, but the actual facts. And then when children reach a certain age, talk to them honestly, give them the information they need and listen to their concerns. And as I said before, being included makes it less scary. So include them in your conversations. If they want to participate in the public debate or listen to what's happening in the public debate about climate change, let them do that.

Infographic on how to get involved
Infographic by Mehroz Kapadia

Featured graphics by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

Special thanks to Tess Ingram, media and communications specialist at UNICEF, and Katarzyna Pawelczyk, communication specialist for digital youth engagement at UNICEF.

Margaret Hetherman is an independent journalist, fueled by life's curiosities and a passion for science and the environment. She holds an MFA from New York University and a B.A. from the University of Michigan. Margaret resides in Brooklyn, NY, and is the proud mom of an adventurous and big-hearted teen.

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