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The youth movement grows up. Climate Fight podcast part four transcript

Young people protesting against climate change.
What effect does youth climate activism have on negotiations such as COP26 in Glasgow? John Gomez via Shutterstock

This is a transcript of The youth movement grows up, part four of Climate Fight: the world’s biggest negotiation, a series from The Anthill podcast tied to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. In this episode, we talk to experts about how countries make sure not to leave people behind and widen inequalities as they shift away from fossil fuels.

NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print

Greta Thunberg: There is no planet B. There is no planet blah. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. This is not about some expensive, politically correct green act of bunny-hugging or blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050 blah, blah blah. Net zero blah, blah, blah. Climate neutral blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words. Words that sound great but so far has led to no action.

Jack Marley: Over the last few years, young people around the world have voiced their outrage over the climate crisis.

Chanting: What do we want? Climate justice. When do we want it? Now.

Jack: Young people have a unique stake in climate breakdown, they face a future world that looks nothing like the one their parents had.

Chanting: And we demand change. We want change, we want change, we want change.

Jack: I’m Jack Marley. And this is Climate Fight episode 4: the youth movement grows up.

Ahead of COP26, in an effort to find out how decisions are made, I want to explore the role of young people. For instance, is the youth climate movement as strong as it once was?

Harriet Thew: So, I think we have to go back to 2018 at least. So, Greta Tunberg started striking outside the Swedish parliament. Youth climate marches started happening in the US at the zero hour protests. And particularly importantly, that year in October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC report came out on what 1.5 degrees of warming would mean for the world and what we’d need to do to achieve it.

I’m Dr. Harriet Thew. I’m from the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds and my research focuses on youth participation in climate governance and climate change education.

Harriet: So that really catalysed action from young people and from older people through Extinction Rebellion as well in 2019. I saw Greta Thunberg at the UN climate negotiations in Katowice at the end of 2018 and she did not make anywhere near as big of a stir as she did the following year. So she was kind of starting to get well-known, but it was really in 2019, the Fridays for Future, or School Strikes for Climate as it’s called in the UK, that the movement really took off.

Newsclip: Today’s lesson: civil disobedience. Here in Manchester and up and down the country, thousands of students from reception to year 13 skipped school to call for action on climate change.

Jack: I’m kind of quite interested in the idea of age and how that was really significant in the 2019 youth strikes. And I was just wondering, what do you think the influence of young people is on climate politics more broadly?

Harriet: Yeah, I think young people are particularly good at raising the profile of upcoming events and policy areas, capturing the public interest and emphasising urgency, the need to act now. Because young people have symbolic power. They’re representative of a huge proportion of the global population and they have moral power, so they’re seen as having greater moral integrity because they’re not being paid to take a particular stance. So, they’re sort of seen as representing the moral voice and moral interest and going a bit further than some organisations go in demanding change and saying what needs to be done.

COP26: the world's biggest climate talks

This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage on COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, by experts from around the world.
Amid a rising tide of climate news and stories, The Conversation is here to clear the air and make sure you get information you can trust. More.

Jack: Right, and so how does that moral voice of young people, what kind of influence does that have on decisions at the UN climate negotiations, the COP?

Harriet: For example, the youth constituency in the UN climate negotiations, Youngo, has had quite a lot of influence on the policy that is about climate change education, because they’re seen as recognised experts in that area. So, going and being able to share their lived experiences and say, this is what happens in my school or university, or this is the education that I had, and this is why it works or doesn’t work, leads to very tangible changes in UN policy that you can see, you can document over time. Whereas the kind of bigger protests, moral voice, general messages of we need change and we need it now, it’s much more difficult to measure the kind of tangible impact of that.

Jack: Just before COP26 kicks off, the 16th Conference of Youth will also take place in Glasgow.

Harriet: Young people from about 140 countries get together. The main output is that they create a policy document that is given usually to the COP president, and to other people within the COP. It’ll be young people probably getting altogether to think about what they want to see coming up in those negotiations.

Jack: So does this youth conference influence the tone of the COP at all? What kind of influence do they have, if at all, on the adults meeting right afterwards at the at the COP?

Harriet: It’s a really good question. By the time governments get to the COP, they have already determined for the most part the positions that they’re going to be taking at that COP. So at that last minute stage it’s very difficult to influence very much. You could say that it’s a bit symbolic. It depends on how decision-makers respond to it, whether or not they actually read the declaration that the young people have come up with or not, and how much attention they give to that would very much depend on the COP president or whoever else has been given it. There are also declarations from previous years. It’s hard to say whether host governments, for example, would look at the outputs from the previous COP to think about how to include young people’s perspectives.

Jack: And I guess that another problem that youth climate activists have at this conference is that there are probably a lot of adults who would look at people who are, you know, in their teens or early 20s and say that, you know, you’re too young to really know what you’re talking about and I remember when I was your age and I had all these, sort of, these unrealistic views of how the world works. What would you really say to someone who levels that criticism at young climate strikers?

Harriet: Yeah, you get a lot of that. When young people come forward to engage in anything they’re quite readily patronised and deemed to not know enough. I think it’s interesting in relation to climate change because although climate change education is very inadequate and needs improving, it does exist. So, young people are learning about climate change in school and through social media and through non-formal education groups in a way that those older decision-makers probably didn’t get during their schooling. So it might be that they’ve had more kind of formal educational training on climate issues than the politicians have.

In terms of this idea of “when you grow up, you’ll understand that it’s more complicated and you’re too naive, and this is too, kind of, idealised”, I’ve noticed that a lot of the time young people are a bit ahead of the curve in what they’re asking for in terms of climate action. They’re a bit less cautious, a bit more honest about what needs to be done and really acknowledging the urgency of the situation. So they’re often five years ahead of everybody else.

For example, in 2009, 2010, at the COPs in Copenhagen and Durban, young people were calling very strongly for the target of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, which didn’t then come into the Paris agreement until 2015. And we’re still not on target to meet it, but they were advocating for that at that point. And leaving fossil fuels in the ground. I was at the Rio +20 sustainable development conference in 2012 and young people were very much calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and leaving fossil fuels in the ground rather than burning them, which is becoming much more mainstream in climate discourse as we realise that we’re going to need to make some of those hard choices.

But young people are a little less swayed by “Oh, this is going to cost my business a lot of money, and how am I going to transfer my employees from this role to that role?” or whatever it is, and can be a bit more kind of forward thinking and visionary in terms of what what they’re saying needs to happen.

Jack: We wanted to introduce Harriet to a young climate activist: Abel Harvie Clarke. He’s from Newcastle and going to university in London. They spoke when Abel was outside, just on his way home from a protest.

Abel: Nice to meet you, Harriet. Yeah, I’ve enjoyed reading your stuff as well, so thanks.

Harriet: Nice to meet you too. Where are you right now?

Abel: I’m just away from the XR rebellion in London. Came down yesterday to be part of the rebellion here.

Harriet: Great. So tell me about when you first got involved in climate change activism.

Abel: It was the school strike movement really that got me involved. I feel I’d been to a couple of Extinction Rebellion meetings before, but I wasn’t so sure on it, I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. And the school strikes start happening, I just realised that no one else was going to do it for us, you know!

I had to go do it ourselves, so started getting together with other people in my sixth form and organised a walk-out for my sixth form of about 70 people to join the Global Climate Strike in March. Going through that process, yeah the many trials and tribulations that it threw up and it kind of, I guess being part of that protest and that movement then revealed, yeah, the wider struggle that we have on our hands.

Harriet: Yeah. That’s interesting, so you organised it for your sixth form. How did your school respond to that?

Abel: With - I was going to say two faces, but probably more than two faces - I don’t think anyone felt any real support. I would, it would definitely be true to say we got the support of individual teachers, definitely I think gave help where they could. But I guess the school as an institution was very much don’t go, you will be punished if you go. That’s what they told the students, what they told the press was, “oh, we won’t punish anyone, we’re supportive of students thinking about climate change” and then literally at the same time there was kids sitting in isolation in detention for being part of the protest.

Harriet: So one of the demands of the youth climate strikes was about teaching the future. Did you learn about climate change at school, and if so do you think it prepared you and your peers for tackling climate change, coping with an uncertain future, creating futures that you want, and potentially pursuing green jobs, if indeed that is something that you would be interested in doing?

Abel: I mean, I was taught about climate change to the extent of like almost the scientific equation of more greenhouse gases in the air, it means the world heats up. And I guess maybe we talked about the fact that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increasing, but like it’s quite detached from what’s actually happening and the points at which, like, our lives interact with it.

It’s a very de-politicised version of climate change as well. So like it never went in to the things that make climate change happen who’s controlling the levers of climate change and who’s feeling the impacts of it.

Harriet: Thanks, that’s really interesting. Has how you think and talk about climate change changed over time and has your approach to activism changed at all, sort of the activities that you’ve been involved in?

Abel: We keep learning about the struggles that people have been fighting against climate change for a long time. People who’ve been kicked off their land for generations, people who’ve had water shortages. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned from around the world.

Harriet: Yeah. That actually links to something I’ve found quite a lot in my research where I’ve kind of found that initially a catalyst and talking point for a young climate activist is around inter-generational justice with messaging like “it’s our future, so we deserve a voice”, and “how old are you going to be in 2050” - asking older generations that. And over time, I’ve seen quite a lot of young climate activists sort of move away from that type of advocacy after hearing stories from people.

And I’ve seen some young people start to feel a bit ashamed of their sort of relatively privileged position in the movement and stop talking about youth as a consequence and stop talking about future and just talking about the need to support global south countries and other vulnerable social groups like Indigenous peoples and women. And I wonder if that’s something that you’ve seen happen or have felt yourself, the more that you’ve interacted with people, the more that it’s become harder to, I don’t know, maybe keep up some of the narrative that the youth climate movement started with.

Abel: Yeah, it’s really interesting that’s come out in your research, that’s important. I am like a little bit wary of people can kind of bounce to the other extreme and say, kind of almost absolve themselves of any responsibility and say, because we’re privileged there’s nothing for us to do all we can do is support other people elsewhere. The conclusion is to stand on the sidelines and cheer on other people. And I think that’s definitely no answer either. There’s like people in the older generation who’ve been fighting, fighting, fighting really hard. And even whether that’s for hundreds of years or even in the last ten, 20 years, absolutely if we don’t take on the lessons from what they’ve learned and we’re not starting a fresh.

The generational divide is quite a simple one say “oh, well you old people messed it up and now it’s young people dealing with it”. I have no doubt there’s, unfortunately, there’s a lot of young people who will continue the same mistakes and abuses that older generations did. Why would we want to organise by ourselves? Maybe have some spaces, but I dunno if you’ve seen spaces that young people can kind of exist without any guidance or support for older groups. Is it a thing that we’re trying to be quite like youth separatists?

Harriet: Not separatists, no, there are quite a lot of youth groups that are entirely youth led and are very keen that their advocacy and campaigning is all decided by young people rather than by other groups that are very keen to show solidarity with other groups. For me, having a youth voice on climate change though it’s more than just having young people represent and repeat the messages of scientists or NGOs, but in a more enthusiastic or creative or radical way. Cause we know that climate change doesn’t affect everyone equally and that members of the same local communities, even in the same geographical communities can have quite different experiences, including women and girls, people living in poverty, people of colour, people with disabilities, et cetera.

And what I find is that what’s often overlooked is that youth intersects with all of those groups and then that produces unique challenges. So, for example, I’ve just been doing some research with young people in South Asia and there was some interesting findings around transgender youth in Pakistan that were vulnerable in a way that wasn’t really getting picked up. Or school kids in Yorkshire that their school closed because of flooding and they had to travel 45 minutes to a different school and then got bullied because they were a different school and they didn’t know anyone. And obviously there’s different levels of vulnerability there between the two examples, but there are things that young people experience in communities experiencing climate impacts, that older people in those communities don’t experience and that those issues aren’t really very well-represented in decision making processes.

And it’s something that to my mind, the youth climate movement isn’t so good at, of identifying their unique vulnerabilities, needs and perspectives and communicating them so that youth are seen as having something different to say and it’s really valuable. So I’d like to see the youth climate movement doing a bit more to share specific stories of how young people in impacted communities around the world are experiencing climate impacts so that their needs can be factored in in processes that are designing adaptation and mitigation projects and in making investments as well. Yeah, I wonder if, if you agree with that and how young activists kind of navigate that, and if there’s a need for more support to build young people’s capacity to then identify and share their unique lived experiences as young people?

Abel: I think it’s really interesting, it kind of opens up, it’s become a perennial question about identity politics, about, like, how that fits in with other analyses, I think. Cause I agree with what you’re saying about the specific experiences young people have and like that is definitely a unique contribution, but I guess I’m kind of wary of that just sort of being relayed as, like, another one ticking the box of another inequality and saying, “oh, we’ve had these voices heard”. But I don’t think young people’s voices on executive boards or in shareholders planning meetings, I don’t think like the presence of young people’s voices is really gonna, is that necessarily crucial? And young people is probably one of the social groups that has one of the widest experiences of climate change, I think. Well, from those who live lives of privilege because of profiting off fossil fuels or whatever through like family ties, to all scales of like intersecting oppressions.

Harriet: That’s something that I’ve found in my research actually that I think is really valuable, that youth climate activists don’t necessarily fit a particular mold. They’re much more open to trying different approaches. One day they might be, you know, put on the suit jacket and be talking to politicians, and the next day they’ve got their t-shirt on and they’re in a strike. And it’s very much more about being exposed to and engaging with a much wider variety or spectrum of views and thinking about finding their own role that fits within that and how they want to contribute but while still supporting others that are trying to essentially achieve the same outcome, but may be pursuing different ways of doing that.

I found that quite different to older activist groups who tend to have a sort of corporate or organisational identity, of “this is the way that we dress and speak and interact and present ourselves”. It’s something that I find quite refreshing about the youth climate activist movement, that it is a little bit more open-minded, I guess. But I wonder, is there anything that you think youth activists can add to the climate movement that older adults can’t?

Abel: I think what you just described in like, not conforming to that kind of like corporate activism is really important. I think yeah more mobile, more like willing to go out and in these like more, sometimes more confrontational and more challenging actions. I heard some describe it as like youth climate strikers wanna knock the door down and charge through before they know what’s on the other side of it. Because they realised the door still needs to be knocked down and that we don’t know quite what we’re heading for, but until we start going for it and like that’s the process by which we work out where to go is just by getting on with it.

Harriet: Well I do see actually that sometimes it’s a little bit easily dismissed by older generations who say, “Oh, I thought that when I was your age, and then I grew up and became more realistic”, which I find a little bit infuriating because it’s, it’s not about, for me, it’s not about as you get older, you sort of conform to the status quo. When we are all in agreement that the status quo is unworkable and that it can’t continue and that it needs to change because we need emissions to peak and decline now. So I think it’s an interesting rhetoric that people use in response to young people.

I wonder one of the things I’ve come across in my research is kind of a loss of momentum over time as young activists either burnout through frustration or kind of age out of feeling that they can speak for youth or move on and get other jobs, and then are a little bit more tied by having to tow the line of whoever they’re working for. Have you seen any of those issues in the group that you’ve been working with?

Abel: Yeah, definitely. It has been hard. I mean the dropping of the pandemic definitely didn’t help the school strike movement, but I agree that it was dwindling before the pandemic hit as well. I think that was just like the two at the same time made it really difficult. Maybe people could be discouraged by that feeling of like, should we put all this energy into it, we did all this stuff and then like what happened, kind of thing?

And again it comes back I think to sort of being aware of the history of struggle and realise that although the school strikes themselves are quite a new thing, campaigning and protesting and taking action about climate change is not a new thing. People have been trying a long, hard for a long time, so we’re not going to solve it overnight either. Then again, it can’t just be sort of solved by mindless action. There needs to be a good bit of reflection as well in there.

I’ve seen some quite good critiques of the idea of activists, being someone who just always acts and like doesn’t really think about what the action is doing. Instead, have have the action, but yeah, reflection as well, and think about tactics. And then I guess that’s not maybe as fun or exciting as going on the street and dancing and music and shouting. That builds more slowly and I think going on the street and protesting is a really good way to start that.

Harriet: Yeah, I’ve seen some research on that from a guy called Mark Hudson in Manchester, who says if all you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail, which is like, if all you do as a group is have protests, then you just do that for every problem, but some problems, you know, protest isn’t necessarily the right approach and thinking about how to apply the right tool for the right opportunity. Which I think is something that, as we said before, we’ve seen that, with youth activists not conforming as much and thinking about, strategically, what is the right approach?

Jack: Listening to Harriet and Abel reminded me of how diverse the youth climate movement is, and how it benefits from looking outwards to related struggles all around the world.

Many young activists are disillusioned with the lack of progress on emissions since students first walked out of lessons a year and a half ago. What other options are there for young people to force action on climate change? We spoke with another researcher to find out.

Lynda Dunlop: I’m Lynda Dunlop. I’m a senior lecturer in Science Education at the University of York where I teach and do research mainly in science and environmental education.

Jack: For Lynda’s recent research, she spoke to young people affected by fracking – that’s a process of extracting gas. To do it, people inject water, sand and chemicals into rock to create fractures that the gas can flow through. The teens Lynda spoke to lived in England and Northern Ireland and they lived in places where fracking was happening or where companies were looking to start fracking.

Lynda: So they were all aged between 15 to 19, and they were concerned about, fracking in their local community, but also on the impacts of fossil fuel extraction on the climate. So we were asking them about fracking, but also about their responses to protest.

One of the kinds of things that we find surprising was a preference for other forms of political participation. So, a preference for things like lobbying, making legal challenges, signing petitions, writing to MPs, those sorts of methods of protesting or being active.

Jack: So, what are the drawbacks of protesting, exactly?

Lynda: Well, for the young people we spoke to, it was mainly around disruption and the fact that affects the communities that are also affected by the fracking, by the thing that they are objecting to. It doesn’t always reach the decision-makers who can actually listen to them and do something as a result.

So the sorts of things that they talked about were holding up, holding up barriers, in streets, outside access along the roads, outside entrance to the site, those sorts of things.

And, I guess whilst they saw that it raised awareness and it got media attention, often the media attention was about the protest or aspects of the protest rather than on the issue, which then kind of can cause division within their communities.

Jack: So what are the sort of perceived benefits of those other methods of activism? I suppose, the letter writing and petitions that you described earlier.

Lynda: The sorts of actions that they preferred they saw as being able to reach decision-makers directly. Being able to communicate with the people with responsibility, being able to connect with larger networks and groups – so for example, when they were talking about social media activism – connecting with other people with similar interests seemed to be quite important to them. And probably most importantly control over the message. So the message in the media was often about the protest, whereas they felt by using other methods, using their own voice, they’re able to say precisely what the issue was.

Jack: Did you get a sense from them that they saw any limits within those tactics as well?

Lynda: Effectiveness really, I think. So I’d say that was kind of the, the key message overall is kind of a frustration with formal ways of participating, so a feeling of not being listened to and really seeing protest as an action of last resort when legal processes fail, when politicians don’t listen, when companies don’t listen.

Jack: I mean, I’m actually really struck by your research because usually whenever there’s sort of a big demonstration, you know, whether it’s this thing on the M25 where activists have been blocking roads and stuff like that, the government’s usual response is to say that the protests themselves are reckless and counterproductive and all these kinds of things, and it seems as if the young people you spoke to kind of accepted that and were sort of sympathetic to that view. And even going through the channels that, you know, that are sort of considered legitimate, like speaking to MPs and stuff, they still found that their kind of desires were frustrated, even though they were doing the things that were kind of supposed to be a proper way of airing your views on something, I suppose.

Lynda: Yeah, I think that was one of the interesting things, I suppose, about the research is just how well-informed they were, they respected the processes and they wanted the processes to work. And it was really that frustration that they didn’t work, regardless of whether they were taking part in protest or not: they did want political processes to work.

Jack: That’s, I think that’s, it’s just very sad isn’t it really. But I think that’s a very good point you make. The last thing I wanted to ask is that do you think that young people are more limited in the tactics they can employ when it comes to trying to effect change?

Lynda: Well, yeah, I mean, I guess most of the participants that we spoke to couldn’t vote, below voting age, and they tend not to be the ones in the house that are kind of making those decisions about which energy provider and maybe not paying their energy bills. They were also living in more rural areas where they felt that maybe they weren’t listened to as much as if they were in an urban area.

And they also tend to be in education all day. They’ve got lots of things going on, and I think maybe that’s one of the key things that I’d say is, for decision-makers, if you go into a school where you’re speaking to a broad section of young people from different areas, they’re really well-informed about the issues, about how to take part. And I think a lot could be learned from listening to people in those schools and colleges.

Jack: It’s fair to say that young climate activists are used to being disappointed by those in power.

But I don’t think world leaders will be able to ignore them forever. The movement is grounded in communities all over the world and activists like Abel aren’t giving up, but are instead learning more about the climate crisis and how it relates to other struggles. Strikes have resumed in some places and young people are trying different strategies.

Watching how the youth climate movement has evolved over the past few years, it may just be getting started.

Jack: If you’re listening to this episode when it first comes out, COP26 is about to start in Glasgow. I’ll be there and have an episode coming out right after. In that episode we won’t just tell you what was agreed at COP, we’ll tell you how, taking you behind all the factors that can make or break an international climate negotiation. See you for episode five.

Jack: Thanks to everybody who spoke to us for this episode.

The Anthill is produced by The Conversation in London. The Anthill is produced by The Conversation in London. You can get in touch with us on on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. And you can also sign up for our free daily email by clicking the link in the show notes.

If you’re enjoying the series, please follow the show, and leave a rating or review wherever podcast apps allow you to. Please tell your friends and family about the show too.

Climate fight, the world’s biggest negotiation is produced for The Conversation by Tiffany Cassidy. Sound design is by Eloise Stevens and the series theme tune is by Neeta Sarl. Our editor is Gemma Ware and production help comes from Holly Stevens. Thanks also go to Will de Freitas, Stephen Harris, Jo Adetunji, Chris Waiting, Katie Francis, Khalil Cassimally, Alice Mason and Zoe Jazz at The Conversation. To James Harper and his team at UKRI. And to Imriel Morgan and Sharai White for helping us to promote the series. I’m Jack Marley. Thanks for listening.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

Climate Fight: the world’s biggest negotiation is a podcast series supported by UK Research and Innovation, the UK’s largest public funder of research and innovation.

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