From September 28th to 30th, the “Youth4Climate” meeting will take place in Milan, where almost 400 young people from all over the world aged between 18 and 29 will gather to discuss climate action. The Youth4Climate meeting aims at developing concrete proposals for this year’s Pre-COP and COP 26 that will occur in Milan and Glasgow, respectively. The caption “driving ambition” tells plenty about the role —at least on paper — this event should have in climate negotiations: showing global decision-makers the way to a zero-emission world.
The involvement of young people in UNFCCC processes is no news: YOUNGO (the global network of children and youth activists, together with youth NGOs) is the UNFCCC’s official youth constituency and it formally acknowledged at the 2011 UN Climate Forum. YOUNGO takes part in COPs by lobbying for policies, delivering speeches, engaging on social media, and interacting with the Secretariat. YOUNGO’s participants engage in a range of activities organised by the Secretariat, including side-events, exhibits, demonstrations, and interventions, though they appear to struggle to employ them to their best advantage due to a lack of resources and actual decision-making power. This year, YOUNGO’s main summit, the Conference of the Youth, will be held just before COP26 and culminate in a policy document that will be shared at the COP.
As such, if the interests and claims of young people from all over the world around climate action are already channeled through YOUNGO, what are the grounds for convening the Youth4Climate Summit?
The recognition of young people’s role in climate change governance has increased as a result of the Fridays for Future movement inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, and it was further invigorated by her powerful “How dare you” speech at the United Nations Youth Climate Summit in New York City, where she condemned world leaders for failing to take actions resolute enough to withstand climate change.
Against this backdrop, the Youth4Climate summit convened by Italy’s government is an additionaleffort to sustain the involvement of young people in international climate governance. During the three-day-long summit, participants will address some of the main urgencies and priorities around climate action. They will focus on specific issues, for which they are called to formulate proposals and recommendations that will be discussed in Glasgow by COP delegates in November. The topics the participants will discuss are divided into four themes: the first is young people’s participation in decision-making processes to enhance ambitions and monitor the actual realization of sound climate policies. Young people are thus called to help raise the bar of extant climate strategies; ultimately increasing the democratic legitimacy of the global climate change regime and acting as a “watchdog” on the achievement of climate objectives. The second theme that will be discussed at Youth4Climate is the alignment of the post-pandemic recovery — both from a growth and economic point of view — with targets set by the Paris Agreement. In this regard, Federica Gasbarro, a former Fridays for Future activist and one of the two members of the Italian delegation, turns the spotlight on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which encourages parties to voluntarily cooperate in the implementation of their NDCs, especially through support to vulnerable countries. Thirdly, participants will discuss the engagement of Non-State Actors (NSA) in climate governance, with specific reference to the fight against climate change in sectors that impact young people’s daily life. The UNFCCC attracts a growing number of NSAs to its conferences; thus enhancing perceptions of its inclusivity. However, a hierarchy between state actors and non-state actors persists in climate negotiations, and many youth participants prioritize attempts that influence intergovernmental negotiations by lobbying state actors, thus reinforcing the dynamics that leave youth constituencies essentially powerless when it comes to policy-making. Lastly, participants will discuss how to build a society aware of the challenges ahead as regards climate mitigation and adaptation, on top of deliberating over environmental education in schools and universities, and how to improve media narratives around the climate emergency and climate science communication as a whole.
At the same time as the PreCOP, from September 30th to October 2nd, Extinction Rebellion, Rise Up 4 Climate Justice, various local groups of Fridays for Future, environmental justice groups, and other associations consisting largely of young people will also gather at the Climate Camp in Milan to discuss the current ecological, climatic, social, and political crisis and give a space to all movements and associations excluded from the PreCOP. The Camp is declaredly an alternative to the PreCOP, a popular alternative that believes solutions to the ongoing climate crisis are not to be found in multilateral institutions upholding the current capitalist system, but rather in radical changes to the endless growth paradigm. The Climate Camp will culminate in the Climate March on October 2nd: on top of emphasizing the need for a radical, just transition, it aims to show PreCOP delegates these movements’ outrage against global decision-makers’ negligence in complying with the Paris Agreement.
The road towards real inclusivity of the youth within climate change negotiations is still long and thorny; moreover, the temporary condition of “youth” means youth groups experience a high degree of turnover and, possibly, lack of continuity in their specific battles. An important question here is: where is youth participation in the climate change regime aiming towards? As it is arranged at present, it seems to be tokenism and “youth washing” rather than meaningful participation in climate negotiations. However, albeit short of political leverage, youth participation in climate negotiations still oversees and holds political power accountable whilst urging decision-makers to raise the bar of climate action, at least as long as Greta Thunberg’s “How dare you” resonates in that room.