Ground Level Climate Advocacy and Youth Inclusion: Q&A with Disha Sarkar

Students from the All Guwahati Students' Union hold hands by the Brahmaputra River during a "Save Brahmaputra" protest against the contamination of the river in Guwahati, Assam, Northeast India, on December 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

There is growing recognition at the United Nations (UN) and among member states of the particular vulnerabilities of the world’s 1.8 billion young people to climate change, the invaluable contributions of youth to accelerating climate action, and the need for youth inclusion in climate governance and decision-making. Yet, young people remain largely sidelined in climate decision-making fora, and engagement with youth is often ad hoc.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated that “My generation has largely failed until now to preserve both justice in the world and to preserve the planet. It is your generation that must make us be accountable to make sure that we don’t betray the future of humankind.”

Disha Sarkar is a climate advocate from India and a member of the Official Youth Constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (YOUNGO) and part of their international youth delegation at the COP26 climate talks.

To relate the experiences of youth working to advance climate action across the local, national, and global levels and promote youth inclusion, Disha Sarkar spoke to Masooma Rahmaty, Policy Analyst in the SDGs for Peace program at the International Peace Institute (IPI), and Eimer Curtin, an Editor at IPI’s Global Observatory.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve called yourself a “ground level” advocate. What does that mean, what are the opportunities and challenges? 

Ground level advocacy is much different from the work being done in international arenas, in the negotiations, where our representatives are formulating policies. The representatives are there to speak for their people—however, some have never felt their pains and suffering, and can’t relate to the actual scenario on the ground.

I’ve felt the agony of losing an identity that was shaped by living in close relation with nature—and the trauma of not even having the proper representation for those sufferings. I had the opportunity to work with many youths who, in their own small capacities, were taking steps from riverbank cleanliness drives or organizing Earth Day programs to creating awareness on climate change and initiating “positive change,” however far away a reality that is.

In terms of challenges—when I talk about Northeast India, it somewhat lacks major representation on the national and international front, although it is among the most vulnerable in terms of the impact of climate change. I felt the need to strengthen awareness and build capacity, so that the local youths can start advocating for themselves and their futures.

The UN processes (engagements in conferences like COP or any such policy-related work) are extremely tedious and exhaustive. They require so much effort in terms of simply understanding the outcomes or the policy documents. And there comes the role of capacity building. We always say that youth, Indigenous communities, and vulnerable communities should speak up for themselves. But how? They do not know the complex technical terminologies used in the UN processes. They remain confined to ground level activism, with no chance to have an influence in the actual policy or decision-making processes.

And this is the problem! We need such voices to reach up to the decision-making process, inside those closed negotiation rooms, speaking a language that can be incorporated in policy texts. That requires capacity building. And climate finance is key to supporting such capacity-building initiatives.

You grew up in Assam in Northeast India, where you’ve witnessed first-hand some impacts of climate change. Can you tell us what growing up there was like, and how it informs how you think about the issue? 

Having been born in Northeast India, in the state of Assam, which is blessed by the mighty Brahmaputra River flowing through the heart of the state, with surrounding hills and small local water bodies, my life has always been highly inspired by nature—it is close to my soul. I still remember how, after school, we ran to the nearby fields to play with friends until dusk, the fresh air filled our lungs and the fragrance of the first rain showers on the land rejuvenated us. This was growing up in an area inhabited by Indigenous communities and rural people.

However, over the years, these experiences became scarce. Rapid concretization and overpopulated city life became the new “normal,” and this was alarming for me as someone who always romanticized living in close connection with nature. The open fields which were once so green and filled with lush hedges and bushes have now been stripped of their greenery, or the fields themselves have disappeared. Where do we find open grounds now, amid skyscrapers? The heart-wrenching sights of the reckless felling of trees under which I once played in my childhood days, of the Bharalu River—which was once a poetic inspiration for many due to its beauty—eventually turning into a drain, the loss of human lives and livestock due to annual flooding in Assam, and the irrational consumption pattern of the present generation, all of this concerned me from a very young age.

Back when I was in school, December meant lots of warm clothes, but now? We are still using fans in December. July meant rejuvenating rains and lush green paddy fields. But now? No rains, dry and barren agricultural fields, severe droughts, and farmers committing suicide due to the lack of harvest. This awoke my concern.

My sudden chronic lung infection due to inhaling polluted air—for which I had to take almost three months of treatment—added greatly to my worry. What have we done to ourselves? How much will we chase development at the expense of our mother earth? These were questions that jolted my heart, and I couldn’t just sit around anymore doing nothing, a mere spectator. That’s why I first started my ground level work on climate education and climate awareness.

You’ve mentioned there is an enormous gap between government initiatives and what is happening at the local level. What is needed to bring these efforts together? 

As I always say, who can speak better than the sufferers themselves? We need to have more representation from Indigenous communities, youth, children, and women in the decision-making process. Maybe have a specialized task force for climate action which consists of government representatives along with members of such affected communities.

Moreover, the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in understanding the problems and formulating probable solutions can increase the positive impact manyfold. In the implementation process, it’s also advisable to have local communities and youth involved, rather than confining implementation to government officials. We need to start working hand in hand to have a chance in this fight against climate change.

Steps such as acknowledging the fact that youth, too, can have the desired expertise and the knowledge base to suggest meaningful edits in policymaking, and actively including their voices at the negotiation table, will definitely bear positive fruit.

Are there any countries you think are doing well with including youth? What do you see as the progress and limitations there?

I would not like to name any specific country, however there are certain parameters based on which I personally assess whether a country is doing well in terms of youth inclusion.

Firstly, I believe having youth included in the national delegation at COP is an extremely encouraging step towards meaningful youth involvement. However, we see many countries, which have youth onboard, in the national delegation, however they have not been conferred equal responsibilities. So, this is not what I see as progress. Equal responsibility should be given to the youth in the delegation.

At the level of the masses, the inclusion of climate education in the national curriculum is also a positive indicator of youth involvement. Only by making the youth aware can a country expect youth to accelerate climate action to the extent that is needed in the coming decades. Additionally, some countries have the concept of a “youth parliament” or a parallel governance structure led by youth, which is a very positive development. But how much such initiatives actually contribute to policymaking is still a question.

As a limitation towards youth participation, we often see that youth are tokenized in the form of fluff engagement which looks good only for “publicity and photograph” purposes. It’s high time we go beyond token involvement, such as funding young people to attend an international conference or promoting a “youth fest,” but excluding them from the more substantive work, like actually having a say in the policy formulation or drafting of an outcome document.

You participated in a number of side events during COP26. Did you find the COP26 to be inclusive, especially in regard to youth participation? Can you tell us any that made you feel optimistic? 

I attended COP as part of the Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) Working Group of YOUNGO and the Global Youth Development Institute, USA. My primary role was to advocate for climate action and meaningful youth participation with the party delegates.

I had the opportunity to lead some bilateral meetings with party delegates from Saudi Arabia, the United States (US), Argentina, and South Africa, and others, on Article 12 of the Paris Agreement—action for climate empowerment. In these negotiations, one of the primary demands from the youth constituency was to involve youth in national delegation teams. We also focused on the financing of climate action projects related to climate education and training.

I was invited to be a guest speaker at the China Corporate Pavilion and the Global Environment Facility—Green Climate Fund Pavilion to highlight the role of youth in climate action as it relates to diplomacy, including how member states can meaningfully involve youth voices in global decision-making processes.

At two Paris Committee on Capacity Building Hub events, I had the opportunity to speak about active youth participation in United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) processes, rather than continued tokenization of youth.

A session on creating awareness about Article 12 of the Paris Agreement was organized by Peace Boat US, at the Glasgow Marriott Hotel, where we reiterated the fact that youth can lead ambitious climate action in communities, if supported by governments. And I had an interaction with Helen Grant, the United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Girls’ Education, on how the UK government can improve youth involvement.

I moderated an intergenerational dialogue with the Foreign Affairs Minister of Panama, Italian Minister for Ecological Transition, among other dignitaries. We tried to bring to the table the perspectives of youth and how these could be better intertwined, depending on the national circumstances, with the work being done by governments.

I also had a conversation with the Indian Director of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, along with the other COP delegates from India, where I feel there’s a huge gap between the work being done at the grassroots level by the non-party stakeholders and the governmental initiatives. And there’s an urgency to align both to tap the synergies and amplify the impacts.

So, these were my personal experiences of “being heard,” of youth actually being called to be on the panel, not just sitting on the receiving end as the audience. So, yes, a positive development. During conversations with government delegates or during negotiations, I felt that youth are being given space, however slowly. And we, as youth representatives, are definitely hopeful!

How do you balance the hope and despair of working on climate change? 

See, on hope prevails life and that’s how we live each day. So, as much as the “code red for humanity” of the IPCC Report concerns and demotivates us, we still need to keep fighting. Going by scientific data, we will only witness despair. However, we cannot just leave the battle unfought. As I said, it’s extremely discouraging at times.

It’s discouraging when we are in that age group where our primary focus should be to earn our livelihood and build a career and, instead, we are expected to “work for free” for climate action and not even be recognized for our efforts.

It’s discouraging when you walk up to a party representative at COP, after years of following negotiations, and try to give your insight, and you are told “This is serious business and youth cannot be taken on board.”

It’s also discouraging when you go up to older people in your community and try to tell them how their individual actions can also contribute to climate change, and they simply refuse to even acknowledge that climate change is real.

So what? Do we stop fighting against climate change and let future generations suffer? Definitely not!

What gives me hope is the news of a new coral reef being found in Australia. I hold onto the hope that my children will witness the beauty of the Himalayas and not hear the heart-wrenching story of its glaciers, ecosystems, and people being doomed due to our activities.

And these keep me going, toward creating greater climate action and creating ripples of positive change!