The COP26 climate talks in Glasgow that took place last month raised a number of pressing issues from the “phase-down” of coal to climate finance to the discussion around loss and damage. An area that needs further attention is the incredible efforts and work done by young people around the world not only on climate action but their efforts to prevent crises and contribute to peace. This article highlights some of the challenges young people face, as well as shedding light on the interlinkages between the climate and youth, peace, and security (YPS) agendas.
Youth movements around the world have played a major role in increasing global, national, and local ambition to take climate action—a movement that is continuing to grow in strength and breadth. Many youth-led organizations are also engaged in initiatives to build peace and prevent violence in their communities. Youth are increasingly calling for their voices to be heard and for policymakers to include them in decision-making processes at all levels.
Overall, however, young people are excluded from both climate and peace and security policymaking. They are usually sidelined rather than systematically included in decision-making fora, dialogues, and negotiations. Additionally, local-level work at the intersection of peace and climate change is not reflected at the global level. For example, the resolutions that make up the YPS agenda exclude the impact of climate change as a risk to peace and security and the role of youth in climate action. This exclusion is particularly problematic due to the fact that 90 percent of the world’s 1.8 billion youth live in developing or conflict-affected countries where climate change is a serious “risk multiplier” for peace and sustainable development.
Synergies between YPS and Climate Action
Youth have been at the forefront of efforts to demand urgent action on sustaining peace and addressing climate change. But while the YPS movement and youth climate movement emerged at similar times, they have taken different approaches.
The climate action taken by youth is often characterized by marches and strikes to demand change from leaders. It counters the status quo and has a much smaller footprint in United Nations (UN) structures and little institutional recognition. YOUNGO, the Youth Constituency of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), provides perhaps the strongest institutional link between youth organizations and multilateral climate negotiations. Nonetheless, the youth climate movement remains at the periphery of the UNFCCC and its Conference of the Parties (COP).
Without strong institutional linkages, youth pursue other forms of engagement in climate negotiations. At the 2019 COP, several youth protesters were escorted out of the building. This reflects the clear gap between the prominent climate activism of youth in the streets and their much smaller role in policymaking. The formation of the secretary-general’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change in July 2020 is an initial effort to bridge this gap by connecting youth leaders with the highest office at the UN.
Disagreement over issues such as youth political participation and sexual and reproductive rights has also prevented member states from adopting an overarching policy framework on youth and sustainable development. The Paris Agreement does not mention youth, only referring to intergenerational equity. The policy framework that most strongly makes this link is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, where youth are mentioned in ten areas, but there is no stand-alone goal on youth as there is for women and girls. The most concrete link is in target 13.b, where youth are mentioned as important to building capacity to plan for and manage climate change. As a result, the UN development system has taken an ad hoc approach to youth, particularly when it comes to climate change.
The UN has a stronger normative and institutional framework for engaging youth on peace and security than on climate change, thanks in part to the three YPS resolutions. The UN secretary-general is required to submit biennial reports to the Security Council on the progress made in implementing the YPS resolutions. The fact that the YPS agenda has the support of the Security Council, usually considered to be the most powerful body in the UN, is also of value at the global level. The UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) also adopted a Strategic Action Plan on Youth and Peacebuilding in February 2021, though it does not mention climate change.
Within the UN system, the agenda is coordinated by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) through the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO). Additionally, UNFPA and PBSO co-chair the Global Coalition on YPS, where civil society and the UN systematically coordinate and collaborate with the aim of strengthening youth participation in peacebuilding policy and practice. The establishment of a UN youth envoy has also increased the voice of youth at the UN and demonstrates the commitment of the organization to supporting youth leadership. The current envoy on youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, has been actively pushing for the creation of linkages between peace and climate action.
At the global level, the links between the YPS agenda and the youth climate movement are relatively weak. Security Council Resolution 2535 on YPS makes a reference to “weather events” when referring to “young people’s meaningful engagement in humanitarian planning and response” and highlights that “young people play a unique role in strengthening the national, local and community-based capacities in conflict and post-conflict situations to prepare for and respond to increasingly frequent and severe weather events and natural disasters.”
These weak links between YPS and youth climate action are exacerbated by a lack of consensus about how to link the peace and security and climate action agendas more broadly. Firmly rooting climate action in prevention and sustaining peace could give local actors, including youth, a more prominent role and avoid framing youth and climate change as “threats” that require a securitized response. However, ongoing differences among Security Council members have meant that language on climate change is rarely included in its resolutions.
Geographic disparities in who is driving the global YPS and youth climate action movements also weaken the linkages between them. There is a widespread impression that in practice the YPS agenda is focused on youth in the Global South. At the same time, youth from European countries are overrepresented at the COP and other climate change fora. To build peace and address climate change, both movements need to engage youth from all parts of the world.
This gap between YPS and youth climate action reflects the divide that exists between what is happening on the ground and at the policy level. At the local level, peacebuilders are often also climate activists and vice versa, and this is a growing trend. While the magnitude of the risk and the specific challenges may differ, the climate crisis is universal. It undermines efforts to achieve sustainable development and to promote and sustain peace—a reality that is unavoidable for youth peacebuilders and climate activists at the local level.
Masooma Rahmaty is a Policy Analyst in the SDGs for Peace, and Women Peace and Security programs at the International Peace Institute. Jimena Leiva Roesch is Senior Fellow and Head of Peace and Sustainable Development at the International Peace Institute.