Young People and Climate Action Now!

Sinead Mercier

IN 2050, 95% of Ireland current carbon emissions will have to be cut. All things going well, this means all homes and business will be insulated to Passive House standard to reduce energy use, any excess will be 100% renewable energy – wind, solar or tidal owned by communities and co-ops. Town and country planning will have improved to allow quick, safe and clean transport to and from work rather than scattered countryside houses. Work will include clean-tech, renewable energy, Climate Smart agriculture/agroecology and co-operatives. Natural resources will be owned in common and disease and carbon intensive farming will become local, clean and devolved to the expertise and control of today’s farmers – working in partnership with their environment. 2050 then will be the culmination of a wholescale transition to a post-carbon economy. At a mere 61 years of age I will have lived through the Great Industrial Revolution – or indeed, its reversal. Things going wrong, I might live in a securitised state where EU navy boats patrol the shores to cut off refugees fleeing scorched or sinking states.  Privatised water resources are poisoned as the land is bored and bled for natural gas.

This October I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend the Progressives for Climate conference for two days in Paris as a delegate of Young Friends of the Earth Ireland. The conference was organised by the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament to influence policy and debate around the upcoming UNFCCC Conference of the Parties 2015. The conference focused on the need for real participation of young people in the decisions surrounding climate action. Our civil society group of young climate activists were joined on the Saturday by business leaders, MEPs and young social entrepreneurs to debate what a just transition to a post-carbon economy will actually look like.

The transition to a climate-smart economy and society no longer ‘needs’ to happen – it is happening. The only question is will we be part of the decisions made. Attending the EU Progressives for Climate talk as a representative of Young Friends of the Earth I was struck by how much of priority issue climate change is for the French Government and others across Europe – even the Conservatives in the UK are taking a lead with their introduction of a ‘carbon floor’ to counteract the inefficiencies of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. In Ireland, our Taoiseach has mentioned climate change a mere three times during his five years in Government – a figure met with disbelief by those at the conference. Climate action hurtles along without the involvement of democratic governments, many of them stalled by lack of political will and captured by vested interests. As Obama states, our elected representatives are of “the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it” – stasis is unacceptable.

It is terrible to think of the attacks in Paris and the effect it has on ordinary people’s lives as well as the hopeful air of COP21 in Paris. I have no doubt that the resilient, beautiful people I met there will continue to work steadily to social and climate justice in the face of those who would prefer to see them bent and fearful.

The main issues that arose at the conference were youth and climate action, climate justice, the need for system change to combat climate change and the question of what practical action actually looks like.


Young people and climate action

The sad fact is that we are working to solve a problem like climate change in a time when there has never been such a deep absence of faith in institutions. Irish young people in particular, are disillusioned with politics. Despite key figures scrambling to have photos taken with ‘millennials’ at Yes Equality marches, the cut to under 25’s social welfare was the only social welfare cut not reversed in the 2016 budget. Not only that but many of the very organisations that work for intra-generational climate and social justice use unpaid or Jobsbridge interns, inherently devaluing young people in a society where wealth equals status. We are told that young people are simply too immature to take the lead on these issues, that we must wait our turn. Yet here in Paris was a group keenly aware of the fact that being told that the future is ours is also a warning that the present is not.

It was wonderful to learn from other young people about the work they are doing in their own countries and the simple normality of their active engagement in climate issues. The self-confidence of the proud young people I met was fantastic – articulate, empowered and aware of their right to be involved and consulted. I was delighted to hear feminist eco-socialist Laura Slimani condemn the use of young people as a tool for political positioning and whitewash. I was delighted to find widespread support for my own contribution on the role of the Youth Guarantee in supporting young people to become climate activists.

Young people are not a group apart; we must recognise solidarity across all ages in the face of climate change. As a young woman I am everywhere and nowhere at the same time, in every magazine, on every billboard – and yet never in the Dáil or a public representative. Here, as with feminism in the face of an increasing acceptance of gender fluidity, adopting the awkward categorisation as a ‘youth’ is merely a strategic act to advance rights. The fetishisation of any group without meaningful dialogue can result in infantalisation and exclusion.


Climate Justice

It was wonderful to see climate justice was a genuine guiding concern of the Progressives for Climate conference (despite the brief presence of an Irish politician who could have clearly done more on that issue at home herself). Socio-economic rights were declared to be at the heart of all action on climate change, and there was sincere recognition that climate justice not only insists on just contributions between nations, but within them. In the last 25 years, inequality and carbon emissions have dramatically increased in tandem. The challenge is not only to decouple emissions from economic growth, but to examine what has decoupled prosperity itself from growth.  Climate change was recognised as not a question of technicalities, but a question of who we share declining resources with, and who we allow to reach prosperity.

One resounding belief from the youth group was that ‘the people’ must not pay for climate change; it must be dealt with by the system and industries that caused the problem. In my own work I see that there are real efforts for private industries to invest their wealth in clean and green technology. This innovation must be supported by government, this can be done very easily through cutting the trillions given in public monies every year to fossil fuel companies and moving those resources to green and renewable technology, research and development. As stated by business leaders – “what’s needed is the policy to unleash the potential”. These innovations themselves will be just if we take the opportunity to act now. Those who lost jobs in peat and coal plants must be offered alternatives, training and jobs with decent pay and conditions.  The energy revolution itself must not take, but share and involve.


Climate change means system change

Released carbon emissions do not disappear from the atmosphere; they are there now and forever. Having past the 1 degree mark we have 17 years left to reach an agreed 2degress, which at best will still mean the loss of states to rising sea levels and increasing heat.

Climate change has no clear enemies; we are all involved in and part of a structural construct that has adapted our way of thinking to consumption and exploitation without consequences. There are no easy ways of out this, it requires a wholescale reorientation of our society to sustainability and long-term thinking – this requires co-operation and inclusion. What better way to celebrate the Rising than to than to build an inclusive vision for the future, combatting the very causes of that bloody day. Many of the issues that lead to that fateful burst of built tension still exist today – war, disease, famine, joblessness, slums and an industrialisation that served few and condemned many.

If climate change has taught us anything, it’s that all things are interconnected.  The personal is not only political, it’s ecological. Your actions ripple out into a great web, an ecosystem affecting not only humans, but all things around you. Don’t underestimate the effect you have on your friends and family, as we saw with the Yes Equality campaign solidarity with others, even in your own wee circle can transform an entire country. Non-hierarchal structures where we recognise this interconnectivity and intergenerational respect are also increasingly the norm and increasingly the structure of youth organisations like Young Friends of the Earth.

Climate change requires a wholescale change in our economy and our own individual behaviour – driven itself by a structural system of constant consumption.  To ensure people will work towards climate action, it’s not good enough to terrify and scaremonger – we have to offer a credible, confident alternative to the current economic system. Our economy has caused great harm and we now know that avoiding destructive climate change necessitates a mass transition, it is up to all of us to ensure that it is just and fair.


Yeah, that’s all very well and good – but can I actually do anything about it?

Climate change is almost incomprehensible in its enormity; stasis is understandable. It is difficult to believe we have any influence on power and it’s easy to fall into abject acceptance and relinquishment of the roles that seem denied to us from the get go.

I remember then that the letters Amnesty International send to Governments from people all over the world have ensured the release of political prisoners in many a far off country. Irish protests over water charges and the cuts to pensions have led to wholescale political backtrack. It is difficult to know where to begin, but asking your politicians what they plan to do is a fantastic start.

In the face of precarious work, unemployment, money worries, emigration, long hours and exclusion, idealistic young passion can quickly fall to defeat in the face of an overbearing, constant threat like climate change,. In the context of the Easter Rising, the majority of those involved were under the age of 35 – the age limit for the category ‘youth’ as per the EU Youth Guarantee. Jim Larkin set up the ITGWUU (now SIPTU) at the age of 28, the first casualty of the Rising was a 14 year old messenger boy and Nurse O’Farrell that surrendered the forces with Padraig Pearse (38) was 32. The people that built our state were the ‘youth’ criticised as doing nothing but sitting and watching flat screen televisions.

It is implied that we are not to make those decisions.


I don’t think, sir, you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have – your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience”

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