Youth, Peace, and Climate Action

Event Video: 

Since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, young people have emerged as a powerful force calling for transformative change on climate action. The United Nations’ “Youth 2030 Strategy” calls for expanded and systematic youth engagement in all arenas, and the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the UN recognizes that “youth is the missing piece between development and peace.”

The practical steps and challenges of engaging youth in peace and climate action was the subject of an October 22nd virtual policy forum cosponsored by IPI, the Governments of Singapore and Sweden, the Office of the United Nations Secretary- General’s Envoy on Youth, the UN Office for Partnerships, the Office of the Assistant Secretary-General on Climate Action, the Global Challenges Foundation, the United Network of Young Peacebuilders, and the UN75 Campaign.

In opening remarks, Mary Robinson, Chair of the Elders, First Woman President of Ireland, and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that COVID-19 had aggravated the devastating cost in human lives, and to economic growth, political momentum, and social inequality. “COVID-19 has exposed the interconnections between health, economic, and political risks of inaction and neglect.”

She declared, “Now is our opportunity to make change happen by design, and to realize this new design, we will have to listen to the voices of young people, and in the climate sphere, they are telling us to listen to the science, and listen we must.”

Jimena Leiva Roesch, IPI Senior Fellow and Head of the Peace and Sustainable Development Program, prompted the discussion with a general question to the young participants and diplomats. Did they think that the youth, peace, and security agendas were compatible?

Pedro Cunha, Regional Facilitator at Latin America and the Caribbean Engagement Mechanisms for the Society (LACEMOS) and member of United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY) said the agendas were “more than compatible, they are complementary and co-dependent, as they are built on the same foundation of meaningful and inclusive participation of young people in decision-making and strong democratic governance.”

He said that from his conversations with peace and environmental activists in Latin America, he had concluded that there had to be a new category of international crime against peace, which he identified as “ecocide.”

“Right now there are four crimes against peace: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression,” he said. “All protect peoples and civilization, but we miss a key foundation of peace, to protect the earth and all its living beings. We are missing this fifth category of crimes against peace, and that is ecocide.”

Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, said, “we all know from our work and our experience that youth, peace and climate are very much interlinked.” She mentioned two examples to make the point. “One is that seven of the ten peacekeeping missions that we have are actually based in countries that are most susceptible to climate change. And the second statistic is that these seven countries are some of the most youthful populations in the world.” She said that in countries like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Mali, up to 80 percent of the population was under the age of 30. “And we see these countries on the lists of those countries that are the most susceptible to violence and most vulnerable to climate change, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think this shows that young people are disproportionately affected by both conflict and by climate action.”

Nisreen Elsaim, Chair of both the Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group and the Sudan Youth Organization on Climate Change, offered up her own life experience as exemplifying the linkages. “I’m a climate change activist, I’m a young person, and I’m coming from a country that has suffered from civil wars for 40 years and a conflict over natural resources for 20 years.”

Geraldine Byrne Nason, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the UN, commented, “We know that we can’t transform the world in the way we need to, the way we set out to in the 2030 agenda unless we look at the interlinkages between the issues, the movements, and, I would argue, between the generations. So I know that the young people on the screen with us this morning are ready to help shape the world that they want. And we need to give them a voice in order to do that. But for all of that to happen, we have to recognize that the linkages between these agendas are as true for the Youth, Peace, and Security agenda as they are for the climate action movement.”

Ireland is joining the Security Council in January, and Ambassador Byrne Nason said that though climate change was contributing to all of the root causes of the conflicts that the Council deals with, there is “big resistance” on the Council to acting on it. And as for youth, she said, “It’s a very one-dimensional view of young people that we employ here at the UN. We want to see young people sitting at the Security Council during the debates, we want to see youth shape the way, and not just as custodians of the future and peace, we want to see youth shape the way we talk about issues that are currently on the table.” She promised, “You can rely on us to do that. I mean, let’s be clear, there are few issues that really affect young people more than the damaging impacts of climate change.”

Magnus Lennartsson, Deputy Permanent Representative of Sweden to the UN, said, “It is impossible to keep these agendas apart. They are, and should be, closely interlinked. The leadership of young women and men of different backgrounds is absolutely key in our search for a long term climate solution. Youth in decision-making is the way to ensure ambition and progress.”

Ambassador Lennartsson said that Sweden’s recent two-year service on the Security Council had convinced him that “it is simply not possible to have a serious discussion about what the world should or will look like tomorrow without including and listening to young women and men. It is, after all, the young people who will live longer in the world that we build together today. We know that in places where the impact of climate change is most severe, like the Sahel, like East Africa, the population is very young. And it is therefore not surprising that the strongest activism for climate action comes from the younger generation.”

Joan Cedano, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Dominican Republic to the UN, said that her country’s almost two years on the Security Council had shown her that the Council didn’t fully appreciate the linkages between the agendas. “The Council has recognized climate change as one major driver of conflict; however, it has not yet made the connection in terms of how this specifically and fundamentally affects young people living in conflict.” She implored young people to keep pressing for participation in the Council’s deliberations. “Young people will continue to make points to the Council and to us member states, the points that we are not making on our own. And please don’t stop doing it. You need to continue to be that voice that calls on policy-makers and the international community to do their jobs.”

In closing remarks, Ambassador Lennartsson asserted, “Youth are the agents of change, and they have a key stake in the jobs, the environment, and the economy of the future, and they have clearly demonstrated that, through activist movements, they have a sincere interest and willingness to support a rapid shift towards sustainable consumption and production.”

In closing the event, Ms. Leiva Roesch highlighted that the Tweet Chat preceding the event had received millions of impressions, underscoring the relevance of the topic. See our one-pager for outcomes from the Tweet Chat.

Ms. Leiva Roesch moderated the discussion.