Op-ed: Youth are the antibodies defending our feverish mother earth

by Risalat Khan, World Economic Forum Global Shaper from the Dhaka Hub 0

“Du-u-u-ck!” we’d yell out to warn those further down the bus roof each time another electrical wire came dangerously close to our heads. Seconds later, the slogans would resume again, “Sundarban amar ma / ujar hote debo na!”.

Sundarban is my mother / won’t tolerate her smother!

As the exuberant cavalcade headed towards the Sundarbans mangrove forest in southwest Bangladesh, in town after town our youthful uproars made roadside observers curious, and they read our fliers describing the dangers of the massive Rampal coal-plant being built beside the forest. The three-day ‘long march’ concluded with a fiery speech by renowned economist and organizer Anu Muhammad to rally local communities near the Sundarbans. His leadership was instrumental in making the march, and the broader resistance, a powerful force.

Wherever you look, such age-diverse partnerships are at the frontlines of the climate struggle. Levi and Ridhima are only 9, but half a world apart, they are respectively taking the governments of the US and India to court for climate inaction, sparking what could develop into historic legal rulings. They couldn’t have done it alone — climate scientist James Hansen and Ridhima’s activist father have been crucial architects.

And just this week, the People’s Climate Mobilization marking President Trump’s 100 days in office is a bold statement against the administration’s dangerous denialism. It builds on marches in 2014 and 2015 that brought a combined 1.5 million people on the streets in over 2,000 cities worldwide, thanks largely to agile coordination by organizations like 350.org. 350 started when author-turned-activist Bill McKibben co-founded it with some of his students from Middlebury College. A youthful staff base has enabled such organizations to leverage the Internet to mobilize people more effectively and build power.

The examples above demonstrate three key ways that young people can and are speeding up the response to climate change. The young plaintiffs bring to light a profound moral clarity by highlighting the intergenerational injustice of society’s inaction on climate change. From the streets of Bangladesh to the halls of power at Paris COP21, youth have channeled that moral clarity with disruptive energy to challenge the status quo and expand the boundaries of dry political feasibilities. And finally, rising movements are employing youth who can drive digital innovation to exponentially improve coordination and generate greater impact.

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All three come together in the fossil fuel divestment movement, the fastest growing such movement in history. Sparked off by college students just six years ago, it has already galvanized over 5 trillion in dollars divested! The argument for divestment has a moral core: that endowments of educational institutions should not be used to sabotage their students’ futures. To highlight this, students have occupied president’s offices and disrupted the comfort of trustee boardrooms, forcing conversations that were unthinkable mere months ago. And they have been able to grow the movement rapidly by sharing knowledge and strategizing effectively with the help of digital technologies.

However, the youth struggle has a crushing limitation. Aside from rare exceptions, each dollar divested required a non-young decision-maker to make that final judgment, whether from a place of aligned values or under pressure. Youth are usually not in positions of power, or even offered a seat at the table of decision-making conversations.

And while youth have always played critical roles in driving conversations and values forward — such as the divestment movement against apartheid half a century ago — we still have to rely on incumbent authorities in boardrooms, parliaments, and public offices to unlock substantial progress.

Yet, the three dimensions discussed above empower youth with a compelling arsenal that can be leveraged to bypass this limitation by partnering with allies in positions of higher authority, and change the climate in which decisions around climate change are made, thereby steering the outcomes themselves.

The People’s Climate March 2014 right before the New York UN Climate Summit demonstrates this. An infusion of youthful organizing energy and smart digital strategy in the preceding months fueled a historic turnout of 400,000 filling the streets of Manhattan, making international headlines. The Heads of State speeches at the Summit made clear that after years of stagnation, country leaders realized there was a massive constituency on climate change. This invigorated the negotiations in pursuit of an ambitious deal in Paris in 2015.

I cried when the gavel finally came down on the Paris Agreement after a grueling two weeks. It was a tremendous, albeit overdue, achievement of multilateralism, and youth played a significant, though often overlooked role in the ecosystem. Since then, a heartbreaking political abandonment of basic science in several countries has cast a dark cloud over its fate. As the urgency grows, apparently the lunacy does too.

McKibben once said, “…as the planet runs its spiking fever, the antibodies are starting to kick in.” I think this metaphor captures the role of youth well. The combination of moral outrage, courage to disrupt, and organizing tech-savviness places youth in an important nexus at a time when political authorities are failing to curb the fever. You can count on youth to put our bodies on the line to stop every coal plant to bend down the emissions curve if we have to.

But while antibodies are vital in times of war, they are not sufficient to hold peace. Perhaps the defining role today’s youth can play is to grow into a generation of wise decision-makers who take to heart the Iroquois wisdom to deeply respect the consequences of our actions seven generations into the future.

This article was supplied to CNBC Africa by WEF Africa. Watch our coverage from 3-5 May 2017