Webinar: Participation & Information for A Sustainable Green Europe

This is a second webinar in a series: “Making Youth Participation Visible” where we look into concept of youth participation through relevant topics.

During this webinar we:

  • discovered what we can learn from environmentalism for promoting youth participation by looking at the history of youth environmental activism and existing trends in young people’s journeys to becoming environmental activists
  • talked about environmentalism as a one of the few truly inherently intergenerational topics
  • deep dived into youth environmental activism in times of climate change by looking into the FfF movement and analyzing its success factors in terms of youth participation
  • discussed how environmentalism can be transformed into real political change and whether civil disobedience is a key criteria for successful youth environmental activism
  • shared Do’s and Don’ts for the interaction with decision makers, media and the general public, based on their own experiences as young environmental activists Webinar was held in zoom.us and additionally streamed live to SALTO Participation & Information Facebook page.

The event was organised by SALTO Participation and Information Resource Centre (SALTO PI). More information: www.salto-youth.net/participation

Q&A: Motivation

Johanna:

Inspiring young people to become politically active in formal and traditional structures, such as joining parties, is a huge research field in itself, so I can will only elaborate on it very briefly. In my eyes there are a number of structural barriers that need to be remedied to ensure that young people indeed can fully participate. Examples of these barriers are the high minimum age of politicians to run for Office in some countries (35-40 or even above) or the fact that political parties still demand classical, in-person participation in meetings which are set at times, that often do not work for young people. Compared to other forms of political participation (Think Tanks, joining protests, online petitions etc.) joining political parties is often more difficult for young people and hence less attractive.

For them emotional barriers that might exist, there are a lot of great resources on how to motivate young people to participate in elections or run for office – examples include the European Youth Forum with the #IVoteFor campaign or the United Nations’ #NotTooYoungToRun campaign.

In general, I fully agree that we need more young politicians and more young people influencing the agendas in political parties (given that more than 50% of world’s population are below 30 but only ~3% of the world’s elected officials). However, especially with regard to climate change and the youth movement (as this question was initially linked to it), I want to point out that sometimes political participation outside of established structures (such as with the FfF movement) can be an equally powerful tool to push topics, which should be on the agenda of multiple or all political parties. Fridays for Future indeed debated whether they should turn the movement into a political party, but decided not to do so as their strength mainly comes from non-partisan position (and most of their active members have years left until they can officially vote, let alone run of office).

Johanna:

Inspiring the older generation to act can be built on similar strategies for inspiring passive youth to engage in climate activism. The most promising driver probably is to create an emotional connection to the very complex and perceived as very distant problem of climate change. Behavioral economics research provides multiple insights on why people are more likely to actively address a problem, if they are emotionally connected to it.

There are many ways to create an emotional connection to the topic of climate change. However, the two most obvious ones are probably linking climate change to the fear for the future of the young generation or choosing very localized problems as a representation of the impact of the climate crisis. Most of the older generations are someone’s (grand)mother, (grand)father, uncle, aunt and/or have someone young they care about. If we clearly voices that we really fear we might not have a future worth living if we continue down this path, a lot of people will feel intrigued to act. We need to start the conversations in our families – but not in a confrontational, but a cooperative way. As young people, we need to highlight, that we indeed can’t solve the crisis on our own (since some of us can’t even vote yet), but need the support of our parents and grandparents.

Johanna:

In my eyes we first need to understand the underlying reasons, why some young people are not active themselves. Those reasons can be multi-folded and reach from structural reasons (no access to support systems, limited/ no time or resources) to very personal ones (lack of understanding how their personal life is impacted by the climate crisis). Thus, there is no ‘one-fit-all’ solution to inspiring ‘passive’ people to become active, but instead we need to adjust the approach to each young person individually. A few things however serve as good guidelines:

  • Showcase the myriad of potential ways to become active & start small: Especially when young people don’t have any direct role models in their immediate surroundings, they often overestimate the time and resources needed for environmentalism. They compare themselves to the environmental youth leaders featured in the media (who indeed dedicate a significant amount of time and resources to their activism). Presenting activities with a low-threshold access, that do not require any significant resources (e.g. writing a letter to your local government) is critical to inspiring passive young people to become active themselves. This way these youth recognize that they can indeed contribute regardless of their age or lack of resources.
  • Identify coping role models and a supportive peer group: Research has shown how significant coping role models (role models whose behavior young people feel they can copy/ mimic) are for inspiring youth environmental activism. Hence, it could be pivotal to identify a coping role model – someone who comes from the same background/ with a similar self-identity/ has gone through the same experiences – to motivate a passive young person to become active. Group experiences and emotional support in the peer group are equally critical for many environmentally active youth. Hence, identifying a group of environmentally active youth as a peer group for the passive young person to join is a second important step. These groups can be structured ones (like environmental clubs, NGO youth groups etc.) or unstructured ones (get-togethers in loose groups of environmentally interested friends and peers).
  • Break down climate change to the most localized topic possible: Research shown, that climate change as a holistic and highly complicated topic can easily lead to the fact, that (young) people perceive their own actions as insignificant and believe that only people with more power and expertise can create real change. In the field of behavioral economics this phenomenon is called “external locus of control”. This tendency can be best remedied by breaking down the global climate crisis to a very tangible, localized topic which allows young people to more easily grasp the immediate impact of climate change on their lives. Generally, this impact can obviously be better visualized in places where young people grow up close to natural habitats. But also in cities, we can easily identify areas of climate action, which are relevant to young people’s lives such as the impact of air pollution on both people’s health and the environment in major cities or equal access to public goods like parks or green areas. By linking climate change to actual, noticeable problems we allow young people to create an emotional connection to the fairly abstract topic of climate change (at least in those areas of Europe, which are not yet noticeably negatively affected by the climate crisis). I also do believe, that we will inspire many more young people to become active from working class backgrounds or affected by poverty, if we finally put the question of climate justice (especially within societies) at the heart of the debates.

Johanna:

I do think using the arts is a very great way to initiate the discussion about the climate crisis, as it actually allows you to express your emotional connection with the topic – so it’s absolutely thrilling to hear that you use arts to transmit the urgency of the climate crisis. I don’t believe that people find it boring – however, climate change as a holistic and complicated topic, involving a myriad of different issues that people tend to see it as something they themselves can’t change but requires people with more power and expertise and thus resign from being active. Thus not connecting with the topic emotionally represents a protective mechanism, which protects you from fearing the consequences of climate change but feeling helpless at the same time. In addition, we need to keep in mind that in Europe there are indeed some areas (very few though) that might mainly benefit from climate change – like my home region Northern Germany, where the warmer climate will boost the tourism industry, a sector responsible for most of the economic activity. Thus, for some people climate change on a very local level seems to be a positive issue or is too far away for them to really see the urgency yet.

Thus, in my eyes the best strategy to really affect and motivate people for climate action through the arts is to choose a specific aspect of climate change that emotionally resonates with the audience, e.g. very localized problems (e.g. the droughts affecting farmers and forests in Northern Germany), climate justice, presenting people’s individual stories and thereby give the effects of the climate crisis “a human face”. Greta was actually very successful in creating a narrative that resonates with people and allows them to emotionally connect with climate change: the fear for the future of our generation/ our children/ our grandchildren (depending how old you are).

Johanna:

Climate change is a subject that indeed touches upon every school subject and thus can be discussed in each class – however, the school should ensure that in each class different aspects of it are discussed to avoid repetition. As an example in Biology one could touch upon the impacts on the ecosystem, in Economics how pricing ecosystem services could actually change the economic system and in Ethics how climate justice (within and across countries) could be key to global cooperation.

Having said that, research shows that interactive projects which allow a direct connection to the environment are a strong motivator for people to become active in environmental conservation/ climate action – so first-hand experiences for students are definitely a tool to consider in schools (also as people demonstrably learn more effectively when using different modes of teaching).

Q&A: Role Models

Johanna:

It is true that if we look at current CO2 emissions globally, the biggest emitters are outside of Europe. That however doesn’t mean that for cumulative – meaning historic – or per capita emissions, we are not the biggest polluter together with the US. Hence, we have a historic and also moral responsibility to lead the fight against the climate crisis. We should also keep in mind that we face a way better starting situation in Europe than in a lot of emerging, let alone developing economies given our technological innovations and civil society participation mechanisms. As European youth, we benefit from relatively strong participation mechanisms and support schemes. We should ensure that we lead the fight on climate change, we share our networks with fellow activists, amplify their messengers and support them in their fight to combat climate change in their home countries (which very often – such as in Brazil at the moment – seems to be a fight against windmills).

Johanna:

Greta Thunberg is the perfect example of a coping role model for young people in climate activism – she is young herself, she has chosen a type of activism (school striking) that can easily be copied by other young activists and the FfF protests show young people that they can indeed make their voices heard and influence politics (regardless of their age). Hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Greta is an important and effective role model for many young activists. However, we also do need to keep in mind, that she is neither the first nor the only young climate activist successfully demanding more ambitious climate action (as an inspiration, here are some great portrays about other young role models). I personally admire Greta for her determination and willpower to really initiate impactful change. But I think we should be really careful that politicians and decision-makers do not use her as an excuse not to act by butting the burden of providing solutions on her or other young climate activists. This is a task that our political and business leaders in close cooperation with scientists and civil society need to deliver.

I also think that we need to ensure that the youth climate movement (as we discussed during the webinar) gets more inclusive for the realities for non-white, non-privileged young people. This however is nothing Greta herself can change (or bears the responsibility for), but should be addressed by the respective country leaders of the FfF movement (and all environmental youth groups in general).

Q&A: European Union

Johanna:

On the European Green Deal – if we finally shift towards including negative environmental externalities into the price structures of goods and services, all states would indeed benefit economically from measures undertaken to make our economies more sustainable. I am very confident that all European member states find one or multiple areas where shifting to green methods of production and supply would indeed not only be environmentally sustainable but also economically. Generally, I think that as a society we need to turn away from merely looking at economic growth or GDP as an indicator of the wellbeing of a society as many more factors determine human wellbeing (such as sense of security, healthiness, freedom etc.). But green growth is a whole new debate in itself, so I leave it there.

Johanna:

I am a huge fan of hackathons, as they have proven to be really successful in yielding innovative solutions to difficult problems and at the same time cater to our generation’s affinity towards digital tools. There have been multiple successful hackathons on climate actions (e.g. one hosted by the UN in advance of the UN Climate Summit last year), so a European one aimed at school children would definitely be a great idea.

Johanna:

Tough question – I have to say I am not satisfied in general, as the regulations do not bring us anywhere close to the 1,5 °C goal, which should be our ultimate and only acceptable goal. Anything above I personally cannot tolerate given the proven devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, especially the most vulnerable ones. However, I see some hope in the European Green Deal, provided it really gets implemented widely and timely and that some the ambition level in some areas (such as agriculture) are risen significantly. I don’t think we should underestimate the impact the recent (youth) environmental activism has on politics in Europe – but it’s surely still a long way to go.

Johanna:

As I said in the webinar, I personally think we are at a crossroads at the moment, where we could go either way. On one hand I also see a danger to de-prioritize topics such as the energy transition for the economic rebuilding post-Covid 19 or a danger to silently adopt regulation with an unfavourable effect on the fight against climate change. On the other hand I do see some tendencies and calls to push for rebuilding our societies in a more sustainable and just way, e.g. with cities such as Madrid, which want to give priority to sustainable forms of urban mobility (specifically biking), as it has a positive impact both on the environment and on keeping the required distances. We all need to closely watch the decisions taken by our political and business leaders, keep up the pressure and continue to engage in discussions, where we should flag the unique opportunity of a green and just rebuilding of our societies post-Corona.

Q&A: Facts

Johanna:

The global debate has shifted in recent years from focusing only on climate change from an environmental perspective to acknowledging climate justice (across and within countries) as an indispensable aspect of successful climate action. I actually don’t know any environmental organization that does not also work on climate justice – those in countries with significant societal inequalities probably tend to focus on that topic more. Check out the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance, Run 4 Salmon, Movement Generation, We Act (for environmental justice) or this Teen Vogue article on youth-led environmental justice activities for inspiration.

Sarah:

Believing that all these crisis can be solved separately is indeed a huge problem! In Germany the “Generationen Stiftung” is a good place to start if you’re seeking an approach that isn’t exclusive to one crisis. Internationally movements like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future are working hard to include issues like global justice into their everyday communication. 

 

Johanna:

Youth environmental activists have been long ignored by academia, so there hasn’t really been any research on this yet (at least to my knowledge if you refer to generalizable data/ large studies with a solid study design). I do hope however that given the importance of the current youth movement, we might see such studies in a few months to years (research is always a bit slow). Until then, we might need to look at the reported number of participants in the FfF demonstrations and the number of youth members in environmental groups as a proxy.

Sarah:

This hardly gives a complete picture but it’s a rough estimation of who is joining these new movements and why (all based on the global Fridays for Future climate strike on March 15th, 2019). 

 

You can find it currently only in German in Amazon: https://www.amazon.de/habt-keinen-darum-machen-einen/dp/3896676563

Q&A: Channels

Johanna:

Popular TV or radio shows, podcasts or in fact any other channels that reaches a large number of people are indeed a great place to convey the message of climate action and the demand of young people. In several countries, radio stations are actually the most widely used or even only means to receive the latest news and thus have a large audience and wide coverage. Also, older generations tend to prefer “classical” media channels over Youtube or Social Media, so it is a great way to interact with people outside your own generation. It don’t see why it would be embarrassing to go ask the person responsible whether there is a possibility to include the voices of young activists on the channel. You should however give your request some credibility by having the support of multiple young activists from diverse backgrounds and coming prepared, hence knowing exactly which message you want to transport and already having articulated it. And remember: nothing ventured, nothing gained! Good luck 🙂

Sarah:

Being passionate, emotional and curious are key, I’d say. There is nothing embarrassing about sharing your concerns and visions and addressing problems. 

It’s important to tell stories to make your cause tangible for everyone else!

Q&A: Collaboration

Johanna:

I love that idea and actually thought about starting something similar multiple times already. The benefit of such a platform would be that it could help us to make the movement more inclusive, by allowing all young people (regardless of the strength of their own network) to get contacts to fellow activists on a bunch of topics. To my knowledge such a platform does not exist yet – there are obviously great platforms for sharing networks in large organizations such as AIESEC, but no public one. In my eyes that’s definitely an ambitious idea but so worth pursuing ?

Sarah:

Since FFF is organized through many many small and local groups, it’s really hard to generalize. FFF already has cooperated with many different organisations and groups around the planet. But the attitude you are talking about is a huge problem among environmental organizations in general. I believe that we have to work even harder to find common ground. We can’t afford to lose all our energy with internal fights if there are problems like the climate crisis we need to combat.

Johanna:

I agree that for a very long time environmentalism has been a topic where mostly people at both ends of the extreme were engaged and active. This however never meant that a large part of the society didn’t have a very thoughtful, “moderate” and practical approach to our interaction with the environment, but only that these voices have barely been voiced or reflected in the discussion. I personally feel that this has changed slightly with regard to climate change as we talk more about the nuances (so how should we combat climate change rather than should we combat climate change). To avoid any extreme polarization I think we should also give space to “moderate”, articulate climate activists (like scientists e.g., who tend to be less emotional in their ways of expression) in panel discussions and avoid sensational seeking reporting as much as possible.

Having said that, I however think that a plurality of different opinions is actually a great thing and much needed, especially with regard to climate change, where there are still some scientific uncertainties around the impacts, the timeline and the best measures to address the problems. So I am actually very glad for the plurality of opinions on how to combat climate change (not necessarily on whether to do so though). One strategy to inspire people with relatively firm positions on topics (such as your example of people in favor or against EVs) would be to engage them in a discussion on an aspect of climate action different to the controversial issue – they might see that they indeed agree on some points and thus be more open to listening to each other’s position.

This strategy by the way is not climate-change specific, but can be used in any situation with two very controversial opinions and limited will to get involved with a different viewpoint. Psychology highlights, how people are instantly more willing and able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes once they discover similarities – this clip from a Danish TV station highlights this phenomenon perfectly.

Q&A: Impact

Johanna:

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. What often surprises me is how much personal factors (like a personal connection you feel with someone) matter for how willing people are to listen to your concern and to act accordingly. Weirdly enough, very often it is not about whether it is the objectively right thing to act, but how charismatic the person is who transports the message. All in all, I would say I had some great experiences that showcased how indeed some leaders (from business and political sphere likewise) care and are willing to act and that motivates me to keep going – also, not acting is really not an option here…

Sarah:

I think over the last year we all noticed this new public interest in environmental issues and a new sense of urgency when it comes to taking political action. So in some way, yes. But looking at the actions discussed and/or taken I am also highly disappointed. Constantly putting economic interests over the livelihoods of millions is nothing I’d call responsible politics.

Johanna:

I would say that depends on with whom and what you are working on. I agree that sometimes the actual impact of an initiative on the previously identified goal can be very limited – that however doesn’t mean that you couldn’t create an equally important impact in a different way. Let me give you an example – say, you are working with a youth group that wants to create an information campaign on climate change in the kindergarden nearby, but halfway through the project people are dropping out, challenges in the communication with the kindergarden teachers arise and you end up not realizing the campaign. One could say, you didn’t have any impact – I however would argue that you shouldn’t underestimate your impact. Those youth clearly learnt a lot during the course of planning the campaign, on what went well and what could be improved, which they can apply in the next project and thus increase their chances of successfully running that campaign. We all grow not only from successes but mostly from failures. If you were to repeat the same campaign or a similar project with the same group of young people, you might want to focus slightly more on the impact on society rather than the impact on the young activists. I guess this is my very long way of saying “it depends” ?

Johanna:

I don’t think we can generalize the impact of young people on environmental topics, as this varies strongly from region to region. In Canada, young people – especially from First Nations – are very successfully working on water and land issues and frequently protest pipelines and the exploration of oil sands, while in Brazil they are very active in the movement against deforestation. So it really does depend – I would say, globally young people are currently playing a tremendous role in environmental and climate change education, given the attention they raise in the general public on the climate crisis through their protests.

Johanna:

  1. Firstly: I don’t know where you are based, but at least in Germany it is actually very easy to switch your energy provider and chose one that provides 100% renewable energy – Greenpeace also offers energy contracts, so you could even support an environmental NGO, if you liked.
  2. Secondly, we shouldn’t generalize how climate-conscious or un-conscious certain energy companies are – there are actually quite a few energy providers across Europe, such as Orested, that are leading the change towards a fully decarbonized energy system and are some of the biggest supporters of climate-conscious regulation, pushing for it at governments. Unsustainable energy companies, that are still cling to fossil-fuels should feel the pressure by consumers and civil society alike to change.
  3. Thirdly, we can always put pressure on politics to adopt tighter emissions laws (such as a high CO2 price), which will most certainly push energy companies to decarbonize their portfolio, as fossil fuels in such a situation represent economic disadvantage.

Johanna:

Similar to the interaction with the general public, I think connecting climate change to an emotional narrative is key to reaching decision makers in industries such as pharma, banking, food etc. We shouldn’t forget that most of them are also someone’s father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, aunt or uncle and do have loved ones they are worried for. By showing how their children’s or grandchildren’s future is threatened by the climate crisis, we can highlight the urgency to act and the responsibility their industry and/ or company bears in fueling global warming. A great initiative that I was introduced to a couple of years ago during the COP15 in Paris is a trip to Artic that an environmental organization offers for CEOs of major pollutants and their children to see first-hand the impact climate change has on the Artic ecosystem. Experiencing this impact and hearing their children ask why no one is doing anything to protect the polar bears, transported the urgency to combat climate change in a much more effective way than any panel discussion with experts ever could. The WEF is doing a similar program with their Young Global Leaders cohort, who are en route to taking decision-making positions in key industries globally.

We might not reach every decision-maker in major pollutant industries and inspire them to change, but allowing them to emotionally connect to the climate crisis with a clear narrative is a first step – for the rest, we simply need clear and ambitious regulation.

Q&A: COVID-19

Johanna:

Hard to predict at the moment – the Covid 19 crisis could actually have an impact on people’s view on the environment in multiple dimensions: environmental issues could e.g. fall behind given the justified economic and health concerns of many. In this case we should ensure that our politicians can’t silently adopt unfavourable regulation, because the society isn’t watching climate change related regulation so closely anymore. Covid 19 could however have also have the opposite effect and make people revalue the importance of economic growth in contrast to health and a livable environment. I don’t think we can really tell yet, which way the public sentiment will likely take. But to ensure that wen don’t loose track on climate action, we should ensure to communicate that rebuilding our economies does not mean to do so in a unsustainable way. People shouldn’t feel like they need to chose between getting their jobs back to feed their families and engaging for climate action.

Sarah:

I think this crisis offers incredible opportunities for lasting change. But at the same time it seems so easy to forget about every other crisis while concentrating on managing this one. I think a lot of young people are starting to realize that the decisions taken today will impact their future for many years to come. 

There are lots of different voices demanding that rescue packages for big companies also serve the climate or social justice issues for example. I think it’s incredibly important, especially now, to not let up and to keep problems like the climate crisis on the agenda.

Johanna:

This is hard to predict too. First studies show that young people tend to mentally struggle more with the confinement than older generation. This could be an indication that the environmental movement could loose some of it’s momentum – also, because it can’t really make use of it’s strongest weapon – streets filled of young people school striking for the climate – anymore. Thus, a lot will come down to how well the organizers can re-mobilize young people to walk out of school on Fridays following the crisis (which might be hard, given the strict new regulations for schools, protest marches etc.). However, I also know that a lot of young people are currently using the time to further educate themselves on climate-change related courses, such as free webinars from the SDG Academy. Thus, the movement might come out of the crisis even stronger than before.

The only thing I think is critical is to ensure that we don’t fuel the generational conflict post-Corona by condemning people, who worry about getting their jobs back before worrying about the climate. It shouldn’t be an ‘or’ but an ‘and’ and this message needs to also be transported by the youth movement.

Johanna:

This is something I think about quite often – as this not only relates to masks and gloves for medical equipment, shopping etc. but also for coffee-cups as another example (given that you are not allowed to use your own reusable cup anymore). I don’t have the solution to the problem, but I think we need to mitigate the negative effects as much as possible. Yes, we will continue to use masks, but we should ensure that those, who don’t necessarily need disposable ones (like hospital staff) use reusable ones, which can be disinfected with boiled water. Also, producers of disposable gloves should be pushed to consider biologically degradable plastic options (again, wherever this is possible – not necessarily applicable to products used in medical context). Apart from masks and gloves, we should all continuously reconsider our consumption behavior and e.g. buy coffee to go from stores where they use cups from recycled materials or buy books from our local store instead of through Amazon. I hope in this way we can mitigate, though not fully prevent plastic waste piling up.

Johanna Schwarz

Johanna Schwarz (26) is a UN youth representative, climate activist, moderator and speaker as well as a strong advocate for youth participation in international politics. Having served in the Youth Steering Committee of the UN Department of Global Communications and leading an ECOSOC-associated youth NGO, she knows the diplomatic and civil society scene at the United Nations quite well and regularly joins international conferences as a speaker and youth participant, including the COP21 in Paris, the UN Civil Society Conference in Seoul or the Climate Summits in New York in 2019. Johanna is deeply passionate about combating climate change through just transitions and completed her Master's in Climate Change from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 2017. She now works in consulting and focuses on facilitating energy and mobility transitions through clean tech and machine learning. Johanna has been named a G20 Young Global Changer in 2018 and serves as a member to Salto PI's Youth Participation Think Tank.

Sarah Hadj Ammar

Sarah Hadj Ammar is (20) studies biomedical sciences in Würzburg. Currently, she is living in Berlin. Since 2011 she has been an Ambassador for Climate Justice and she also was a member of the Global Board with Plant-for-the-Planet. Already during the COP in 2015 she, along with some others, called for a first “Climate Strike”. Since April 2018 she has been a member of the Youth Council of the Generationen Stiftung [Generation Foundation] and intensively looks into questions of climate, global justice, and human rights. Sarah Hadj Ammar co-authored the book „Ihr habt keinen Plan, darum machen wir einen!“ [You don’t have a plan, so we made one!].

Siiri Taimla-Rannala

Siiri Taimla-Rannala is a graphic recorder, designer and animator, who has worked in this field for over 10 years. She has visualised a vast number of conferences, seminars and trainings in the youth field. She's also a founder of Joonmeedia which is a platform for visual creative tools' development and practice. She is a co-author of a publication "Graphic Express - first steps to graphic facilitation in youth work".

SALTO Participation & Information

SALTO Participation and Information Resource Centre (SALTO PI) develops strategic and innovative action to encourage youth participation in democratic life.