TEENAGE Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was named the youngest Time’s Person of the Year on Wednesday.
The 16-year-old has become the face of the youth climate movement, drawing support and large crowds at protests and conferences over the past year.
But the global green icon has not been alone – millions of young people around the world have joined her in pushing the climate debate and shaping a new global environmental agenda.
The young activists have marched on the streets to demand that global leaders act fast against the climate crisis. They have skipped class every Friday on a climate strike to put pressure on their local leaders. They have thronged parliaments and institutions to engage decision makers in a dialogue.
And children as young as eight years old had gathered in Madrid in the past week for COP25, the UN Climate Conference, where they urged the world’s governments to increase ambition and implement concrete climate action plans.
The little voices in Malaysia may not have been as loud but they too have reverberated across schools, across homes and across generations to have their perspective and concerns heard. Like their peers around the world, these young people are calling for our leaders to treat climate change like the emergency that it is.
But the questions persist.
Why are our youth really striking? Is this youth uprising really raising more attention to the urgent environmental issues or only looking for Instagrammable moments and instant celebrityhood? What do these young climate activists know that high-level policymakers don’t?
The simple answer is that the youth are striking because they are afraid for their future.
According to Unicef, there are approximately two billion children and youth across the globe today – with 9.3 million under-18s in Malaysia – the largest generation of young people the world has ever seen.
It is reported that half a billion live in countries that are increasingly prone to dangerous flooding while more than 160 million children currently live in drought-prone areas. By 2040, that number is expected to increase to every 1 in 4 children.
In Malaysia, rising sea levels and temperatures are causing more floods, less food and water shortages. Climate scientists have predicted that by 2030 about a quarter of Malaysia’s population will be displaced because of climate change.
According to a survey by YouGov commissioned by The Star recently, some 64% among 1,101 young Malaysians polled indicated that they are concerned about climate change, with many of them also saying that they have either experienced or are aware of its effects.
Only 5%, however, believe that Malaysia is prepared for it.
Like their peers in the world, many young Malaysians feel that their leaders are doing far too little to combat the impacts that climate change have caused and will cause.
Even at the COP25, like the leaders in our Parliament and Putrajaya, many are jostling over trivial details and personal interests instead of taking faster action on the climate crisis. As Unicef noted, only 42% of countries’ Paris Agreement climate action plans mentioned children or youth.
And that is why many of our youth are angry and fear for the well-being of their generation.
To quote one 17-year-old climate activist from Ireland, Thomsoheo Cullen-Mouze, who lamented at the COP25: “I came to Madrid because the adults are acting like children. Please listen to us, please listen to the science.”
True, it is high time that we started doing the mature thing – listen to our children and take heed of the science.
Our leaders need to start taking concrete action such as expanding investment in protecting children from disasters and helping them adapt to climate threats.
Governments, the Malaysian government specifically, need to think harder about how to include children in those plans and find ways for young people to be listened to.We need to look at how we can give our youth more tools and space to contribute to policy-making, as well as beef up education on environmental issues.
Ultimately, we should start thinking about giving our young a seat at the table when our government and authorities make decisions on responding to climate change.
As another young climate activist noted at COP25: “Yes, we are children... but do not think that we are stupid and do not know enough.”
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