31 December 2020

Towards the end of August this year (2020), I took part in a drainage cleanup project in my city of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, with the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Network Rivers State Hub. While we were working, a young man walked up to me and asked, “Why are you people doing this?” I told him that we were trying to keep the environment cleaner and safer. “Are they paying you guys to do this?”, he asked. “Plus, isn’t this supposed to be the job of the government?” I replied that we were working not for pay but to play our part in ensuring that we have a better world to live in, and that the government cannot do it alone. He looked at me incredulously and walked away.

For many young people working in the climate action space, my conversation with the man in Port Harcourt might sound familiar, like one they, too, might have had at some point. Why do some young people believe that their input and contributions don’t matter, when the reality is that we are supposed to be the ones actively seeking out ways to contribute to climate action?

According to United Nations estimates, the population of young people in the world stands at roughly 1.21 billion. While the definition of “youth” varies from country to country, the United Nations defines it as people between the ages of 15 and 24.1 Unfortunately, much of the world’s youth find themselves at the receiving end of the detrimental consequences of climate change, including declining food security, increased water scarcity and natural disasters that are occurring with growing frequency. Young people, who constitute the majority of the population in many countries, are becoming a driving force in pursuing a low-carbon and climate-resilient future.2  


1. Awareness

As a young person engaged in climate action, one of the major issues I have encountered is a lack of awareness among youth of the issues affecting their communities. When they are aware of the problems, they don’t know that possible solutions or road maps exist.

Take, for example, the descriptive climate change survey conducted by Professor Emeka Daniel Oruonye of Taraba State University in Nigeria. The survey was designed using data a collection instrument, with 225 students drawn disproportionately from the tertiary institutions in Jalingo Metropolis taking part in research. Out of the 81.8 per cent of the respondents who had heard about climate change, 89 per cent did not know what climate change was all about, its causes, effects, and possible adaptive solutions or measures to mitigate it. About 60.9 per cent could not explain how the problem of climate change affected them. When asked whether they thought that the problem could be solved, 32.9 per cent responded in the affirmative, 60 per cent responded negatively, while 7.1 per cent did not answer the question.3 The findings of this study clearly show that there is a low level of climate change awareness among students of tertiary institutions in the study area.

2. Lack of inclusion in decision-making

...no one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline; it is condemned to bleed to death.

—Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations 4

However inexperienced and unprepared youth seem to be, the one thing we have in abundance is interest in the common good and in the well-being of the Earth that we are going to inherit. Excluding young people from decision-making processes related to climate change adaption and mitigation ensures that whatever steps authorities take, they do so without all available information, without all the pieces on the table to enable them to make the best decisions.

As Marie-Claire Graf, the youth non-governmental organizations (YOUNGO) Focal Point from the Global North, has said, “Youth must sit at the table when decisions are taken and be included in climate-related policy formulation as well as its implementation."5


Many small people, who in many small places do many small things, can alter the face of the world.

—African proverb

For young people to play a role and increase their participation in finding solutions to climate change, significant steps must be taken.

1. Structured aid and guidance

A key lesson that I learned from my time as a Millennium Fellow—a semester-long leadership development programme presented by the United Nations Academic Impact and the Millennium Campus Network—is that it is better to approach community problems by allowing the people directly affected to come up with solutions. People are more likely to invest in an endeavour if they have an emotional stake in it. Using this logic, youth participation in climate action can be improved by giving initiatives started by youth structured educational, financial, monitoring and evaluation aid.

A participant speaks at the Intergenerational Town Hall, which provided an opportunity for young leaders to engage with world leaders during the United Nations Youth Climate Summit in New York, 21 September 2019.

We must identify youth initiatives that contribute to education related to climate action and provide them with resources to better teach, monitor and evaluate their reach. The goal of this approach would be to gather valuable insights from the participants in these initiatives, collate them and reference them in the future to make informed decisions on climate action.

2. Give youth a voice

There is a saying in my local language, Esan, which translates as follows: “A person with the pain knows where the injury is on their body.” The same is true for youths becoming involved in climate action. Given that a vast number of people affected by climate change are young, it makes sense to give them a voice at the table, enabling them to express their unique views on issues as well as possible road maps and solutions. One way this can be achieved is by promoting a structured integration plan for youth, like what is done with the Children and Youth Constituency to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (YOUNGO).


Can you imagine a world where every young person is actively working towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Prospects for progress on climate action take on a very positive outlook when that happens. For too many young people, the idea of contributing to climate action has either never crossed their minds, never been heard of or never seemed possible. Permeating the spaces where talk of climate change isn’t common will be key to raising awareness, and to building strong networks and institutions dedicated to raising individuals who take action on issues surrounding the SDGs. In this case, climate action, in particular, should be strongly supported and receive adequate follow-up.

I strongly believe that it is easier to convince people to change their way of life if they know how their current behaviour will directly impact them in the future. I also believe that the world’s youth will put their faith in the institutions taking action on climate if young people, who will relay their thoughts and feelings to the appropriate authorities, are at the helm.


United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “Young people are boosting global climate action“, 12 August 2020. Available at https://unfccc.int/news/young-people-are-boosting-global-climate-action.

United Nations Joint Framework Initiative on Children, Youth and Climate Change, “Youth and climate change”, Fact sheet (December 2013), p. 1. Available at https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/documents/youth/fact-sheets/youth-climatechange.pdf

Emeka Daniel Oruonye, “An assessment of the level of awareness of the effects of climate change among students of tertiary institutions in Jalingo Metropolis, Taraba State Nigeria”, Journal of Geography and Regional Planning, vol. 4, No. 9 (September 2011), p.p. 513-517 (515). Available at https://academicjournals.org/article/article1381846093_Oruonye.pdf.

Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, statement to the opening of the Word Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth, Lisbon, 8 August 1998. Available at https://www.un.org/press/en/1998/19980810.sgsm6670.html.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “Young people are boosting global climate action”.