Young people are worried. The rest of us need to listen.
A recent survey of 10,000 16 to 25 year olds from ten countries around the world found that 59% were very or extremely worried about climate change and 39% hesitant to have children due to the climate crisis. An astonishing 8 out of 10 believe that people have failed to care for the planet, with the majority agreeing they will have less opportunity than their parents as a result.
Young people are right to be concerned, the latest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that many of the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions are now irreversible and that heatwaves, flooding, droughts, and tropical cyclones will increase in intensity unless deep reductions in emissions occur quickly. Biodiversity is in decline too, with around 1 million species now threatened with extinction and humans and livestock now making up an astonishing 96% of all mammals on Earth.
Over the next few months, world leaders have one last chance to prove these young people wrong. Two conferences will take place that are critical to the future of our planet – one on biodiversity and one on climate change. The UN Climate Change Conference will take place from 31 October to 12 November in Glasgow, Scotland, ahead of the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China from 25 April to 8 May 2022, with a preliminary session taking place from 11 to 15 October this year.
Don’t these conferences take place most years, I hear you ask. And if that’s the case then why are they so important this time around? Essentially it’s because time is running out, and we need actions as well as words this year. International conferences are excellent at producing the latter, way back in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit world leaders signed up to a 492-page declaration promising to protect the environment, and we all know what has happened in the ensuing three decades.
Both conferences were postponed from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning all parties have had extra preparation time, albeit with having to also deal with the often devastating impact of coronavirus. The lessons we can take from the pandemic are too many to cover here (although the 6.4% fall in carbon emissions and warnings our destruction of nature makes future pandemics more likely are worth noting), but it has shown that being presented with an immediate existential threat brings out both the best and the worst in us – governments around the world took action to save lives and stabilise economies and a vaccine was developed in record time, only for it to be distributed according to who could afford it.
The twin challenges of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss are not as immediate, and as a result meaningful action to match the rhetoric has been difficult to achieve. The building blocks are there though. The 2015 Paris Agreement seeks to limit global warming to 2 degrees (or preferably 1.5 – global temperatures have already risen 1.1 degrees) and while not ideal would at least mean escaping the very worst consequences of the climate crisis and if commensurate nationally determined contributions can be agreed then a pathway to averting catastrophe could be possible. Similarly, the draft text of the global biodiversity framework governments will discuss in Kunming includes proposals to reduce pesticide use by two-thirds, eliminate plastic pollution and protect 30% of the Earth’s land and sea. Were such proposals implemented quickly they could similarly start to reverse the sixth mass extinction event scientists have said humans are causing.
We need nature for our civilisation to thrive, and it is vital that our leaders stand up to be counted at these conferences and reach an agreement that protects us all. Young people are worried. Can you blame them? They can see their future becoming bleaker and bleaker and by the time they are able to do something it could be too late. Now is the time to make your voice heard, in the lead up to, during, and after these conferences. Demand action, not words. Regardless of what is agreed in Glasgow, it won't be those leaders who implement the solution. That task belongs to us all.