Are young activists being taken seriously?

“This message is being spread loud and clear by youth activists, yet they are being completely ignored by those with the power to do something about it.” Despite the prominence of young climate activists at the World Economic Forum this year, little concrete action has been taken by national governments to address the climate emergency. Jack Walton asks whether young activists are being taken seriously by those with the power to enact change.

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg

Anders Hellberg / Wikimedia Commons

Jack Walton

10 years ago, the young people had no voice whatsoever. We weren’t taken seriously by world leaders, we weren’t given a vote in any election in the UK and the international recognition that some young activists have today was practically non-existent. It can be easy for young people to feel overlooked, as if their voice doesn’t matter and they don’t get a say in their own future. But is this changing? Are we finally able to have an impact and influence those in power, those who have control over our very future?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) 2020 ran from 21-24 January, and saw young activists such as Salvador Gómez-Colón and Greta Thunberg invited to take part. On the WEF’s opening day, Thunberg, along with several others, was involved in sessions and panels focused on climate change. Young people have arguably had more prominence at this year’s WEF than ever before, with their opinions – at least on the face of it – on the climate crisis recognised as equal to that of some of the most influential and powerful people in the world, including Prince Charles, Sajid Javid and Donald Trump. 

Although many of us can’t even be part of the governments making the decisions, it seems as though us young people are being taken seriously now and our voices are being heard. We’re influencing change; we’re making a difference. Aren’t we? Well, it’s not exactly that straightforward.

On the one hand, Sweden, Thunberg’s home country, has seen a four per cent drop in domestic travel for 2019, as well as an increase in rail travel, which has risen by eight per cent. A survey published by Swedish Railways has found that there is increasing concern regarding the impact of flying on carbon dioxide emissions. Thunberg herself has notably stopped taking flights for this very reason, and it appears her decision to do so genuinely has had an impact on the actions of others from Sweden. According to the BBC, this ‘flygskam’ movement – literally, ‘flight shame’ movement – could halve the growth of global air travel. From this point of view then, it appears the words of young climate activists are being taken seriously, and they truly are affecting change, in one country at least.

However, individual reactions to youth activists will only go so far in averting climate disaster. What really needs to happen is for world leaders to stand up and take notice, and actually make positive change. I think Greta said it best during a speech she made at WEF 2020: “Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough, and it cannot replace real mitigation and rewilding nature. We don’t need to lower emissions… Emissions need to stop”. 

Only those at the very top of government can do this. Plenty of promises have been made by leaders to decrease carbon usage, but it is simply not enough. This message is being spread loud and clear by youth activists, yet they are being completely ignored by those with the power to do something about it. To see proof of this, all we need to do is look at what Donald Trump was doing during day one of the WEF and his reaction to Greta Thunberg. Whilst she was fighting for the future of our planet, he was simply lying about his country’s environmental record, saying the US had some of the “cleanest air and drinking water”, despite withdrawing the US from the Paris climate agreement and the Flint water crisis being far from over. 

So can we really say that the young people, who seem to be making an impact on the citizens of countries all over the world, are having the same effect on the leaders – those who can truly change our planet for good? Unfortunately, the answer right now seems to be no. On Tuesday, Thunberg said: “Since last summer, I’ve been repeating these numbers over and over again in almost every speech. But honestly, I don’t think I have once seen any media outlets or person in power communicate this and what it means. I know you don’t want to report on this. I know you don’t want to talk about this, but I assure you I will continue to repeat these numbers until you do.” 

One of the numbers she will continue to repeat is eight – eight years to avoid catastrophe. But until world leaders take Thunberg and all the other young people who are speaking out seriously, nothing will change, and we won’t reach this target.

From a personal point of view, as someone only a couple of years older than Thunberg, I find it incredibly inspiring to watch her talk. It fills me with so much confidence and hope to know that somebody my age can actually go out and do everything in their power to try and make a positive impact on the world, at an age where it feels like our voice is unimportant and worthless. If only that were enough though. For lasting change to occur, Trump and those like him need to put their own egos aside for five minutes and realise that the youth voice is important and valid, and they have to do it soon.

Jack Walton is a member of the North West Green Party.