Harriet Thew is a PhD Researcher at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on youth participation in climate change governance. She kindly agreed to an interview (for the perspectives of young people – see this interview with Emma Greenwood, and an imminent one with George Hassall.
1, Okay – so a) describe your research interest on children’s participation in (international) climate politics – what sparked it, what have you done on it?
My research is on youth participation in climate change governance, particularly at the UN climate negotiations (UNFCCC). From 2015-2018 I conducted an ethnography of the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), an entirely youth-led group of young volunteers who attend the negotiations, amongst other things. I’m currently in the process of writing up my findings for my PhD.
I have been interested in the role of children and youth in climate action throughout my career. I previously worked at the Climate Change Schools Project, training teachers on climate change education and engaging schools in climate change adaptation projects across North East England. I then managed the Global Environment Programme for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, empowering young women around the world to start their own environmental projects, reach out to get their local communities involved, and advocate for women’s and youth rights at the UN. Through this job I became familiar with the youth constituency of the UNFCCC, an inspiring and fascinating, yet under-researched, civil society network in the climate change negotiations.
2. What kind of children from developed world “get involved” – is it the rich white middle-class liberal-parents ones? Or is there decent provision for other less-well-resourced types of children to be involved?
The UNFCCC recently lowered the age of participation from 18 to 16 years after a concerted effort from the youth constituency (YOUNGO). Because of this, it is mostly young adults rather than children who attend, aged between 16 and 30. There are some exceptions to this, such as Greta Thunberg being permitted access in the recent COP when she was 15, and one day a year during the UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties (COPs) when younger children can attend with chaperones.
There is very little provision for youth to attend the negotiations, so youth participants must self-fund their travel, accommodation and subsistence. This often means taking (unpaid) leave from school/university/work. As a result, it is difficult for young people with less financial resource to attend, due to financial barriers and work commitments. Some require support (or permission) from their parents, so in the main their parents are interested in climate change and usually fairly liberal. Youth from all around the world attend the negotiations though the majority come from the Global North (because of the aforementioned financial difficulties and also because of visa issues). There is some diversity in race and gender, less so in other aspects.
3. What types of activities do they undertake (attending COPs, what else?) and what impact does that have on them – does it build their confidence, demoralise them?
Throughout the year, youth participants engage in school talks to share their experiences with other children and youth, seek to engage with government and decision-makers, run social media campaigns both nationally and internationally, and get involved in local projects and protests.
Every individual is different but the vast majority report feeling demoralised after attending the climate negotiations with reports of burn-out, depression and frustration occurring after each COP. I intend to write an academic paper on this at some point because I have so much data on the tremendous emotional toll it takes on youth participants and their commitment to keep trying in the face of unrelenting disrespect, disillusionment and defeat. I really admire their tenacity, commitment and dignity in continuing to engage.
4, What kind of things does children’s participation enable at the international level (a kind of moral ‘radical flank’ effect?) and in their home towns/cities – do the children have moral authority they can then use more locally?
Prior to the Paris Agreement being signed in 2015, I saw more attempts by youth to use moral authority to demand ambitious action in global climate governance. However, after governments reached agreement in Paris at COP 21 the negotiations shifted into a new phase which focuses more on implementation and prioritises technical input over moral concerns. This is quite difficult for youth participants to navigate as, even those who have technical expertise from their undergraduate/masters degrees and professional roles, are not recognised as expert contributors on account of their age. Outside of the UNFCCC, a “youth participant” may be an environmental consultant in their late 20s who spends their days overseeing major infrastructure projects, but none of it matters once they are given that youth label. As a result, many youth participants in the UNFCCC have adopted a more professional approach in the way they dress and have become more technical in the arguments they articulate. However, their age still acts as a barrier to the recognition they receive. What has happened as a result of this is that the moral voice of the next generation has been subdued. In the most recent negotiations in Poland there was much more of a focus on process than on progress. In part that may be because there is less of a visible youth presence demanding urgent, ambitious action and holding politicians to account. Greta Thunberg has helped to revitalise this moral argument, and I think this has given other young people courage to say “yes, climate change does affect me, and I’m going to stand up and make my voice heard”.
At local level there may be more opportunity for youth to be heard as, at global level, they have to compete with diverse narratives of vulnerability and injustice around the world. However, I think the difficulties that young people face in climate change governance are symptomatic of wider societal ageism as seen in some of the patronising responses to the SchoolStrikes4Climate. There’s a perception that young people’s fears are silly and that they will grow out of them. This is particularly problematic when dealing with climate change which will significantly impact the next generation over the course of their lifetimes. Their concerns aren’t silly and they are likely to deepen rather than lessen with time.
5. Anything else you want to say.
Following the school strikes I have repeatedly heard the criticism that children are better off spending three hours in school than engaging in political debate and making their voices heard on climate change. To this, I would like to echo the sentiments of original school striker, Greta Thunberg, in asking: What is the point in children learning facts in school if governments ignore the facts that have been presented by climate scientists? Why should children focus on their studies in the hope of becoming the green technology pioneers of the future when the problem is not a lack of technological solutions but a lack of political will to use the solutions we already have? Some schools have threatened their students with detention for attending the strikes. I see this as a misinterpretation of the purpose of education. I attended the most recent strike with several colleagues from the University of Leeds where I had very interesting discussions with young attendees. They asked insightful questions about climate science in the IPCC report, social science on how to create behavioural change and how best to communicate the urgency of the problem, as well as more general questions about university study. At university we teach students to think critically about the world around them. It is never too early to start, and spending an afternoon chatting to academics rather than to your teachers should be encouraged rather than being grounds for punishment.