Climate Change: How Young People Can Save Our Planet

An interview with Jayathma Wickramanayake, UN envoy on Youth

, by Anna Ferrari

Climate Change: How Young People Can Save Our Planet
Photo 1: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Photo 2: United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake - @jayathmadw - at the European Development Days, 2018, in Brussels | Photo credits: © UNRIC

Jayathma Vicramanayake, born in Sri Lanka in 1990, is United Nations Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth since June 2017. In that capacity, she is promoting the empowerment of young people in decision-making processes all over the world, as well as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Agenda has a particular focus on the environment and the protection of the planet. In this interview, Wickramanayake explains what young people can do protect the planet.

What can young people do to protect the environment and fight climate change?

I see three categories of climate actions: first, I believe that the answer to climate change comes from big policies that we bring about, dealing either with fuel consumption or coal consumption or carbon emission, renewable energies.

On the other side, the behaviors of the people that are changing their lifestyle, in a sustainable and eco-friendly way can also help. We can do so in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and the targets of the Paris Agreement.

How can young people achieve this? It’s about our behaviors in our daily life. I also launched a campaign called Little by Little, through the UN (#LittlexLittle ), that will help the fight against climate change. It is about using less plastic, taking shorter showers, riding bicycles to work instead of driving a car.

The second thing is how we young people can join forces and create platforms that raise awareness among our young fellows, country leaders, municipalities, mayors, in our communities, to take actions against climate change - because at the end of the day it is these small actions that will enable us to achieve the targets.

Finally, holding the governments and large corporations accountable. We write petitions on different issues, but I haven’t seen many petitions on climate change. Maybe we should create a movement, not only one, but really mobilizing people around the world.

What about promoting more climate marches?

Yes, now that you are mentioning it, I think there is the need to stress on the urgency of addressing climate change in this way because even after the Paris Agreement, we still tend to think that we can address the problem later. It has to become a priority because climate change affects everything else. Young people could play a role in it because it’s about the world that we all live in.

What do you think about the use of climate diplomacy? (A diplomacy that seeks to harmonize the interests of a state and other’s interests along with the interests of every human being on the Planet, concerning the conservation and development of natural conditions of life)

I never heard the term before now, in the UN I have never heard it, but it is definitely something that should be there and maybe we should bring it up in the Sustainable Agenda. In Europe, you are more attentive to this, I have seen, with research done on it. If all the diplomatic exchanges would have also that target, of being more eco-friendly, then imagine what impact would produce on climate change.

How can institutions like the UN involve young people and make them understand the importance of voting?

Working in the UN, it can really de-energize you and take your values away. If you stay in the system a lot, you get used to the system, but I stay close to young people. In this way, you get refreshed and you choose innovative solutions. The advantage of having young people in political institutions is the creativity, the freshness, the innovative solutions that they bring to the table.

Regarding the importance of voting - if you don’t vote, if you don’t engage in electoral processes, then it can affect the way you do your job, the amount of taxes you pay, who you marry, sometimes, if you are a lesbian or a gay person. It is important to understand what an impact political participation has on you and your life. This could really trigger interest in this process.

Why don’t young people vote?

A recent study from the UN showed that often there is a discrepancy between institutions and young people. The reason has largely to do with the fact that these institutions are inaccessible, they don’t communicate to young people in a language that they understand, nor do they understand what happens behind the closed doors of the Parliaments, committees, organizations like the UN. Young people don’t perceive them as affecting them going to university, paying back education loans, or settling down in an area of the country, in their daily life.

The other problem is that even when young people vote, these leaders don’t actually represent what their constituency asks them to represent. So that has created a mistrust - they consider them inaccessible and corrupted. Also, as a generation, we are used to getting things immediately, through the phone, an app. But politics needs time and negotiation and different steps. I feel that as young people, we have less patience to wait for the democratic processes, which also involve bureaucracy. Finally, another reason is the inclusion one. These institutions are mainly exclusive, so young people don’t see how they can bring a contribution, participating in an institution that promotes that process.

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