a person dressed as duck in a protest

Climate Justice Movement and Contemporary Youth

Author: Shradha Khadka

“Treat the earth well. We do not inherit it from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

This quote has long been passed down in the oral history attributed to an indigenous belief from the Native American tribe of Oglala-Sioux. Its philosophy in belief and practice perhaps exerts more relevance in recent times than ever before.

When we look back even only the span of one generation, we find that the topics of climate and environmental justice were not as protruding or ubiquitous as they are today. Over time, they have occupied a larger space in our collective consciousness around the world. The observable effects on the environment and its weather patterns, as evidenced by the growing areas of research fields, expertise arenas, and advancing information dissemination platforms and technologies surrounding the topic, have contributed to shed considerable light on the impacts of climate change in the past, present, and the foreseeable future.

people with placards on park
Photo by @luckytran/Twitter

Climate change is certainly not a new topic in the zeitgeist of contemporary times. The increased involvement of youth in this topic, however, certainly is a recent development. Perhaps the most prominent example in recent times comes in the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement. As part of the now global campaign initiated in 2018, a 16 year old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, skipped school for three weeks to sit in front of the Swedish parliament to urge the government to take immediate actions on mitigating and adapting to the effects of anthropogenic climate change. The protest, that first started with the seed of a young teenager’s frustration towards her government, quickly gathered millions of passionate youth activists around the world. Today, Fridays for Future is bigger than ever and is passionately composed of young people around the globe insisting that their generation’s voices be heard. It has evolved into a exemplary nonviolent global student movement, that is often touted as the largest climate protest in history against the climate emergency joined by almost six million people worldwide.

The week of September 20th to 27th 2019 was an important watershed moment for the movement. The movement called for youth around the world to organized strikes in their respective countries and communities and thus urge their governments to take stronger actions against the climate crisis. The call fundamentally targeted to address the UN Climate Action Summit, a transnational meeting of nations organized to promote the Paris Climate Accord, or as it is now commonly called, the Paris Agreement. The accord was an unprecedented, benchmark policy platform that aimed to mechanize the upholding prospects of reducing global carbon emission and slowing the rise of planet’s average temperature. This appeal was joined by youth activists and students from nearly 150 countries around the world, including various South Asian nations like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India and Nepal.

Youths standing with placards
Image: Manoj Bohara, 2019 (photo blog)

Redirecting narratives

Although Nepal contributes  0.027% to global carbon emissions, it lies among the top ten most climate change vulnerable countries in the world. Although an almost negligible contributor to the increased carbonization of the earth’s atmosphere, several different climate change related and environmental challenges are prominently affecting the lives of Nepali citizens such as deforestation, air pollution, glacial melt, and seasonal flashfloods. Government interventions aiming to address these challenges have repeatedly proven inadequate. Adhering to these urgencies, the  September 2019 global climate strike was attended by youths from various cities of Nepal. Many students skipped schools to protest in various parts of Kathmandu, Pokhara and Butwal with great enthusiasm and concern.

While global chapters of the Fridays for Future movement have focused their agendas on bringing structural changes like the reduction of carbon emissions, decreased dependency on fossil fuels and the application of strategic pressure on big corporations and world leaders to admit climate change as a significant global crisis, the protests in Nepal voiced about the management of pollution and promotion of recycling practices. Compared to the international scale, these demands present themselves as more modest and uncomplicated in comparison. Additionally, these organized protests in Nepal were also scattered around different cities and were smaller in number at the scale of participation. Still, these voices are nonetheless symbolic of the youth’s increasing concerns on environmental matters and policy processes. The protests may not have demanded extreme changes but catching the wave of the colossal global movement, it aided in raising awareness on issues related to the climate emergency in Nepal. Further, protests in the country also displayed the zest of the core international movement – a powerful reflection of the youth’s passion to reclaim the rights of the ones who had least role in causing the crisis but are experiencing the gravest of its consequences.

Such actions are very important in the global rhetoric surrounding environmental protests, as they serve to redirect the narrative that climate change discourses concern western and developed countries only. A historical responsibility definitely lies on the shoulders of big corporations and developed nations, but local efforts, community awareness and mobilization is also equally necessary to achieve effective positive change in the long run.

Youth in nonviolent climate justice movements

Studies and experts state that young people are often poised to play highly significant roles in bringing changes in societies amid conflict and humanitarian crises. They are also, however, often quick to display anger, haste, intolerance and rebellion. Due to this volatile nature, young people are often excluded from policy discourses and government processes perceiving them as threats to security and civil conduct. Nevertheless, this exclusion only increases their vulnerability to risks of exploitation and injustice and serves to undermines their capacities to bring positive changes.

The Fridays for Future movement has exhilarated global conversations about climate injustice. With the average global temperature rising every decade, carbon emissions reaching peak levels, glaciers melting and sea levels rising, countries around the world are facing extreme weather conditions and devastating effects of climate change more than ever before. In times when the window of opportunity to bring interventions is rapidly closing, the passion and concern of the youth towards communicating with their governing bodies is commendable, especially by adopting nonviolent values. Holding out placards with slogans like “There is no planet B”, “Youth stands for climate strike”, “I am here because older generation has failed”, singing songs and playing musical instruments, the youth in Nepal protested nonviolently in solidarity and likewise millions around the world were mobilized by a common cause – climate justice.

Fridays for Fortune started out with one concerned teenager, Greta Thunberg. Now, her nonviolent journey has been able to draw millions of youths in camaraderie. What has worked for the movement is the era of social media and technology, especially given that young people tend to be the largest and most consistent users of internet platforms. Hashtags, powerful social media campaigns, viral contents, and widespread symbolic images have been able to draw the attention of the public and mobilize the movement. Crucially, the nonviolent core of the movement has been able to dismiss the notion that youth are hostile and uncompromising about government processes. With the steadfast desire to achieve justice – climate justice – Fridays for Fortune has resumed since the pause triggered by pandemic restrictions, and hopes are high for upcoming changes fueled by the movement.

The graphics, views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Shradha Khadka is a researcher at Centre for Social Change, a Kathmandu based think tank and a graduate student of Development Studies at Kathmandu University, School of Arts. Completing academic programs from Nepal, United Sates and Germany, Khadka has varied mix of academics and research experiences. Her academic interests and work endeavors include areas of labour rights, governance, informal economy, climate change, gender, and nonviolent civil resistance. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

©2021 Centre for Social Change, Kathmandu