Youth Activism: Hope of a Better Climate?

By Linlang He

“This world demands the qualities of youth- not a time of life but a state of mind: a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease”

— Robert F. Kennedy, “Day of Affirmation”
Cape Town, South Africa, 6 June 1966

The International Youth Climate Movement (IYCM) was first developed during COP11 at Montreal in 2005, referring to “an international network of youth organizations that collectively aims to inspire, empower and mobilize a generational movement of young people to take positive action on climate change”. Over the years, IYCM has offered its membership to coalitions and networks in over 100 countries. Each coalition or network within IYCM has had the opportunity to send a delegation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Indeed, China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN) became known to the world by attending the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 as a member of IYCM.

CYCAN started in August 2007 with a group of 10 young people, mainly heads of student green groups in universities, concerned about China’s climate and development. They positioned CYCAN as “a network for action, not simply a structured organization” to avoid isolated action that would lack impact. They identified challenges and opportunities the Chinese youth faced in terms of climate change issues and they listed potential beneficiaries of youth climate activism. Realizing that there was a lack of connection between government, NGOs, foundations, international groups and the youth, they decided to use multiple approaches, incorporating research, studies, publicity and exchange, and made a deliberate effort to cooperate with the above-mentioned parties.

“Managing Higher Education Institutes’ Energy Consumption” is a project started by CYCAN in 2007. This pilot project involves more than 50 higher education institutes from all different parts of China. Its goal is to help participating universities cut their greenhouse-gas emissions by 20% by 2012. Although progress is mixed, the idea of involving universities is commendable as university students are part of the youth in our society and can relate themselves to this pilot project.

“China Youth Climate Action Day” is another yearly event initiated by CYCAN. On Climate Action Day, youths around China are encouraged to launch climate publicity campaigns: arranging presentations, collecting signatures and suggestions and holding creative arts exhibition. In 2009 alone, China Youth Climate Action Day had over 300 activities registered. The number of people directly involved in those activities was estimated to be around 30,000, while the number of people made aware of the events may have reached 5 million.
CYCAN also involves itself in major international conferences (E.g. International Youth Summit on Energy and Climate Change, UNFCCC, TUNZA International Youth Children Conference, and European Youth Meeting for Sustainable Development) to present to the world the enthusiastic efforts made by the Chinese youth and their active participation in global climate change activities. Its other activities include, but are not limited to, Logo Design Competition and Business Proposal Contest on Sustainable Development, World Environmental Day Tree Planting Challenge, etc. In order to make sure that its human resources are competent, CYCAN has taken its training programs very seriously.

The Chinese government seems to have played an interesting role in China’s youth climate activism. China has taken concrete efforts addressing environmental problems in recent years, although the government believes it is not receiving fair credit for it. It unveiled its first climate change action plan on 3 June 2007; plans like this prepared the ground for Chinese youth and somewhat directed their thinking process when addressing climate issues.It is important to note that China’s student green groups began taking action against climate change in the 1990s, long before CYCAN was formed. However, it was not until the creation of CYCAN that green groups started to pool their resources together and strengthened their collective capacities. This is the reason why CYCAN is widely regarded as the leader in China’s youth climate movement.

At one of the Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations (RINGO) events during the Bonn Climate Talk 2010, CYCAN identified some of the challenges it was facing: e.g. participating universities of the pilot project are spread all over China and are hard to manage, and obtaining funding is often difficult. We will look for an update from CYCAN at the COP17 this year to hear whether it has tackled these challenges.

Having its co-founders (including: Peking University Climate Development Mechanism, Tsinghua University Green Student Forum, China’s Green Beat, etc) providing unstinting support, and, reaching out continuously to establish partnerships with NGOs, foundations, universities and enterprises both nationally and internationally, we can be confident in believing that CYCAN will grow into a “vigorous adult” in the near future.  Having observed increasing youth climate activism in not only China but around the world, we have some reasons to remain optimistic in the midst of the impasse in the U.N.  climate negotiations.

We need the youthful energy Robert F. Kennedy called for nearly fifty years ago.  Hopefully, youth can be the ones pushing positive change, towards a better climate.

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