January 19th, 2017

Being Young in the Age of Climate Change

By Adil Najam - Dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University

Being Young in the Age of Climate Change

Anyone who is aged 30 years or less has never, ever, in their entire life, seen a year that was not warmer than average.

This harrowing statistic – based on data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – is the single most damning articulation of the world that the young will inherit. Indeed, we have condemned the young of today to live in the age of global climate change. Here are five key implications of what this could mean for the young.

First. It should not have been so. It is the failure of my own generation to have acted in earnest or in time – despite having the knowledge and the resources – that will leave the young with an existential burden that could, and should, have been averted. Most importantly, because of our decades of disinterest and inaction, the pain and the cost of climate change will now be multiplied manifold for the young.

Second, climate change is a very different problem for the youth than it was for their parents. In very practical and real ways, climate change has now become a problem that needs to be addressed, not just averted. None of the old challenges of mitigation have been addressed. Yet, horrendous new challenges of adaptation have assumed urgency. It is no longer something that ‘could’ happen in a distant future. It is, in too many places and for too many people, a reality that has to be dealt with today. In many cases, the climate challenge will manifest itself in the life of the young as disasters: floods, droughts, glacial melts, heatwaves, disease and epidemics, and more.

Third, climate adaptation will distract attention as well as resources from development. A year ago we asked a group of young people living along the foothills of the Himalayas (in Chitral, Pakistan) what they were most afraid of. Their response was swift and unequivocal: climate change. Living with now near yearly floods resulting from glacial melt and exacerbated by mud-slides that erode entire mountain faces, these young people understood the impacts of climate change in very immediate terms. Importantly, they understood that constantly dealing with climate impacts meant not having the resources or even the time to deal with other developmental priorities.

Fourth, climate change will hit the poorest first, and hit the poorest hardest. Climate, it turns out, is not only changing, it is cruel and also unjust. All evidence suggests that it will manifest its wrath most on those who are most vulnerable. Those, very often, who have contributed the least to the problem. Whether it is small islands, coastal communities, or those cultivating marginal lands, it is the already vulnerable who are often the most threatened by, and least able to deal with, climate calamities. The young within these communities could find their options more restricted and their capabilities more strained because of this.

Finally, developing climate resilience could provide a youth dividend. Although this will neither be easy nor cheap, a climate action strategy that moves away from broad-brush carbon accounting and disaster response and towards a holistic sustainable development paradigm could prove to be a vehicle for aligning climate response to youth development. This would mean, for example, designing the deployment of renewables as a source of employment and skill generation amongst the young, promoting sustainable agricultural processes as a means to maintaining robust rural communities, aligning infrastructure development as an adaptation measure that responds to a changing climate as well as a changing demography, etc.

We leave our youth with a massive climate burden, but also with a massive responsibility: dealing with a problem that we ignored. There is shame in this realisation. But there is also hope that the youth will do a much better job on climate change than my own generation did. If only because it will affect them so much more immediately.

© The Commonwealth