Meeting the call of the youth: Governing the transition towards a climate-neutral Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Belgian students gather to call for urgent measures to combat climate change during a demonstration in Brussels, Belgium, 14 February 2019. [Stephanie Lecocq/EPA/EFE]

The determination to combat climate change is deeply rooted in the values of the new generation. If well-nurtured, their commitment can drive a sustainable transformation of the whole European economy, write Matilda Axelson and Ólöf Söebech.

Matilda Axelson and Ólöf Söebech are researchers at the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).

A determined and ambitious generation of youth is leading the world’s largest climate movement. On Friday, 15 March 2019, they mobilised more than 1.4 million people in 125 countries, who joined a global strike for the climate in the biggest global climate march to date.

Yet, some voices still try to dismiss their movement by referring to them as “a bunch of noisy school kids, looking for a reason to skip class”. Such statements are misguiding. The strong motivation to combat climate change and a genuine willingness to act are deeply rooted in the values of this new generation, and will not halt at the time of graduation.

If well-nurtured, their commitment can drive a sustainable transformation of the whole European economy, as these teenagers grow up to be decision makers and consumers of our society. The governance of this transition must start today, to prepare for a Europe that can capture the climate ambition of its future citizens.

Whereas the groundwork to this revolution has been enabled with the help of decades of hard work by older generations, the enormous upswing of citizen-led climate advocacy is sparked by a call for disruptive reforms from the youth and inspired by evidence-based awareness. 

While the critical mass of previous generations met scientific climate observations with cautiousness and mild scepticism, young people today are well-informed on the climate urgency and are highly receptive to the latest climate research through their social media channels.

“I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is,” said 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum.

Scientific research backs the notion that this commitment to climate action arises from a genuine worry among young people about what climate change will do to their future. In Northern Europe, climate change is listed as one of the most worrisome issues for this generation.

In Sweden, psychologists for children and adolescents report that young people recently bring up climate change more regularly as a cause for anxiety. In the United States, 21 young climate activists aged 11-22 have sued the Trump administration over the government’s action and inaction to combat climate change, stating a violation to their “fundamental constitutional rights to freedom from deprivation of life, liberty, and property”.

Their climate engagement is characterised by the realisation that their generation will be the one suffering the older generations’ environmental footprint, their strong determination and a willingness to act.

This global avalanche of climate ambition initiated by youth can, if well-managed, play a fundamental role in driving a sustainable transition at the very core of the European economy. Within a decade, these young people will be entering the job market and executing their right to vote for the first time.

This is a crucial opportunity to bring together the identified challenges of the European economy and the hundreds of thousands of young people that are willing to work to identify the solutions. European decision makers must strategically channel this young energy to create value for society.

The governance of this transition should start today, to prepare for a Europe that can capture the climate ambition of its future citizens.

The community of climate scientists must to step forward, and clearly demonstrate the urgency of the issue: It will be too late for the next generation to solve the climate crisis, unless we pave the way for them now.

European employers must strive to become attractive workplaces for a future workforce with strong social and environmental values as well as high expectations. This is a particularly relevant opportunity for high-polluting industries that need innovative solutions to decarbonise, such as the development of circular value chains, increased material efficiency and new, low-carbon process technologies.

Politicians must appeal to voters with and a strong political engagement and an explicit demand for climate justice and better climate governance. This should be a welcome development, as citizen participation is a fundamental cornerstone of the European society and democratic system.

A shift towards more collaborative, participatory and engaged democratic processes will be needed, to strengthen this new culture of politics. It also means that this engaged youth will be a part of the future policy makers and politicians, and the European policies they develop will be characterised by rigorous climate strategies and targets.

Moreover, this is a growing movement of consumers, who do not hesitate to go vegan for climate reasons, take the train instead of flying or shop in second-hand markets. Increased consumer awareness of the climate footprint from products will be reflected also in public purchases.

Changed consumption patterns affect not only producers of consumer goods but also producers upstream in the value chain, including the high-emitting manufacturing sectors. Producers and service providers must prepare accordingly, and nurture a transition towards higher sustainability and increased circularity across the economic system.

The sustainable transition that these young people are advocating and demanding will transform Europe as we know it. Businesses and institutions that manage to prepare well for their rise to power will be able to engage these young minds and capture the opportunities this entails.

This new generation of climate activists have had enough of empty promises about a brighter future, and it will require nothing less than strongly demonstrated climate commitments to impress them.

To safeguard competitiveness and social prosperity throughout the European democratic system, Europe cannot afford to disregard them or to disappoint them.

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This opinion is written in the context of the Erasmus + supported project GOVTRAN – Governing the EU’s climate and energy transition in turbulent times.

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