By John Leo Algo
There is no such thing as "natural disasters." This is one of my fondest learnings when I was still training as a climate scientist. At its core, disasters happen because stakeholders fail to fully prepare for anticipated impacts of an incoming threat, resulting in the disruption of perceived normal patterns of living in any area.
With this lens, it can be said that any disaster linked to the climate crisis is ultimately human-caused. Not only is the crisis itself caused by the actions of the few, big polluters recklessly emitting greenhouse gases into our atmosphere; any losses or damages experienced by the affected community can also be partially attributed to the neglect or lack of capacity of those tasked to prevent them.
The point is, the term "natural disaster" is more or less categorical or even political, used to distinguish disasters from those directly caused by armed conflicts, epidemics, and famines, among others. I can argue that the term "youth climate advocate" is being viewed in a similar way, but with a different approach.
There is no question as to just how impactful the youth can be in influencing the global green agenda. We can mention the sector's role in spurring the drastic growth of the global divestment movement, which is now worth over USD 40 trillion. We can discuss how it also played a key role in the decades-long global campaign that finally led to the UN General Assembly recognizing the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
However, there is still a clear stigma on youth climate advocacy within global and national policymaking processes. We have become acquainted with the unfortunate phenomenon known as youthwashing, where governments, corporations, and other entities include young delegates in high-level events to meet a targeted quota and improve their public reputation. Yet based on my own experiences, somehow this may be a better situation than being completely excluded.
In the Philippines, there has been an overall decline in including the youth (and the rest of non-government sectors) in climate decision-making in the last five years. It is a drastic reversal from a tradition established from previous decades, where civil society representation is not only mandated but valued within the COP delegation, where inclusivity is not just a buzzword but an integral part of strategies for engagements with different sectors.
It is also a cautionary tale of a clear disregard for understanding the climate crisis and its impacts on national development by top government officials, which has slowed down the implementation of solutions and harmed the country's reputation in the global policymaking sphere.
On one hand, it could lead to an intergenerational divide that fosters mistrust and disconnect between the youth and its government, which could be carried over into succeeding administrations. This attitude is not only shared among Filipino youth climate advocates but also those in other countries.
Addressing the climate crisis cannot be done overnight or even within the next five years. Continuity, consistency, and cooperation are necessary for any country to successfully transform its economy and society into a climate-resilient, low-emissions, sustainable state. This simply cannot be done without meaningful involvement and participation of the youth.
With capacity-building opportunities not as available for us in developing countries compared to the youth in developed nations, the impact of the lack of spaces in providing inputs or engaging with policymakers becomes even more apparent. These are certainly the opportunities that I and my fellow youth climate advocates missed out on during the past five years in the Philippines.
On the other hand, this situation inspired me to explore and be immersed in different kinds of working environments. Inspired by the words of a famed Filipino environmental lawyer and a Filipina scientist, I spent the first years of my post-college life studying climate science to have a better understanding of the crisis in which we now find ourselves and how it can be used for the betterment of society.
In the years after that, I have worked with almost every sector possible, from government agencies and business representatives to faith-based groups and the most vulnerable communities. These experiences provided me with a deeper understanding of the numerous interlinkages associated with the complex issue known as the climate crisis, which is needed for developing the appropriate plans and approaches to deal with specific impacts and disasters.
What my experiences show is that the youth of today and tomorrow have plenty of opportunities to build their skills to make an impact as our world undergoes the inevitable just green transition. We must take advantage of all available workshops, fellowships, and other spaces to build our knowledge, skills, and values, especially in the age of digital and social media.
What my fellow young people should never forget is that it is not enough to simply be passionate. We cannot only care about making an impact for the sake of doing it. The passion for fighting for our climate and our future must come with compassion, the recognition of our interconnectedness with nature, with our fellow human beings, and with ourselves.
Having both passion and compassion are the building blocks for effective climate advocacy action. Their true value would be even more evident once we no longer qualify as "youth climate advocates," whether we reach 30, 35, or whatever the age limit is for being a young person.
Then again, like "natural disasters," is there really such a thing as a "youth climate advocate"? Why cannot we be referred to as simply climate advocates? Will there be a time when the world will treat us or future generations with the same degree of respect as everyone else?
John Leo is the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si' Philippines and a member of both Aksyon Klima Pilipinas and the Youth Advisory Group for Environmental and Climate Justice. He has been a climate and environmental journalist since 2016.