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The Rising Tide of Global Youth Leadership

This blog was authored by Soleil Gaylord, who recently completed an internship with Future Earth in late 2020. She is a junior at Dartmouth College studying Government and Environmental Studies, and hopes to pursue environmental policy or law. 

The year 2020 began on a volatile note. By March, a pandemic had already ravaged the world and devastated every reach of society. Now, as 2021 begins, COVID-19 still rages – and health is only one among a slew of global-scale environmental, social, and political crises. The running list of this year’s record-breaking natural disasters continues to grow. In the U.S. alone, the number and intensity of wildfires, tropical cyclones, rain and flooding events, and prolonged heat periods all topped the charts, destabilizing the very foundation of communities and institutions. 2016-2020 is on track to be the warmest five-year period on record, Arctic permafrost temperatures are at a record high, and the emissions gap is larger now than ever before. As this was an unprecedented year for natural disasters, so too it was for growing social and climate justice movements, fueled by a global tide of disaffected youth. 

The pandemic’s cruel consequences, compounded by ever-burgeoning climate-related emergencies, catalyzed global-scale action. Forced to reckon with COVID-19 and the social disparities it exposed, governments and corporations felt novel, momentous pressure to reform existing structures. There is immense bottom-up demand to address grave inequalities, pursue green recovery, and design common policies and practices with environmental and social considerations at their core. These demands have proliferated alongside youth-led climate action groups, such as the Sunrise Movement – which has swelled to 400 hubs across the United States. The group reached 3.5 million young voters in swing states. Zero Hour, a student group, organizes protests on Capitol Hill, intending to raise awareness surrounding the Green New Deal. The Fridays for Future movement has grown to more than one million international school children demanding climate justice. Propelled by such youth concern, politicians like Representative Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez and Senator Ed Markey sponsored the groundbreaking “Green New Deal,” legislation that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and in tandem, curb inequality and economic injustice. 

Nascent youth groups pushed for and successfully achieved policy reform across the world. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently pledged to invest £350 million towards a green recovery, cutting emissions from heavy industry. South Korea promised its citizens an additional 1.9 million jobs by developing green technologies. China has committed to carbon neutrality before 2060. European Union chief, Ursula von der Leyen, set a greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal of 55% by 2030, significantly higher than the current target of 40%, after prominent climate activists like Greta Thurberg pressured the E.U. to strive further on their climate goals. 

After a highly-publicized U.S. election season, the sheer impact of youth voters mobilized by climate change is clear from the data. Voter turnout for the age group 18-29 is on track to be record-breaking, and climate change ranks among the top three issues most important to this voting group. Over half of young people said they are “very concerned” about climate change, and 78% say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned. Youth of color are even more concerned – 84% “somewhat” or “very.” 

As natural disasters become more devastating and thus salient in the public’s eye, as youth advocacy movements mount enormous influence, and as increasing numbers of young voters influence the political process directly – by turning out to vote – or indirectly, by writing letters, making calls, and signing petitions, there is reason to believe we might be able to meet Paris Agreement goals, after all. 

The key to our “Future on Earth”? Mobilizing these young activists and forming them into sustainability leaders who will influence policymakers. Informed, passionate, and careful young people have already proven their ability to set a course of green recovery and sustainable development. The next decade in leadership will be crucial as we attempt to meet several Sustainable Development Goals – climate, biodiversity, and poverty – and younger generations must lead that crusade.

In a recent interview, Gaby Langendijk of Future Earth’s Early Career Network mentioned that the youth movement is largely building upon research and science in a knowledge-based way. “The science has directly informed the youth movement, and the youth are the amplifiers of the messages coming from science,” Langendijk said.

While youth activists haven’t directly steered the scientific sustainability agenda, the fresh, diverse perspectives of early career researchers have begun to enter the discourse and to further direct science towards society’s needs. The Early Career Network is dedicated to bringing early-career researchers together to work on sustainability issues and to bolster their consolidated perspective.

Leadership is changing; progress is inevitable. Reminiscent of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which during the 1960s marshaled widespread civil rights reform, climate activism seems to be the next front of youth concern. Movements begin at the grassroots level, and the 1.2 billion young people on planet earth have started to initiate real, immense institutional change. The reins are in our youth’s hands, and the window through which humanity averts widespread climate disaster, biodiversity loss, and civil unrest is narrowing. Can our global youth help ensure a just future?


January 8, 2021


Soleil Gaylord