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Youth Profile #13: Giving youth a platform at the European Parliament

By Tierney Smith 

Making up half of the global population, young people will be the most affected by the impacts of climate change.

And yet, so often, they are shut out of the decision making process, while politicians and negotiators make the policies which will ultimately decide their future.

The Make the Link Climate exChange (MLCE) programme’s latest project aims to change this.

They want to get members from the European Parliament to sign a declaration that will provide a platform for future youth-led action on green issues.

By signing the declaration MEPs will be pledging to take more notice of the youth perspective and engage with youth on issues of climate change and the environment.

To get the declaration signed, they are calling on young people from across Europe to lobby their local MEP, and to spread the word via student and youth networks across the continent.

As part of RTCC’s youth series, I spoke to Jessica Douthwaite, Education Officer at MLCE about the declaration, youth engagement across Europe and Africa and saying goodbye to the three-year Make the Link Programme.

What is your group doing and what areas of work do you focus on?

The MLCE project is an innovative education programme that has been funded by the European Union for the duration of three years. It has worked with schools and youth groups for 11 to 19 year-olds across six different countries in Europe and Africa.

Around 36,000 young people have been involved from more than 400 schools in those countries. There have been educational resources and an interactive website to help young people engage with the topic of climate change collaboratively. Also residential workshops and small seed grants have been available for young people to create their own campaigns on climate change and environmental issues in their local areas.

The programme has not only aimed to encourage learning about climate change but facilitate ways to support young people in engaging decision-makers, such as MPs, MEPs and government officials, in a dialogue about youth perspectives on climate policy by highlighting the real impact that their own school or community actions are having. That could mean students telling their local MP about their schools’ carbon reduction project or inviting an MP to the launch event of a whole-school awareness campaign.

Approaches to campaign activities have really differed depending on local priorities and national circumstances.

Students in Malawi on solidarity march

Students from a school in Malawi join other groups on a solidarity march (Source: Make the Link Climate exChange)

In the UK, students at Wymondham College organised something called the Big Switch Week which reduced the school’s energy use by 12% and made a £10,000 saving on the school’s overall energy bills. Their local MEP, Vicky Ford, visited Wymondham to find out about the campaign – saying that it was “extremely inspiring”.

The school campaign success was achieved by running competitions to see which class could save the most energy and then awarding penalty cards to the poorest performing. Most of the impact came from really simple measures that the students themselves came up with like switching off computers and lights when not needed.

Simple things like that really opened the students’ eyes to their individual impacts. They then went on to share that achievement with Vicky Ford and other schools in the area, so they are hoping in the future to widen their influence and engage with people higher up in policy-making levels.

The campaign we are launching next week, the ‘Youth Voice in the EU: working together to tackle climate change’ aims to use the positive outcomes taken from the programme so far, to demonstrate how young people can meaningfully engage with MEPs.

Youth Voice in the EU is an initiative to launch a declaration that, with sufficient signatures from members of the European Parliament, will provide a platform for future youth-led action on green issues at the decision-making level. The declaration calls for MEPs to take more notice of the perspectives of younger generations towards climate change and asks them to meaningfully engage with young people and provide more opportunities for young people to get involved in European Parliament decision-making processes.

The declaration has been contributed to by more than 300 young people from the UK, Kenya, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Senegal. They have put forward their experiences of climate change, key concerns and the actions they have taken to combat climate change in their community and considered their role in decision making processes.

The declaration itself has been written, reviewed and agreed by young people to represent their views and highlight what is of greatest importance to them. MEPs that sign the declaration will be signalling their recognition of young people’s perspectives, rather than agreeing to immediately make climate change policy their top priority.

More RTCC Youth Profiles:

Youth Profile #12: European activists demand governments put their futures ahead of ‘dirty industry’

Youth Profile #11: China’s young activists out to prove they do care about climate change

Youth Profile #10: Life on climate change’s frontline with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition

Youth Profile #9: Young entrepreneurs driving sustainability at US campuses

Youth Profile #8: Why education is key to developing climate awareness in Ghana

We hope that by framing the declaration as such we can pave the way for better relationships between decision-makers and young people in the future, rather than ask for impossible promises and changes.

Rather than being an end in itself it is the means to an end. It is the first step to making a platform for young people to lobby MEPs on climate change policies that affect them in the future. One day we hope young people will be able to use the declaration as a frame of reference saying to MEPs ‘you agreed to engage us in a productive conversation by signing this declaration – please listen to us’.

The declaration is a real life example of how young people can be involved in the European decision making process, it will raise awareness and understanding of the tangible impact that young people can make in those forums and in this case, with members of the European Parliament.

As programme organisers, we could go to MEPs and say sign this, young people want you to. But to uphold the whole principle of the campaign we need young people to write to their MEPs and lobby them to sign it. Currently we have young people on our project but we hope to reach out to a broader audience, and promote it through other networks.

We have also recently produced a project overview; a youth to MEP engagement handbook. The handbook ‘Make the Link – Decision Makers, Young People and Climate Change policy’ highlights the successful ways in which young people and decision-makers have engaged on climate change issues through our project – and gives useful ‘tips’ to both young people and decision-makers on how they can take that forward. It is an excellent additional tool for the campaign itself.

What results have you seen from your work so far?

Students taking part in a virtual summit via webcam

Students from different schools work together and share ideas as part of a Virtual Climate Summit (Source: Make the Link Climate exChange)

In Kenya, for example, students from a primary school are learning about agroforestry and the use of trees in farms to enrich soil and encourage efficiency in farming. The school’s climate change club noticed that in their school grounds there was a decline in the tree population so they launched a scheme to plant trees.

That is something really interesting that we learnt from our project; school projects really depend on the communities they are located in.

In Kenya students might be tree planting, while one school in the Netherlands for example, established a discovery garden and worked with their local mayor and council to get the materials and ongoing support for the maintenance of the garden. A discovery garden is more about teaching children in that primary school about climate change impacts on food production and food miles.

A really cool project in the UK called ‘Pledge for Veg’ ended up winning an award during Climate Week for best educational programme. St Christopher’s High School in Lancashire, decided to look at reducing food miles and carbon emissions, they wanted to encourage local community members to grow their own food, not just within school but on a wider level.

It was quite amazing how resilient and creative these students were – they went to local businesses and local leaders, councillors and the mayor and asked for their support and donations in order to give away 2,000 starter pots of onion and garlic. They choose onion and garlic bulbs because they started it in winter and knew that would be an easier seed to grow.

They managed to raise all of the materials themselves and along with a small grant from the Make the Link project they were able to give away the starter pots. The aim was to prove to people that they could grow their own and encourage them to think more about local produce. They calculated that through their campaign they saved 30,000kg of carbon. They have gone on and now want to start a new campaign called ‘Soil for Soup’ which is based on a similar idea and will give away pots for people to literally grow the vegetables they need to make an entire meal of soup.

There have been lots of green initiatives like ‘Pledge for Veg’ on a local level and on an international level, that we have worked on in partnership with young people in the Youth Climate Network.

In the UK we had the One Step Campaign where they encouraged young people to sign a simple note on a footstep – pledging to reduce their impact on the environment in their own ways.

It happened during the Durban climate summit in 2011 and the idea was that the footsteps symbolised young people walking to Durban with their pledges and perspectives. They managed to get 2,000 pledges, which members of the UK Youth Climate Network then presented to the then UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne. He made a commitment to represent the youth perspective at the Durban Summit. It was an example of the really high-level engagement young people can have with Ministers and a fantastic achievement.

In the Netherlands, during the Rio+20 summit, students from two different schools held a House of Commons debate on sustainability issues, at the National Rotterdam Rio+20 Youth Conference. That was attended by an MEP and a member of the Dutch Parliament and other policy-makers. It simulated what actually happened at Rio and helped them to think deeply about how policy-makers come to decisions and what they needed to discuss at the summit.

The point was to also highlight to decision-makers who attended that young people really have strong opinions and inventive, imaginative and intelligent views on climate change. School engagement with MPs and MEPs, for us, has never been about photo opportunities but about really highlighting to them that young people have intelligent contributions to make to the climate debate and for decision-makers to go away thinking it is really worth listening to them – that is what we are trying to carry on with the declaration.

With the MLCE project coming to an end in December, we hope that the declaration will be taken over by youth climate networks from different countries and that they will continue promoting it. It will always exist as a platform by which to lobby MEPs.

Jean Lambert, Green MEP for London, will be one of the first five signees of the declaration, along with four others from around Europe.

What are the challenges you have faced in your work?

That is also really dependant on each school’s journey. Some schools might start from scratch with their green initiatives and other schools might already have green initiatives set up. For those just setting out in tackling climate change in their schools, it may have been a challenge to change attitudes and raise awareness. The achievement is that all schools have overcome these challenges.

What support have you seen for your activities?

I think the support from MPs and MEPs has really surprised some teachers and students. I don’t think they expected to have as much interest in their projects as they have and that has been really rewarding and has prepared them to think further about lobbying and getting involved with politicians.

I don’t think anyone from the UK Youth Climate Network for example would have thought that Chris Huhne would agree to represent the youth perspective at the Durban summit in 2011 – but he did because their ‘One Step campaign’ had been an inspirational way to engage young people and showed him the importance of listening to youth voices. That kind of interest has really inspired many schools and teachers to get MPs and MEPs involved in their school activities, even those who haven’t had their efforts recognised by decision-makers yet would now feel confident communicating with them.

Students from the Netherlands work in their local community promoting recycling (Source: Make the Link Climate exChange)

I think a lot of the support from local communities has really surprised schools. Many have based their activities on donations from outside groups such as local businesses or needed to recruit expertise from local people such as gardeners – the willingness of local communities to support their youth and schools has been heart-warming. That kind of peer support in the community has surprised a lot of children and young people.

For example the ‘Pledge for Veg’ campaign created by students at St Christopher’s High School, managed to get the whole local community on board with their project to raise awareness of food miles and inspire people to grow their own.

Local primary schools hosted student presentations on the initiative, businesses donated the materials needed to create 2000 starter pots of vegetables, the Blackburn Rovers and Accrington Stanley football teams raised the profile of the campaign by signing up to the ‘Pledge for Veg’ vision and students also promoted the project in their local county council offices.

I don’t think they really expected their local football teams to be interested in green issues but through their own voices and through their ability to communicate what they were doing in a really exciting way St Christopher’s students successfully publicised the campaign and made great use of the networks that they were creating. I think that has really inspired many of them and hopefully they will continue working in their communities.

That is the first step towards more of a national impact and from there, looking at a European and international impact.

What would be your vision for 2050?

With our campaign ‘Youth Voice in the EU’ what we want to highlight is that young people and children now will feel the greatest effects of climate change in the future. Our point is that if we can improve decision maker engagement with young people now, then by 2050, policies will have been made that reflect future impacts of climate change and therefore adaptation and mitigation strategies will have been put into place for our youth now to live better lives in 2050. The ultimate aim of the declaration is to ensure that policy-makers remember who they are making policies and taking decisions on behalf of.

What would help you in your latest project?

Young people lobbying their MEPs to sign the declaration! On the campaign website we have examples of young people’s letters to MPs, templates and examples of how you might want to engage with an MP whether that is via email or a letter. Through the website you can find out who your local MEP is in your constituency and by using that tool you will be able to send your letters to all of the MEPs in your constituency.

What we really want in the first place is support from partners to direct young people towards the campaign and the information that they need to support it. Young people are the channel through which this campaign project will succeed so we would like to see as many of them expressing their points of view on climate change by lobbying their MEPs and encouraging the signing of the declaration. By doing this, they are not only supporting the campaign, but supporting themselves through the improvement of decision-maker engagement with the next generation.

Students leaving greenhouse

Students from Nyamgun School in Kenya maintain greenhouses on the school grounds (Source: Make the Link Climate exChange)

Why did you choose the project? What do you think youth groups’ role is in the climate/environmental agenda?

What brought us to our final campaign – the MEP declaration for Youth Voice in the EU, were the fantastic things we have been seeing throughout the programme where young people are engaging with decision-makers. This was seen as the first step.

Young people bring their perspectives, imagination and a unique approach to an issue. They will inherit the worst consequences if nothing is done about it. Young people approach the topic of green policy with this knowledge and therefore invest a lot of passion in the debate.

I think decision-makers and policy-makers can get lost in their policy world after a while and no matter how passionate they are about certain subjects they’re doing a job and can get bogged down in policy. Young people come to this with really bright ideas; new innovative ideas. But without communication, that gets lost. Currently there are not many easy channels for young people to talk to policy-makers about these things. The declaration provides a beginning to a more collaborative and productive process of exchange.

More RTCC Youth Profiles

Youth Profile #7: Why Indonesia’s biodiversity is at the front line of the fight against climate change

Youth profile #6: Meet the African coalition that brings together 54 countries to tackle climate change

Profile #5: Bangladeshi youth fight to give world’s second most climate vulnerable country a voice

Youth Profile #4: Nepal’s youth fight to save Himalayan paradise from effects of pollution and climate change

Youth Profile #3: Canada’s climate coalition on taking on the Tar Sands lobby and fighting for Kyoto

Youth Profile #2: How PIDES are working on practical solutions to climate change in Mexico

Youth Profile #1: How Nigerian Climate Coalition are building green bridges ahead of COP18

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