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Youth at COP28: Intergenerational engagement remains elusive


As COP 28 unfolds, a notable increase in youth participation is observed, with initiatives like the Youth Climate Champion role and International Youth Climate Delegate Program. However, skepticism looms over the conference's ability to translate commitments into tangible action, prompting a call for a shift from process-focused engagement to substantive change. The evolving face of youth activism raises questions about the COP process's capacity to address the complexities of intergenerational justice in the face of climate change.

Mark Ortiz

Mark Ortiz is one of the Young Researchers selected by the Young Democracy Cohort to write a case study on Youth Political Participation. Currently a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow & Incoming Assistant Professor of Geography at The Pennsylvania State University, U.S. His research interests encompass youth politics, climate justice, storytelling methods, and social movement studies. He is the Creator and Director of the Global Youth Storytelling & Research Lab at Penn State, a collaborative research ecosystem that seeks to bridge youth-centered research, education, storytelling, and policy engagement. More information here

The last time I was at a COP was in 2017 at COP 23 in Bonn, Germany. Coming back this year, a lot has changed. Namely, young people appear to be everywhere at this COP. Speaking to a group of youth delegates, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson remarked that there were probably twice as many young people in attendance at COP 28 compared with last year’s COP 27.

What has partially changed is a greater emphasis on “meaningful” youth engagement, showing that the scope and scale of youth engagement in U.N. climate policy is expanding. The recent Youth Stocktake report – a policy paper released by the YOUNGO youth constituency that traces the history and present engagement of youth in the UNFCCC process – uses the UNDP description of “meaningful youth participation” to mean “mechanisms of participation to influence climate change governance where youth share power to steer the process and outcome of their participation.” The YOUNGO constituency has had a formal presence in the UNFCCC climate negotiations since 2009, serving as an umbrella organisation and coordinating hub for youth participation. However, in recent years, particularly at COP 28, young people and children under 18 have become far more visible in the civil society space.

The mechanics of making youth involvement more meaningful in the COP process take several forms. COP 27 featured the first-ever Children and Youth Pavilion, which provided a place for children and young people to gather and hold events focused on applying a youth-focused lens to the challenging intersectional issues of climate change. COP 28 continued this practice with the second iteration of the Children and Youth Pavilion. Occasionally, high-level policymakers will pass by but the space itself is situated far from the negotiation rooms where decisions are made.

Children and Youth Pavilion

The UAE Presidency of COP 28 also prioritised establishing links between the political negotiations with youth interests and concerns. Following on from calls for “meaningful youth participation and representation ” in the Glasgow Climate Pact, last year’s COP 27 featured the creation of the Youth Envoy role. This position has evolved into that of the Youth Climate Champion, with a mandate to “serve as the missing link between the COP Presidency and youth stakeholders, as well as streamlining youth coordination between governments, and UNFCCC” and “mobilizing substantive youth policy input and outcomes.”

mandate of the Youth Climate Champion

COP 28 also developed an International Youth Climate Delegate Program to “expand youth participation from underrepresented groups in climate change policy-making” with an emphasis on youth from Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States, and other marginalised communities. There has been no shortage of publicity for these youth engagement efforts, with celebratory descriptions of these programs prominently displayed in the Children and Youth Pavilion.

It is possible now to speak of a few different generations of youth climate activism in the COP process. Youth and climate advocates initially involved in the early days of YOUNGO in the late 2000s’ and early 2010s’ are now in their thirties, being now part of adult civil society organisations. Although they may still engage with climate advocacy, few of them remain central to the coordination of the youth constituency, passing on the mantle to Gen Z organisers with networks like Fridays for Future.

Now, the young people encountered in this space are more diverse and more intersectional in the ways they are thinking about how climate relates to other issues like peace and justice, race, gender, and disability. They also employ mixed approaches to the climate problem. In my time here, I’ve met young speakers and climate innovators working on everything from mainstreaming intergenerational fairness in investment flows, to sustainable fashion alternatives, to leveraging the purchasing power of Gen Z to fund youth-led social innovation.

Young people engaged in this space now have a range of connections to the process beyond merely exerting influence on the negotiations. Some are content creators or digital storytellers. While they may work closely with youth movements and networks, these individuals often operate independently from broader civil society movements. Likewise, others are youth filmmakers, impact fund directors, and artivists working to inject creativity and artistic expression into an otherwise overwhelmingly technocratic process and to communicate with audiences outside the U.N. halls.

The bigger picture is that the move towards more intergenerational political representation is happening across the U.N. system. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has championed meaningful youth engagement during his tenure through frameworks such as Our Common Agenda and Youth2030, as well as the creation of the Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. Efforts to revitalise multilateralism and rebuild eroding international trust have in part involved mainstreaming the meaningful participation of children and young people in processes.

Certainly, the Children and Youth Pavilion I attended only formed one corner of the conference, and many of the other corners of the massive expo city looked more like a fossil fuel industry fair. I was reminded of this when attending a side event sponsored by ClimaTalk, a youth-led non-profit, that guided us through processing our reflections during and after the event. The tone from many of the young people participating was one which appreciated the gulf between commitment and action, with the word “underwhelmed” coming up a few times in conversations. A young individual from St. Lucia expressed her concern about the COP using the term “optics”. She emphasised her interest in action over discussion, and highlighted the dramatic consequences to her home island if such action failed to materialise.

All of this makes me wonder, what next? The youth are engaged, the children are increasingly engaged, but is intergenerational justice or anything resembling it any closer to becoming a reality than it was before COP 28? My best answer is partially yes, but primarily no. The COP represents such a small fraction of humanity. The children and young people speaking there are exceptional in most senses of the word, and may potentially be less representative of their broader national youth populations. Many emerging threats to children’s rights seem to be largely left out of the discussion. Is it possible to speak loftily of intergenerational justice and “meaningful youth engagement” in a space so curated and exclusionary?

Decision-making institutions and the metrics which guide them are still ill-suited to the challenge of comprehending and meaningfully addressing long-term ecological issues. The costs of ecological transition weighed against its benefits may be lopsided in our current calculus. Liberal political institutions and multilateral institutions deal poorly with what political scientist Thomas Hale calls “long problems.”

I believe a broader conversation is necessary, and I’m far from the first to suggest this. Intergenerational justice is not necessarily equivalent or reducible to the “meaningful inclusion of children and youth” in a fundamentally adultist institution. This assertion connects to broader debates on youth voice, and the politics of recognition. On whose terms do notions of intergenerational justice gain legitimacy, and what are the limits of recognition accorded from institutions such as the United Nations? What approaches and conceptualizations to the problem of time and intergenerational responsibility do these institutions misidentify or erase? While present and visible in new ways, are children and young people “heard”? As the Climate Live network often asks, “Can you hear us yet”?

Indigenous perspectives, approaches from conflict-impacted communities, feminist care ethics, and other grounded approaches may provide the more radical connective fabric of thinking intergenerationally that this moment requires. This may fundamentally mean that despite its best efforts, the U.N. process is structurally unable to deliver the type of intergenerational politics needed to meet the challenge of climate change.

I would suggest that engagement may need to give way to listening. The problem is no longer representation, it is the inclusion and substitution of process for substance.

For a long time, youth participation in international climate politics has been a question of more: of creating more space for youth engagement and more opportunities for youth to interface with decision-makers. Now, I think the challenge for COP and the multilateral process is to move from process to substance, in line with the calls of youth activists to move from conferences of conversations to transformation.

Author : Mark Ortiz, for the Youth Democracy Cohort