10 May 2022
Youth and Change
Climate change: a familiar problem that becomes increasingly abstract the more you think of it. The enormity of the crisis can be daunting, and its perceived imminence often evokes feelings of powerlessness, sparking questions such as do my own contributions really matter?
As an eighteen-year-old climate advocate, my answer is ‘yes, they do.’ In fact, I share this answer with millions of youth around the world who are currently fighting for a safer and more sustainable future. From working on the ground with environmental organisations to speaking about these issues at events such as the Cultures in Conversations series of Expo2020 Dubai’s Programme for People and Planet, I have gained more insightful perspectives on youth’s role as agents of change.
Last September, I travelled to Milan as a delegate of Turkey at the Pre-COP26 Youth4Climate Summit.  During the five long days, I met with almost 400 young climate leaders from around the world to develop a declaration of our demands for climate action, which was then presented to governments ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow.
An Accessible Space
In between plenary sessions and meetings, I conversed with the other international delegates. I had already met many of them during the pandemic when environmental work and activism shifted online. During this disorienting period, technology became an anchor that kept us grounded in our goals while facilitating international friendships. I remember attending meetings and climate conferences on zoom, Slack workspaces overfilling with messages, and a wave of emails flooding my inbox every day. Even though I had initially felt disconnected from nature, the digital world during the pandemic created an accessible space for youth to support each other and collaborate on innovative campaigns. Therefore, it felt surreal to finally meet everyone in person. As our conversations flowed over much-needed coffee, we delved into our experiences of being a part of this movement. I realised that, just like me, many young people have been engaged in environmental advocacy for much of their lives, out of desperation and fright.
My friend Mitzi from the Philippines grew up afraid of drowning in her bedroom because of the increasingly intense typhoons and the floods that would ravage her home year after year. Vanessa spoke about how in her native Uganda, people are facing an acute food security crisis due to extreme floods, droughts, and locusts.  My friend Aman from India says that in Delhi, schools are being shut down, masks are being worn, air purifiers are turned on and windows are always locked. Schools are regularly closed not because of the pandemic, but due to the visible air pollution outside. And in the UAE, we are in one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of climate change. Apart from being very susceptible to sea levels rising and even hotter temperatures, climate change will only intensify present concerns for the agricultural sector. 
Hence, instead of having ‘normal’ childhoods and teenage lives, many youth find themselves leading strikes in their countries to pressurise governments and corporations, running environmental organisations, and using all their power to educate others on the issue—all while balancing school or university life. Behind the scenes, teenagers devote hundreds of hours to growing and upholding thousand-member organisations. They are constantly managing working groups, securing protest permits, creating financial documents, and frequently restructuring. Personally, I learnt so much more about business as part of Re-Earth Initiative, an international youth-led climate organisation, than studying IB Business Management. Some activists become the ‘face’ of the movement, receiving broad media coverage and, subsequently, feel pressure to work harder and maintain a public image.
Illustration by Lara Rudar
Wrestling with Feelings
Constantly fighting an enormous issue such as climate change, especially as a young person without the power to directly enact change on a legal or corporate level, undoubtedly takes a significant toll on your mental health. When feeling physically and mentally drained, questions such as Am I even qualified to do this? Is it worth it? and Why am I doing this? start forming in your mind. With this, come feelings of anger and frustration towards those with the power to incite the radical changes needed, but don’t seem to be fulfilling their responsibilities. At Pre-COP, I regularly found myself asking why I was there in the first place. If climate change had been taken seriously as soon as the IPCC First Assessment Report was published three decades ago, we wouldn’t have to keep convening and repeating demands every year. I distinctly recall listening to Greta Thunberg’s speech at the summit, and her repetition of the line ‘blah blah blah.’  While many thought her mocking words were rude and childish, they accurately conveyed the frustration that young people feel towards the slow process of climate action. Sitting in the audience, I knew her words would become viral because people deeply resonated with them: we are moving fast in the wrong direction.
Technology has made young people more informed than ever on world issues. Social media has increased environmental awareness, but it can also become overwhelming. A new global survey revealed that more than half of youth (54%) claim their feelings about climate change negatively affect their functioning on a day-to-day basis. Close to 60% of respondents admitted being extremely worried about climate change, with over 50% saying they felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless—and guilty.  While youth advocacy can be difficult at times, many people find it an effective way to channel these negative feelings for good. Words cannot express how reassuring it is to find a community and surround yourself with empathetic people. I believe that the environmental community is uniquely supportive as there is a natural feeling of care implicit in the cause, and everyone understands the collective work to reach a common goal. Success is always shared and hardships are faced with solidarity.
Apart from starting to significantly reduce their carbon emissions, governments, businesses and institutions now have the responsibilities of mentoring, aiding and empowering youth in these spaces. These invested efforts will foster new ambition and perspectives on environmental affairs but also ensure that youth continue to challenge current institutionalised conventions, and prepare to lead our future in a more informed, sustainable way.
If I have learnt anything from being a part of the climate movement, it is that individual actions become more frequent and prominent in an inspiring and supportive environment. Your contributions matter: some of the best ways to help protect our planet is to join or support not just environmental organisations, but also all the young people at the heart of climate action.
Lara Rudar is a multimedia artist and environmental advocate studying at JESS Dubai. She has worked with Emirates Nature-WWF as one of the 20 Official UAE Ambassadors for Nature and was part of numerous panels hosted by Expo2020 Dubai and the United Nations. As a UN WSIS Youth Campaigner, she is currently working to help young people share and exchange their insights related to the information society and international development, including the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
Lara Rudar Elijah Mckenzie Jackson and Jerome Foster