As evidenced recently by school protests and climate marches, Europe’s youth is becoming increasingly committed to the fight against global warming. In response, EU institutions are reaching out to the next generation to gain insight into their perspective and add their voices to the discourse on this urgent issue.
‘Europe and the world will need bright, well-trained and committed young people to build a climate neutral future,’ declared Romania’s State Secretary, Melanie Gabriela Ciot at an extraordinary meeting held by the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) in April 2019.
The young Europeans who are taking to the streets – and are doing so in growing numbers and in more and more cities across Europe – will be in the prime of their adult life in 2050. I welcome their engagement; they have the biggest stake in the fight against climate change.
The commitment is already there, and growing. A flash Eurobarometer survey conducted in March reveals an increase in climate awareness and political engagement among Europeans aged 15-30 years, with three- quarters involved in some form of organised movement. When asked ‘How do we build a stronger, more united Europe?’, over two- thirds cited environmental protection and climate change mitigation as a priority. Many also believe that climate change, the environment and eco-friendly behaviour need to be given more attention by schools.
On 15 March this year, an estimated 1.4 million students in 112 countries around the world held strikes and protests, calling for leaders to take concerted action against the accelerating threat of climate change. A similar event involving students from 125 countries took place on 24 May.
‘They want us to act’, Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete told 16-year-old activist, Greta Thunberg at the ENVI Committee meeting, ‘and rightly so, because by the time your generation will be in the driving seat in politics, public service and business and elsewhere, it will be too late to stop climate change.’
The meeting was just one of the EU events aimed at including Europe’s youth in the conversation on climate change, and ensuring that EU leaders heed the voices of those most likely to feel the impact of today’s policies. Held on 16 April, the open, one-hour exchange served as an opportunity for Thunberg to outline the concerns of her generation and initiate a future-oriented debate. ‘I want you to panic,’ she told MEPs. ‘… I want you to act as if the house was on fire.’
Since instigating a ‘school strike for climate’ in August, the Swedish schoolgirl has been instrumental in inspiring a movement that has spread all over the world, pressing decision-makers to take stronger action. ‘The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility’, she said, ‘… you need to listen to us, we who cannot vote.’
Her speech was met with considered and passionate responses from MEPs, many of whom said they were inspired to do better by their children and grandchildren.
Agents of change
This year, European Youth Week had more participants than ever before, with about 115 000 young people in all 34 Erasmus+ programme countries attending almost 1 000 events under the theme ‘Democracy and me’. Flagship events in Brussels on 29 and 30 April brought together hundreds of young representatives to discuss how they can become more active in their communities and influence democratic decisions.
Commissioner Navracsics hosted a Citizens' Dialogue with around 500 young people, as well as an 800-participant strong debate on the impact the European Solidarity Corps. ‘I am pleased to see that so many committed young people from all parts of Europe and all backgrounds got involved in the events and debates,’ said Navracsics.
On the same day, Artur Runge-Metzger, director at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Climate Action, ran a discussion on stepping up action against climate change. Europe’s youth were invited to examine the impact of climate change on their daily lives, the role of the EU and other stakeholders in tackling it, and how young people can become agents of change.
Climate action was also one of the focus areas at a citizens’ dialogue held ahead of the EU Leaders' Summit in May in Sibiu, Romania. Around 300 Europeans aged 18-25 years gathered at the dialogue to voice their concerns, expectations and ideas, and exchange views with President Juncker, President Iohannis, Commissioner Thyssen and Commissioner Navracsics.
The event included thematic workshops on topics such as democracy, equality and social participation, as well as a workshop on what young people and the EU can do together to fight climate change.
‘It was inspiring to hear the views and ideas of young people from all around Europe,’ said Yvon Slingenberg, director at the European Commission’s DG CLIMA. ‘The EU has already put in place a comprehensive legislative framework to reach our climate and energy goals for the next decade, but we need to go further – and to succeed, we need everyone on board.’
Spotlight on climate
The European institutions’ Open Day, held in May every year, is an opportunity for people of all ages to explore the symbolic buildings of the institutions and learn about what the EU does and how citizens can influence EU action.
This year, the European Commission’s Open Day event featured a stand dedicated to climate change, environment and energy, enabling visitors to explore EU initiatives through public debates, guided tours and special activities such as an energy-generating biking challenge, a quiz and a climate hero photo booth.
There was something for everyone, with an onsite cartoonist, a colouring wall and small wooden boats to encourage younger children to join in and learn about nature protection and climate action.
European institutions are also reaching out on climate issues beyond Europe’s borders. Fittingly, ‘Youth’ was the theme of this year’s Climate Diplomacy Weeks, when the EU delegations and embassies across the globe put the spotlight on climate change – what has been done, and what needs to be done.
Many events focused specifically on the need to work with the next generation and interact on a global scale to help raise ambition and lead the way on accelerated action to fight climate change.
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- Directorate-General for Environment