Exclusive — COP27’s Youth Day with Shelot Masithi and Peter Havers
Ensuring that the voices of young people and future generations are heard loud and clear is one of the key objectives of this year’s summit. But is this the case? We spoke to She4Earth’s founder Shelot Masithi and climate writer Peter Havers to find out.
As you’re likely aware, COP27 is being held in Africa this year. What you might not have known, however, is that 70% of Africa’s population is under the age of 30 and the continent is home to several vulnerable communities living on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
This, of course, makes the importance of listening to the voices of young people especially significant at this edition of the UN summit. Particularly because those inheriting the danger outlined by the IPCC’s latest report are youth, children, and those yet to be born.
As stated on the COP website, ensuring that youth and future generations are heard loud and clear is a key objective this time round. That’s why yesterday, they held a stand-alone day to ensure that young people’s perspectives are taken on board and reflected across all areas of the climate agenda. We went live with two pioneering voices in this sphere to find out whether or not this came to fruition.
The first, Shelot Masithi, an activist, Dais speaker for Force of Nature, and the Founding Executive Director of She4Earth, a youth-led non-profit organisation educating children and young people about climate change, biodiversity conservation, and indigenous knowledge systems.
The second, Peter Havers, a writer seeking to level out some of the doom and gloom that’s often ever-present in the climate conversation. He’s doing so by shifting the narrative around the crisis to focus more on the positive actions individuals and companies are taking to combat it in an effort to reduce the apathy many people feel and ultimately drive greater action. Earlier this month, he was listed as one of the top ten UK-based green voices on LinkedIn, for shining a spotlight on start-ups that are developing innovative solutions.
Click here to watch the live interview.
Thred: It’s increasingly recognised that younger generations have an important role to play in climate change governance. However, while decision-makers around the world are increasing efforts to facilitate their participation, discontent prevails as young people feel tokenised and instrumentalised. How can we be giving them a seat at the table without youth washing?
Peter: For better or for worse, to be invited to the table, we have to have the permission of the older generation. We have to think in terms of ‘what are they likely to see us offering?’ We have to prove to them beyond any reasonable doubt that we deserve to be there, that we have incredible, helpful ideas that can move the conversation forward, that we’re not just there as young people.
Thred: The newly-announced Children and Youth Pavilion at Cop27 is providing young people with a dedicated platform to hold discussions and policy briefings. As exciting as this is, it still isolates young people and excludes them from the real decision-making spaces. What are your thoughts on this? A progressive means of amplifying youth voices without the barriers and obstacles they often meet at these official events or simply yet another example of youth washing that sets us back?
Peter: I have very mixed feelings about it. I’m very grateful that there are children and young people at COP right now, I think they’re doing incredible work, and I’m excited to see what comes of that. But on first impression, the concept of the pavilion doesn’t really sit right with me. I don’t think it’s fair.
It reminds me of being relegated to the kids table at a family gathering until you’re old enough to be seen as having reached the threshold of contributing meaningfully to the conversation.
Shelot: It’s great, but it’s the right thing at the wrong place. We should be demolishing the hierarchy that sees older generations making all the decisions. It’s not our house, we are being given a room in someone else’s house and that’s wrong. It’s important, yes, but the implementation is off. We don’t want to be in other people’s houses because we will always be restricted that way. What we want is not being given to us and we are tired of asking for permission to make our demands. It’s not like they’re not hearing us, they are simply not listening to us. The pavilion is a start, but it’s not enough.
Thred: I believe that this is representative of a wider issue, a microcosm of what’s happening everywhere at the moment. On the surface, these initiatives sound great, but they’re divisive. If young people are still being left out of the rooms in which they can have influence, how can they be guaranteeing that what’s being said is translating into tangible and impactful action?
Peter: We absolutely need to think about how we apply scrutiny and accountability to people at the very top of the food chain. Politicians, CEOs, and so on. We also need to be holding those in our networks accountable. Our friends, family, suppliers. This is a lot easier to do. There’s a huge potential impact there because every business is making decisions on a day to day basis. It has to be done in a very certain way. Now more than ever we need cohesion rather than alienation and fragmentation. We need to support people when they make climate positive decisions and praise them publicly before having a quiet word with those being climate negative. It’s ongoing.
Shelot: As young people we are resilient and we know what we want. It’s up to us to avoid losing our tenacity and keep flipping tables. There’s no guarantee that we’re going to be given what we want.
Thred: Currently, the structure of COP is inherently disempowering for young people, from the rules around how actions (e.g. protests) can be held, to limitations around access. This disproportionately exacerbates the challenges already facing historically marginalised groups, including youth, frontline and Indigenous communities, and civil society from the Global South. How can these issues be rectified and have we witnessed any improvements at this years’ summit so far?
Shelot: It’s a systemic and structural issue. Beyond the inaccessibility of COP, our governments in the Global South aren’t even doing enough. They’re under-funded without an explicit reason as to why. There are a lot of ‘whys.’ Without answers, we’re always going to be trying to figure out what we’re being fed on the surface and not navigating the ‘whys.’ It’s going to come back and bite us. Regarding young people, it’s our future that’s being discussed and they don’t want us here. That’s the message that we’re receiving. No matter how much we force ourselves into these spaces, we aren’t wanted. This is mentally draining. We want to be here because it’s affecting us. We’re doing the best we can to push for inclusion but this inaccessibility — which is reflective of systemic issues — is a preventing that. In addition, I believe that young people’s mental health is not being given the attention that it deserves during this time of crisis.
It shouldn’t be our priority to carry this weight on our shoulders. We’re burnt out. And inaccessibility is only making it worse.
Thred: Why is it so essential that young people be the change they want to see?
Peter: As young people, we have to live with the effects of the climate crisis for the longest period of time. We’ve arguably got the most to lose and therefore have the strongest incentive to take action.
Shelot: We are in the forefront of every challenge right now. If you look into the negotiation rooms, the people that are there are 50 years plus. In the next couple of decades, those people won’t be here anymore. Yet the decisions that they are making today well affect us in the coming years. If we aren’t doing the work, who will? We have to move away from the idea that these people are considering our futures. We need to have a say because it’s our right to be involved.
Thred: Though minority groups are already disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, they’ve still been showing up with resilience to solve these problems for decades. How can we go about amplifying their voices and avoiding tokenism?
Shelot: By looking at them. Seeing these people. Those who aren’t included when they deserve to be need our support. It’s not always financial. It’s about connection. Actually taking the time to look at them and recognise they are asking for help.
Thred: Peter, what advice would you give to young people looking to make a difference in innovation and entrepreneurship relating to climate action but who are struggling to figure out where to begin?
Peter: There’s an over-glorification of founders in society today. It makes you think that if you want to get involved, you need to be a founder to have an impact. It’s not for everyone, that level of sacrifice and responsibility. You also don’t need to be technical. If you’re considering a career in climate, choose whatever sings to you. It doesn’t need to be a huge leap straight off the bat.
Thred: And Shelot, what advice would you give to young people looking to make a difference in this sphere of activism but who are struggling to figure out where to even begin?
Shelot: The best thing you can ever do as a young person is to be yourself. This is how you can find what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about.
Always be doing something that you know you love. Otherwise you risk feeling frustrated, angry, and burnt out. You’ll thank yourself later.
Thred: How can we keep the momentum going post-COP? And how can we as individuals dedicated to the cause continue to hold the necessary people accountable post-COP?
Peter: People from a top-down level do want to hear from young people. We’ve got a perspective that they don’t have so we need to be loud, we need to shout, we can’t be silent anymore.