Young people may be the most powerful force yet to be mobilised in the international climate movement
Two hundred young people from 10 Asean countries met to discuss campaigns for climate change action last month. The first meeting of the "Asean Power Shift" took place at United World College of South East Asia in Tampines.
It was organised by a group of young people from 350 Singapore, the local chapter of a global youth-led non-profit organisation called 350.org.
The name has its origins in the United States, where the first so-called Power Shift was held in 2007 and gathered 6,000 youth for climate change activism. A Global Power Shift took place in 2013 in Turkey and, from there, 86 national Power Shifts have been held across the world. These meetings bring together millennials (also known as Gen Y) to discuss climate change issues and equip them with skills to organise similar campaigns in their home countries.
The idea is to empower them to lead local climate action groups which will, in turn, help educate the people in their countries on the realities of and solutions to climate change, multiplying the effect.
The movement views climate change as an ethical issue involving equality, human rights, collective rights and historical responsibility. It recognises the fact that those who are least responsible for climate change generally bear the brunt of its impact.
As a group, the youth hold tremendous voting and purchasing power that could pressure governments and businesses to make the right decisions. They could be the most potent force for the international climate movement, yet to be unleashed.
Given the grassroots, ground-up nature of the event, I was surprised that the first Asean Power Shift was entirely led by a group of young people from Singapore - where the country's historical wariness of civil society and advocacy efforts has meant that activists are few and far between.
In many ways, the meeting - supported by Young NTUC and environmental NGO Eco Singapore - reflects recent, growing civic activism among Singaporeans, especially the young, and the growing appeal of climate change advocacy for this particular generation. A survey of 8,000 young adults from 20 countries in 2011, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, found that young people increasingly want to be a force for change in creating a more sustainable planet.
The young adults surveyed, aged 18 to 35, consider poverty and environmental degradation to be the world's two biggest challenges, and they want more information on what they can do to be part of the solution.
Speaking to many of the region's youth at the event, I was struck by their energy and sharp questions.
Mr Vannchai Rot, 23, a social worker from Cambodia, volunteers for a youth non-governmental organisation called the Youth Resource Development Programme (YRDP).
He said that in developing Asean countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, climate change awareness is still very low. People can see its effects. They feel it is getting hotter and crop yields in these heavily agricultural countries have become erratic, due to increased incidents of droughts and floods. But people still generally do not understand climate change, its cause, or how to respond to it.
YRDP, which is part of the Cambodia Climate Change Network, seeks to address this by training and educating young people in the country, equipping them with the understanding and skills to, in turn, educate their friends and family. It organises a youth forum on climate change annually and conducts dialogues with the Cambodian government on how to address climate issues.
The progress is slow, however, said Mr Vannchai, because of a lack of resources.
Then there is Ms Pui Cuifen, a 33-year-old environmental scientist who represented Singapore at the event. She faces a different set of challenges. Her interest in climate issues was triggered by a university course she attended some five years ago and she has since been participating in and volunteering at climate change-related events.
In Singapore, awareness of climate change issues is generally high, she said, but this does not mean that people are doing something about it.
"Many say they feel powerless, or that the problem is too big for them, so this meeting - the Asean Power Shift - reinforces the idea that we can make things happen," she said. She feels the connection between climate change and how it impacts the daily lives of citizens in Singapore is missing at the moment. Climate change effects, such as higher temperatures, rising sea levels, increased risk of drought and floods, and extreme weather events, might be well reported, but for the man in the street to care about these issues, a personal connection has to be made.
This could involve something as simple as, say, driving home the message that the local dishes Singaporeans love - such as a bowl of fishball noodles, or a plate of chicken rice - could be very expensive or unavailable in the coming years as food production declines because of more droughts or floods.
Very often, it comes down to small, personal actions, said Ms Pui, who started a community garden a couple of years ago in Choa Chu Kang with her neighbours to grow their own food. This is her way of "doing things that are sustainable and bringing people together".
She is part of a group of young people from the 10 participating nations at the Asean Power Shift tasked to write a position paper outlining the perspective of Asean youth on climate change issues, and what they expect from the UN climate change negotiations.
Due to take place in Paris in December, the meeting is when governments are meant to ink a legally binding deal to address climate change and its impact.
Mr Wilson Ang, founder of Eco Singapore, who mentored the young people running the event, said that Asean youth are under-represented at the UN negotiations, and the document formally gives them a voice. Their views will be submitted to both the Asean secretariat and the French presidency for consideration in the lead-up to the Paris meeting.
Mr Ang hopes the Asean Power Shift will do three things. First, increase capacity building in the region to help young people at the grassroots level be passionate about climate change. Second, help Asean youth attend the climate change meetings by providing financial support via sponsors. And third, consolidate regional efforts on climate change activism so that impact is maximised.
He added that some sponsors have committed to providing US$1,000 (S$1,370) grants to the youth for selected local initiatives as a way of extending the event's impact. Better still, the Asean secretariat could also consider formally giving such support to the local projects.
Mr Ang said that the Asean Power Shift will now be held annually, driven entirely by youth volunteers. This effort is timely, given young people's growing interest in social and environmental issues.
Climate change potentially represents a major threat to the health and socio-economic stability of youth - particularly in developing countries, where 80 per cent of young people live.
As a group, they hold tremendous voting and purchasing power that could pressure governments and businesses to make the right decisions. They could be the most potent force for the international climate movement, yet to be unleashed.
They are also right to be concerned, for they will be the ones who will be around in 2050 and beyond, when scientists predict climate change effects will significantly worsen if no global action is taken.
This was aptly summed up by Dr AKP Mochtan, Deputy Secretary-General of Asean for Community and Corporate Affairs, who spoke at the event.
He said: "The youth have much at stake, because the youth have much future to live."
• This is a fortnightly column by Jessica Cheam, the editor of Eco-Business, an Asia-Pacific sustainable business online publication. She was formerly a political and environment correspondent at The Straits Times.
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