The 2050 targets are closer than you think. The impacts of today’s decisions will directly affect the young people already in the workforce. Monika Skadborg, chairperson of the Danish Youth Climate Council, argues it is time those voices should be heard in the climate debate
Representing the Youth Climate Council (Ungeklimarådet) in debates about climate action and energy transition, I often meet scepticism about the relevance of young voices. “What can young people contribute that lawmakers and industry leaders do not already know?” some ask.
In the cases where the question does not come from ageism, or from the misconceptions that knowledge is static and youth equates incompetence, it is a fair question.
Disregarding younger voices in the workplace or in political debates means missing out on diversity of experiences, perspectives and ideas that might make your decisions smarter. As well as having a more recent education based on updated research, young professionals are often familiar with different methods and networks than their older peers. These are not necessarily better ones, just different.
It is human nature to underestimate the consequences of our actions when they will only arise far in the future. On issues like climate change, it seems there is also a tendency to overestimate how far in the future the consequences will arise. Perhaps it is frightening or overwhelming to realise how soon 2050 actually is?
But overestimating the timeline and therefore undervaluing future consequences of our decisions is dangerous. It leads to a lot of talk about “future generations” but a reluctance to accept that it is already current adults who will be paying the taxes, running the businesses and living with the societal consequences of how slowly we are currently taking action on climate change.
Young people have a different perspective on prioritising between the short term consequences of our decisions and the medium to long term consequences. We see the timeline differently, and this viewpoint is crucial if the necessary emission reduction targets are to be met.
I am 27 meaning that in 2050, I will still have another 17 years left in the labour market. I will literally pay the cost of inaction if urgent decisions are not taken this year in the stimulus packages after the economic crisis, and in every other decision in the next ten years. These seemingly short-term decisions are too often made with the next five years, or less, in mind, leading to a failure to acknowledge the full value of the long-term consequences.
It is well-documented the cost of inaction on climate change is higher than the cost of prioritising green transition.
If we took that knowledge seriously, every country and every business would already be implementing green transition. It is not only a moral responsibility but simply good business to minimise the future costs associated with climate adaptation as well as the risks arising from disruption of global value chains. Not many business leaders would like to run their company in a world where, for example, the ecosystems they rely on deteriorate, millions of people become displaced, and water-related conflicts start posing threats to global security.
These problems are not all solved by listening to younger voices and understanding the timeline they live on, but it is a good start. Some of these voices are going to be angry and shout “quit wasting my future tax money”, or they may remind you about the uncomfortable truth that people are already dying from climate change, but they are still valuable.
The younger generation has grown up in a more globalised world and are more globally connected than older generations. Having contact with friends who live on islands that are going to disappear, or in areas with increasingly frequent extreme weather, gives our generation yet another perspective.
This sense of a global perspective makes young people more likely to see that, even though the responsibility of one business, or even one small country, can seem tiny compared to the global scale of the climate crisis, you still have to do your part. Because if everyone ignores their own responsibility, the sum of each tiny negligence will result in a global catastrophe.
Young people are not just capable of being activists and shouting in the streets. In your workplace, there will likely be young professionals being overlooked due to their perceived lack of experience. But by overcoming the assumption that experience equals wisdom and facilitating younger employees to also weigh in on decisions, you might be surprised to find erudite young people with thorough research behind their ideas.
Try reaching out to organisations for young climate and energy professionals and students – especially since these are your future colleagues. Studies show that prioritising sustainability increasingly becomes a factor in businesses’ attractiveness to recruit young talent.
Sustainability is no longer “nice to have” or something that can be parked in a CSR-department. It must be mainstreamed into all departments in order to protect the future of the business.
Taking on new ideas that contradict the status quo may be challenging; fossil fuel based energy was seen as one of the most reliable investments for a long time. Now, investors and decision makers need to get used to the idea that sustainable energy investments outcompete fossils not only in environmental and social metrics but even on the financial bottom line.
If I were leading a business dependent on fossil-based incomes, I would start seeing the writing on the wall. The winners will be those who turn their attention to 2050 first, and listening to young people might help you do that.
The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
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