Youth have been front and center in the recent explosion of climate advocacy. Around the world, young activists have breathed urgency into the climate movement, shaken up public discourse about climate action, or lack thereof, and put climate change on national and international agendas. A sea of young, impassioned climate campaigners have entered the limelight: Greta Thunberg, Jamie Margolin, Xiye Bastida and Vanessa Nakate, to name just a few. In the United States, the Sunrise Movement’s assertive tactics pushed climate change and the Green New Deal to become one of the hallmark issues of the 2020 elections. In Colombia, a group of activists as young as nine years old successfully sued the government for failing to protect the Amazon rainforest. And, in Ghana, a youth-led advocacy group halted the construction of a major coal-fired plant. Activism has even reached TikTok, with eco-creators developing and sharing climate-related educational content on the platform.
Young people are alarmed, angry and, most of all, unafraid to vocalize their discontent with the current state of affairs. The largest-ever climate opinion poll has shown that Gen-Z are the strongest believers that global warming constitutes an emergency. While youth activists have been beating the drum on climate inaction for decades, the latest generation of campaigners, armed with the reach of social media, are louder and more coordinated than their predecessors. And, unlike conventional environmentalists, they’re framing climate change as a social problem, rather than putting forth a purely environmental message.
Young people have also been at the forefront of calling out the climate movement’s diversity problem and drawing attention to climate justice, which acknowledges that the impacts of a warming world are not felt equally among communities. Many climate circles are largely white and middle-class, and have been criticized for elevating “save-the-planet idealism” at the expense of the nuts-and-bolts concerns of communities of color. In response, a slew of youth activists and youth-led groups, including Zero Hour and the Re-Earth Initiative, are tying climate disaster to issues of racism, colonialism and poverty, and prioritizing the protection of the world’s most marginalized populations.
So why should your company care about all this?
The tide is shifting. Across the corporate world, stakeholder capitalism is becoming ever-more embedded, with even the greatest laggards joining the movement. Scrutiny is at an all-time high, and companies are increasingly being pushed to get their sustainability and DEI strategies in line with stakeholder expectations. As you flesh out your sustainability and net-zero goals, and build out your equity and justice initiatives, you have the prime opportunity to complement these activities with robust support for youth advocacy, especially on the climate and climate justice front. Young people have helped foment a global climate movement that’s now an everyday fixture in our lives. Their voices on the matter are increasingly being heard and heeded, and their actions are being watched. They’re your next generation of employees, customers, suppliers and investors—and falling out of step with where they are on the climate conversation can have significant, long-term implications for your talent acquisition and retention, operations, reputation and, ultimately, your bottom line.
Here’s what companies can do to engage with young stakeholders on climate change:
- Fund youth advocacy efforts. Start with grassroots efforts, and those that address the differing impacts of climate change on marginalized communities.
- Flex your own advocacy muscle. There’s often a disconnect between companies’ public sustainability ambitions and their non-public advocacy efforts. You have a chance to buck the trend by making climate change advocacy a key part of your ESG strategy. Pay close attention to what youth activists are saying—then put your weight behind the measures and changes they’re clamoring for.
- Leverage your public voice. People are listening to you, and you have the chance to use your voice in impactful ways. Highlight specific youth leaders, organizations and campaigns. Publicly articulate your support for youth climate efforts—this could go a long way toward giving these efforts the backing that they need to succeed.
- Expand your employee volunteer program, especially for your youngest staff. Give your youngest employees time back to dedicate to climate efforts that move the needle.
Young people—especially the ones on the frontlines of the climate movement—have already exerted an outsized influence on public debates and on national and international agendas. And their prowess will only increase. Failing to heed their demands is a risk nobody can afford to take. Investing in the next generation of leaders isn’t just the right thing to do for the planet—it’s the right thing to do for your business.