– When the NDC Partnership, the alliance which helps governments to determine and achieve their climate goals, held its first-ever Global Youth Engagement Forum in July, several segments were underpinned by Jamaica’s model of engaging young people and sustaining youth interest in climate initiatives.
The Caribbean country, a co-chair of the NDC Partnership, has committed to ensuring that youth have a say on national climate programs, through representation on boards such as the Climate Advisory Body and the NDC Partnership.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Pearnel Charles Jr told IPS that policymakers are committed to a well-defined and permanent space for young people in climate change decision-making.
He spoke to IPS on Jamaica’s blueprint for youth engagement, how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted plans for an on-the-ground campaign to meet youth at primary, secondary, and tertiary education institutions and why engagement must be universal and equitable.
Experts of the interview follow:
Inter Press Service (IPS): Why is it so important for you that space at the center of climate discussion and action is dedicated to young people?
Pearnel Charles Jr (PC): The best use of our time and energy and the best investment that we can make is in building the capacity of our young people. It’s a sensible, strategic decision based on the fact that they will very soon control the policy, legislation, and decisions of the country.
It is also the right decision as young people can have a wider impact than most because of their energy, creativity, innovation, and interest. We don’t have issues with having to inform the youth as much as we think. That is not the issue. They are informed and in large part involved, but they do not get enough avenues to shine or platforms to perform and be engaged. My responsibility is to create platforms for them to simply express themselves, learn more, and become more aware of how they can play a greater role and influence others around them.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Pearnel Charles Jr believes it’s important to create platforms for young people to interact with environmental issues. Credit: NDC Partnership
I have found in the several roles that I have had that whenever I have targeted the young, it has not been just because they are young. Once you get youth on board, they will not only influence the younger generation, but they become soldiers in their homes and communities. They speak to the elders, urge them to conserve, and suggest new methods for sustainable action.
It is also easier to change behavior at an early stage. Those of us who are over 35 are set in our ways, in a pattern of life. Science teaches that it is more difficult to change behavior after a certain time. So again, I think it is a sensible and sustainable decision and why I always get young people involved, engaged, and energized.
IPS: Jamaica is often highlighted for its youth engagement in climate change. How do you ensure that young people are part of decision-making?
PC: As it relates to the climate change portfolio, I have a climate change advisory board. It is led by a distinguished professor, the principal of the University of West Indies, but what I have ensured is that on that high-level board, we have strong youth representation. It is not one person, not token youth representation. I have about three or four young leaders on the board. I have also ensured that there is gender equity in addition to strong youth representation.
We also have youth who are always engaged in consultations taking place in our ministry. We keep connected and ask for their views on policy decisions and how best to execute in communities.
We have two representatives on the NDC Partnership Youth Taskforce, which is significant. They play a role in how that global partnership impacts the world and how we create an arena where young people can feel safe to speak up.
We make sure to include young people in everything. Sometimes they host events, other times they moderate panel discussions. They are leading the conversation, as opposed to being attached to the conversation.
We have the Jamaica Climate Change Youth Council, which is an affiliate of my advisory board. The Council raises awareness about climate change and its effects on young Jamaicans aged 15 to 35. The members drive advocacy in that regard.
We also have the Caribbean Youth Environment Council and we have environment and climate change clubs in schools which help to coordinate and get the message out to students.
IPS: How has COVID-19 impacted your activities?
PC: COVID has handicapped the capacity to have in-person meetings and initially, I intended to go from school to school and university to university, to create forums and opportunities for the youth to be able to not just be engaged, but exposed to cutting edge climate change issues and also to share their solutions, whether they have invented something or researched an issue and have a hypothesis, but I have not been able to do that.
I do intend to once the circumstances change and if I am still in this position, to drive a robust campaign across all of our tertiary, secondary, and even primary institutions, to raise awareness and directly allow our youth and children to learn and be involved in climate action.
IPS: In terms of success stories, are you buoyed by the climate discussions and initiatives of young people in Jamaica?
PC: You know, young people are bold. They are not afraid to be offensive in telling you what they think. It may not always be correct, but they will give you the truth, as opposed to saying, “yes, Minister,” so even outside of the public space where everybody’s watching, I always rely on the interrogation of young minds. I appreciate the criticism that they have.
We have created platforms where young people get an opportunity to not just speak, but to create solutions and that is one of the things that I am very happy for, that from the public or private sector, we have initiatives that allow them to display their skills in creating solutions, whether it is to reduce the carbon footprint or through entrepreneurship by cultivating some type of plant or whatever sustainable practice that we are trying to advance.
When we create an opportunity for them to do that, it not only raises awareness, but it provides them with a long-term avenue for participation and it is the best type of participation, as they are gaining profit from promoting sustainability.
I still stand as a youth representative for UNESCO although I am not in the youth category anymore. Recently, I had a meeting with one or two of my representatives on the UNESCO Ambassador Programme, an initiative I created where young people can become representatives of the sustainable development movement. We intend to use that group as an avenue to carry out online engagements, educate youth on climate change and environment issues and give them an opportunity to ask questions, share their thoughts and recommendations.
IPS: The recently held Global Youth Engagement Forum was a landmark event for the NDC Partnership’s Steering Committee and its Youth Task Force. What do you think it achieved?
PC: It was a genuinely safe and open space for youth to participate, strengthen their commitment to being ambassadors for climate action, share best practices, and ultimately, build capacity.
What we have done with this engagement is build the ability of our youth to take charge of their actions and drive the participation of others around them in the policies that we have designed to advance sustainable development.
We have failed over the years to truly advance sustainable practices. It is the youth who will do it, they are doing it.
I do not have to call. I get calls from young people saying, “minister, we want to do a beach cleanup,” and I have to remind them that this is not possible during COVID. But it shows that they are not wasting time. They have organized beach cleanups, recycling drives, they are picking up plastics, they are designing climate-smart communities and we don’t have to beg them, we only need to provide a platform for them.
So, I think that the youth you know that engagement for all is critical. It is a critical roadmap of participation on a wide level for our youth and for them now to drive implementation of the policies and practices that we need across the country and region.
Also, it speaks to the level of consultation and dialogue that has to continue. It is not about having one engagement and feeling comfortable. The need for consistency in our communication to ensure that we continue to have meaningful youth engagement. The meaningful must come before the youth engagement it has to be designed to really know the youth inclusive approach, where you’re speaking to them, getting them involved, you have an opportunity to bend and shape policy.