Addressing the climate crisis: how Pacific youth voices can change climate governance

A child waits for New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to arrive for the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Funafuti, Tuvalu, in August 2019. EFE/EPA/MICK TSIKAS

The continual failure of governments to adequately address the climate crisis constitutes a violation of children’s rights and Pacific youth know this better than most. Of the many frameworks that exist, The Pacific Youth Development Framework (PYDF) provides a coordinated approach to youth-centered development in the Pacific, with a special focus on youth participation in environmental action. 

It responds to official proclamations by Pacific Island leaders and ministers to promote youth issues, including addressing climate change, recognizing that young climate change advocates have positioned themselves more radically than the Pacific government negotiators whom they have seen fail to make effective advances in global agreements to reduce emissions.  

Despite more than half of the Pacific region’s population of 10 million being under the age of 25, the significance of youth participation in environmental action remains underfunded and lacks the targeted investment required to meet youth development needs. As the largest population group, Pacific youth are aware that they will have to live with the decisions, or lack thereof, that leaders make today. As such, Pacific young people must be at the forefront of stakeholder partnerships, locally-inspired adaptation strategies within their communities, and decision-making processes more generally. 

For instance, the Committee on the Rights of the Child is currently holding consultations through October 2022 to help inform its General Comment No. 26, which is dedicated to children’s rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change, set to launch in March 2023. There is a dire need for underrepresented youth—particularly people of color, Indigenous activists, and youth from regions most adversely affected by climate change—to provide input to ensure robust response to this violation. While everyone  must act to pressure governments to address the crisis, there are two instances where Pacific youth activism can be particularly potent. 

Despite more than half of the Pacific region’s population of 10 million being under the age of 25, the significance of youth participation in environmental action remains underfunded and lacks the targeted investment required to meet youth development needs.

First, Pacific youth are the best placed to call out the hypocrisy of the fossil fuel industry and demand that governments limit the role fossil fuel corporations have on governing the very climate crisis they have driven. This is because floods and rising sea levels are transforming Pacific youth relationships to lands and oceans. Once-habitable islands are seeing the existential threat of sea-level rise while communities are experiencing the jeopardization of millenia-old practices essential to cultural identity. Powerful fossil fuel corporations and their elite affiliates allow governments to become less accountable to the public (and the rights of children) by elevating shareholder and vested interests above all else. 

This duplicity is not lost on the children activists driving climate activism—including famed Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg who, along with 15 other youth activists, including Ranton Anjain, Litokne Kabua (Marshall Islands) and Carols Manuel (Palau), who represented Pacific Island countries (PICs)—lodged a historic compliant to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. This landmark communication called on the Committee to order Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey to take action to protect all children from the devastating impacts of climate change, calling out each member state’s heavy subsidization of fossil fuel. 

Climate change is an existential threat to all people, regardless of age or region. Still, Pacific youth voices are best positioned to combat the corporate capture of international public policy making processes  as they confront directly what many adults claim as ‘inevitable’—such as fossil-fuel based economies, hyperconsumption, and massive gaps in economic inequality seen worldwide—and call for  requisite change. Through instruments like the PYDF, Pacific children have the potential to seriously impact the future of international human rights law by disrupting the traditional mechanisms of power and building communities of civic organizing and practice focused on escalating the political will necessary to address this global risk. 

Second, Pacific youth engagement with climate governance can help provide new avenues of legal activism where traditional procedures fail. The youth activist complaint is the first of its kind and marks a shift in the role of child participation rights to influence state (in)action. The complaint was filed through the Third Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a voluntary mechanism that allows children to appeal directly to the Committee if a ratifying country to the Protocol fails to provide a remedy for a rights violation. Despite this, the Committee ruled—in five separate decisions for each state named in the petition—that the youth needed first to seek remedies within the courts of the respective countries. 

As such, more Pacific youth should engage with the General Comment process to demonstrate how children’s rights are impacted by the climate crisis as well as what states must do to ensure that children live in a sustainable world. Providing another avenue with which youth can engage with international legal mechanisms to effect global policy change can help ensure action, especially when highlighting the human rights and climate change issues Pacific youth face.

Several PICs will be developing inputs from their youth that can be used to bolster the CRC General Comment and galvanize support for addressing this issue with the exigency it deserves. For example, in the follow up from the 84th Extraordinary Outreach Session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)—the very first time any United Nations Treaty Body met outside its Geneva and New York headquarters—the Samoa’s Ombudsman’s Office, which also serves as its National Human Rights Institute, is promoting input from its youth (ages eight to 17) to fill out the young people’s online questionnaire for General Comment 26. Discussions are also underway for bringing members of the CRC back for a follow-up visit to monitor progress in 2023.

Further, with the support of the Pacific Community (SPC), Child Rights Connect, and USAID, the Samoa Ombudsman’s Office will be planning a Youth Forum on Human Rights Issues and CRC Reporting. 

Proliferation of events and opportunities like this will be critical for capturing the voices most needed in addressing this global challenge, particularly considering that the Pacific endures most of the climate crisis despite contributing the least to it. Doing so ensures Pacific youth the rights to participate in the decision-making processes that most affect them. Consider organizing a similar event in your community today–both in the Pacific and beyond.