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A New Phase in the Climate Movement

In June 2013, close to 500 youth climate leaders representing more than 130 nationalities gathered in Istanbul, Turkey, in an unprecedented effort to scale up the climate movement worldwide. Participants in the so-called Global Power Shift shared campaigning skills and techniques, built a common understanding of the challenges at hand, and committed to organize their own “Power Shifts” once they returned home. Power Shifts provide training and strategizing opportunities for budding activists and have helped local climate movements bloom even in the more unlikely reaches of the planet, from India to Kyrgyzstan.

The dynamic at work in initiatives like the Global Power Shift is exceptional given that, until recently, the youth climate movement devoted most of its energy to influencing international climate negotiations. Although the deliberations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are highly technical and often disappointing, young people identified the talks early on as an important venue to urge their leaders to take action on climate change. Beginning with the Montreal conference in 2005, youth activists have organized an annual Conference of Youth ahead of the UNFCCC's two-week formal negotiations, gathering hundreds of young people to meet, strategize, and build a stronger voice in the talks.

At first, young climate activists hailed mostly from industrialized countries, a reality that is not surprising, given the cost of attending the negotiations. Although representation is still far from balanced, developing-country youth started joining in increasing numbers. The movement structured itself in national and sometimes regional coalitions. Mobilization peaked in 2009, around the Copenhagen conference, where more than 1,000 young people made the trip, while many more supported them from home. Sadly, much like its “grown-up” counterpart, the youth climate movement suffered a terrible blow as the hopes of a “fair, ambitious, and binding” global deal vanished, replaced by an empty four-page declaration.

The youth climate movement has yet to fully recover from “Hopenhagen.” Hundreds of young people continue to follow the negotiations cycle, but with much greater cynicism and impatience. By forming an activism space independent from all official political processes, the Global Power Shift is thus unique. It has opted for a change in narrative, identifying the fossil fuel industry as the clear “villain” of the climate story.

One of the most successful youth-led efforts for climate—which embodies well this change in narrative—has been the divestment campaign, an effort to make institutional investors such as university endowment funds remove fossil fuel shares from their portfolios. Although many divestment campaigns have been run since the 1980s (anti-apartheid, tobacco, arms trade, etc.), evidence suggests that the “fossil-free” declination is the fastest growing of all. The success of the movement owes considerably to the gravity of the perils that young people are facing. People under the age of 30 have never been through a month that was colder than the twentieth-century average, and they might well live to see a brutal shift in the state of the world's ecosystems. But initiatives like divestment would not have taken off so quickly were it not for the under-30 generation's unique qualities and opportunities.

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