The transformational force behind climate movements

Thousands of children from different schools and colleges staged a demonstration at Manik Mia Avenue in Dhaka on September 20, 2019, urging world leaders to act against climate change. PHOTO: STAR/ PRABIR DAS

The Climate Change Emergency has been declared first by the youth, led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future movement of school children striking every Friday to urge leaders to treat climate change as a truly global emergency.

The global outbreak of coronavirus is demonstrating to all of us that we live in a truly global world and no country can shut itself off from the rest of the world, no matter how hard it may try.

The coronavirus pandemic is a harbinger of more things to come due to climate change, for which we are very ill prepared. Hence, the need now is to figure out global responses that link all countries together to deal with the coming climate change crisis. There are two distinct and clear paths for us ahead, namely either trying to protect ourselves within each country (which is bound to fail) or cooperate with each other to protect everyone (which won’t eliminate the problems but will limit their adverse impacts enormously).

It is in this context that the global youth movement takes on an added significance, as it is the seed of a truly global citizenry where every young individual can consider herself or himself as a global citizen first and a national citizen second.

I had an opportunity to speak to over 600 young people from all over Bangladesh at the annual Youth Conference, organised by Jaago Foundation in Cox’s Bazar recently. I wanted to share here what I told them and I hope that the young people of Bangladesh will get a chance to read it.

My first point was, as one would expect, to paint a picture of the potential damage that human induced climate change can cause globally and for Bangladesh in particular. However, my second point, which I feel is the more important one, is that while it remains a problem for our country, it also represents a challenge, and indeed an opportunity, for our youth.

This is because we can find solutions for each of the many climate change related problems that we will face before other countries do. Hence, for every solution that we find in any given locality of the country, it is not just a local solution but can also be applied at the national level and indeed, even at the global level. Our young people, if they choose to, can become climate change problem solvers, and that knowledge will become a global public good which other countries will want to learn from, as they face the problems tomorrow that we are facing today.

Let me outline a plan for making this happen, starting with the thousands of postgraduate students studying in more than a hundred universities in our country. Every one of them, regardless of their subject of study, should receive some basic instructions on climate change and Bangladesh, and what can be done to tackle the problem. One such initiative is being taken to provide an online training course on the Bangladesh Delta Plan for all Masters level students.

The second cohort are undergraduate students in the same universities. Many of them have already formed green clubs or environmental clubs in their institutions, and these need to be linked up with each other and become solutions oriented rather than only problem oriented. Here, the teaching in our universities has to also be radically reformed to try to produce young problem solvers rather than just jobseekers. At the same time, our students also need to change their mindsets accordingly. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has correctly directed all students to aspire to become job creators and not just jobseekers.

None of the above require any additional funding, but it does require changes in the ways of working, and the re-training of university faculties across the country.

Finally, the younger students in colleges, high schools and even primary schools can also undertake actions at their own local levels to identify environmental problems, and can go on to find ways to tackle these problems that they see around them.

One of the characteristics of environmental problems is that they are clearly visible to every one of us as we move around our town or countryside, but each of us feels that either it is someone else’s problem to take care of (in which case we just complain about it), or even if we try to do something individually, we know that it will be ineffective unless others join us. Hence, we need to accept that it is up to each one of us to take some responsibility to tackle any visible environmental problem, by both taking individual action and soliciting others to join our actions. We can then lobby with the relevant authorities to do their jobs, but by offering to help them, not just by complaining about their lack of action.

Over the next decade, the youth of Bangladesh have the potential to be a transformational force, not just for Bangladesh but for the world, as it tackles climate change impacts.

Originally this article was published on March 11, 2020 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).