The (Super)Powers of the Youth

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In comic books and on movie screens, the looming disaster threatening to wipe out “life as we know it” is always intercepted and quashed (often at the last possible minute, for maximum dramatic effect) by the unwavering protagonist — the superhero. In this battle against the most alarming threat to humanity in existing memory, there is no lone saviour ready to burst forward, just when all seems lost, to vanquish the sinister fallout of global warming. Contrary to what these superhero franchises have led us to believe, our redemption cannot be achieved in one bold gesture after years of neglect and indifference. To have a chance at combatting climate change, we must act quickly, and we must act now.

Major social movements catalysing progressive change have been noticeably dominated by the younger generations throughout modern human history. Such social action has often surpassed geographical, political, and cultural gaps, uniting otherwise disparate communities behind a common cause deemed sufficiently pressing for universal welfare. Arguably, climate change has been the most ubiquitous social issue in recent decades, with people worldwide increasingly feeling the heat from its indiscriminate destruction. 

Malaysia is certainly not immune to its devastating effects—the exceptionally ‘heavy rainfall and severe drought’ (Kamarudin) that the country has been experiencing is highly indicative of the escalating climate crisis and will only get more extreme over time. It is estimated that “by 2030, about a quarter of Malaysia’s population will be displaced” due to intensified flooding and the exacerbated threat from deadly diseases (Norshidi).

The Power of Youth in Fighting for Climate Action

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As political inaction persists in the face of the mounting crisis, powerful youth figures have emerged onto the global scene to demand political accountability and tangible climate action from world leaders. In 2018, Greta Thunberg’s now-famous #FridaysforFuture campaign sparked a fervent global youth crusade for climate justice, which Murphy described as “the largest environmental demonstrations in human history”.

Thunberg’s lone activism snowballing into such a gripping international phenomenon is incontrovertible evidence for the power of the youth in advancing causes of social change. The then-15-year-old Thunberg mobilised the general public on a massive scale and has since empowered other young girls, in particular, to organise climate strikes within their respective schools and countries. This phenomenon has come to be known as ‘the Greta effect’. Through her authentic advocacy, Thunberg successfully inspired ‘action and reflection by even some of the world’s most established environmental activists’.

Despite the activism efforts of prominent youth figures like Thunberg, overall awareness of climate change, and the current degree of collective mitigative action being undertaken, are severely lacking and discouragingly disproportionate to the growing urgency of the climate crisis. Contemporarily, three major roadblocks to effective climate action need to be addressed: the unconducive mindsets of the general public, selfish political agendas, and the current global economic order. The youth have the power to lead the charge in tackling these roadblocks through a variety of approaches, ranging from engaging in vocal political activism to promoting positive behavioural changes amongst the masses.

What’s Stopping Us From Achieving Climate Justice?

The most significant impediment to climate justice is undoubtedly the unconducive mindsets of the global population. An unappealing blend of pessimism and self-interest sustains an endless game of shifting the responsibility to act onto others. Common excuses for inaction include “it’s unfair if I change while others don’t”, or “it won’t make a difference if I’m the only one”. Norshidi laments that Malaysians have “never favoured forgoing today’s comforts for tomorrow’s sustainability”, citing a 2016 Merdeka Centre survey revealing that a mere 32% really cared about climate change. Many are unwilling to take public transportation, avoid single-use plastics, or turn the AC off periodically for the sake of a seemingly far-off future.

Additionally, self-interested political agendas must be challenged. Presently, stimulating economic growth and saturating national coffers are the central drivers behind governmental decisions, often at an exorbitant cost to environmentalism.

A key case study is the fossil fuel divestment movement. Despite the inherent unsustainability of fossil fuels as an energy source, governments continue to support the industry with tax-based subsidies and concessional loans, as political parties are ‘influenced’ by donations from fossil fuel companies. This quid pro quo situation ensures the continued extraction and usage of fossil fuels, thus perpetuating the pollution and destruction these processes inflict upon the natural environment. As recently as 2018, the Malaysian government spent a massive RM 1.4BN over four months on “reinstating fuel subsidies” (Norshidi). Evidently, institutional reform is desperately needed.

This political opportunism is irrevocably linked to the current global economic order. In a world characterised by cut-throat neoliberalist capitalism, rapid economic growth and instant profitability are habitually prioritised above all else, including sustainability and long-term welfare. Following the global stagnancy of the COVID-19 era, economic activity is projected to spike to frenzied heights as nations strive to rebuild at any cost, fueling the proliferation of the rampant consumerism that is fundamental to the success of capitalism. There will undoubtedly be a reduced focus on strict eco-friendly policies, motivated by an increased willingness to sacrifice the environment in the interests of restoring the economy.

What Can Young People Do?

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As young leaders, the mightiest weapon available in our arsenal to counter these obstacles is the power of advocacy; both physical and virtual activism have high potentials to modify collective mindsets and behaviours, and even enact palpable policy changes. Physical demonstrations, protests and online campaigns can reach an extensive and diverse audience, awakening the public consciousness and recruiting more minds to the cause. Progressive social movements like Klima Action Malaysia actively campaign to spread awareness on environmental issues, put pressure on decision-makers, and hold liable corporations to account. 

Crucially, in this digital age, the impact of virtual advocacy both as a supplement to physical activism and as a power in its own right cannot be overlooked. Youths can use their social media platforms to endorse sustainable brands and promote the adoption of green personal habits, popularising zero-waste trends in fashion, food, and beauty. This could engender widespread mindset and behavioural shifts and inform the public on environmental issues and sustainable practices.

Simultaneously, social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook provide invaluable mediums for virtual advocacy. These can be used, for example, to garner sweeping support behind demands that national COVID-19 economic stimulus packages centre on greener development (Martin). Essentially, the youth must guide both younger generations—ignorant of the danger—and older generations—stubbornly set in their ways—by creating an inescapable culture of environmentalism that permeates every aspect of our daily lives. For example, advocating for eliminating single-use plastic packaging by all supermarkets would reduce the onus on individuals to make environmentally conscious choices when grocery shopping continuously.

“Youth-Led, Not Youth Only”

It is worth noting that despite the power of youth advocacy, it is important that the climate justice movement be one that is ‘youth-led, not youth only‘. The youth alone cannot bear the burden of tackling climate change; governments, wealthy individuals, and international organisations have a substantial responsibility to take up the charge. Undoubtedly, the older generations that make up these entities have a heavy obligation to help curb climate change; this is born from their lifelong contributions to carbon emissions and their past failures to address the issue, passing it down as an unwelcome inter-generational problem for the youths of today.

A concerted approach is more important than ever in the current global context, with the stressors of the pandemic already reversing recently implemented bans on single-use plastics (Flaccus). The gravity of climate change has temporarily been outweighed by health and safety concerns, but this cannot become a permanent shift in priorities. In this tale of humankind, Superman isn’t around to rescue the Earth — it will ultimately be up to us to save ourselves.