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Seen and heard: Why young people’s voices must be listened to and acted upon to tackle climate change

Ana Bonell explains how connecting young people with those making decisions on climate change could lead to innovative solutions to mitigate human impact on the environment.
Explaining the construction and use of an up-cycled solar powered floating robot to clean plastic from waterways. Credit: Yusupha Sama/LSHTM

Nelson Mandela famously said “the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow”. This is perhaps no more true than the role of young people in advocating for immediate action on climate change. Thanks to Greta Thunberg and hundreds of youth representatives from around the world climate change is now on the global agenda.

However, their ideas and solutions are too often ignored or dismissed by decision-makers. Only adults, it seems, have a voice. Yet it is those unheard children who will bear the burden of humanity’s environmental impacts. Many are already experiencing its effects, with devastating consequences.

Every other year in West Africa, more than 75% of the population is affected by floods or droughts, and the frequency and severity is increasing due to climate change. This has a direct impact on biodiversity, food security and livelihoods. For children in The Gambia, the effects of climate change are a daily reality.

As a result of this lived experience and exposure to the news, they have become acutely aware of what is facing them and what needs to be done. These are the voices that need to be heard, now.

Last year a global survey found that nearly 60% of children felt ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ worried about climate change. Working with primary and secondary schools in The Gambia, I’ve seen how events driven by climate change and environmental degradation are perceived by the children and how they impact their lives.

But it is also these children who have innovative ideas for solutions, however big or small, to turn the climate change debate from a negative to a positive.

Educating young people about the detrimental impact of human activities on the environment is unavoidable, but tackling the negative mindset - ‘what can I do’ - can be transformative for the individual and the community.

In May last year, the MRC Unit The Gambia at LSHTM in Fajara invited government officials and decision-makers along with over 600 students aged 13-16 years old to see students aged 16-18 years old from 11 local secondary schools, as well as 10 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), present practical solutions to environmental challenges. The event focused on supporting children to explore ways to fix problems they found in their community and to connect them with local experts who can help them feed into real-world solutions.

The results were astonishingly simple, wide-ranging and ingenious.

How could you tackle air pollution and deforestation resulting from the use of firewood for cooking? How about solar cookers made from locally available recycled materials or charcoal from banana peel. One group even produced a clay cow dung oven which used dried animal dung for fuel.

What about salt water intrusion into fresh water areas due to increasingly common and severe flooding which damages crops and contaminates drinking water? One group proposed building embankments around coastal agricultural land and diverting the sea water into canals to protect the crops, with a freshwater pond for irrigation. They also explored the possibility of turning a negative into a positive by harvesting salt by raking it from evaporation ponds, a traditional and low-cost but effective technique that not only reduces waste but also diversifies the farmer’s income.

In The Gambia, crop yields are affected by extreme heat and food preservation can be very difficult. Our presenters showed wonderful innovation through techniques involving boiling fruit with sugar and lime, while salting and dehydration were shown to be potential effective solutions to ensure a food supply for the community.

Two schools also explored ways to reduce plastic pollution in the environment. The link between climate change and plastic pollution is not well known, but it is thought that plastics slowly release greenhouse gasses throughout their lifetime, particularly when exposed to substantial amounts of sunlight and heat. Microplastics in the ocean can interfere with its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

As a solution, one school produced a floating solar-powered ‘robot’, mostly from waste materials, which was demonstrated to effectively capture floating polystyrene pieces using a moving conveyor belt.

While these ideas might not be completely novel, they demonstrate the passion and practical skills young people can bring to bear on the issues both they and children all around the world are facing. It’s a powerful way to channel climate anxiety into positive practical solution seeking.

Events like our festival are a great way to hear those voices, stimulate peer-to-peer and child-to-professional conversations about innovative solutions to global challenges. It gives them, as potential future leaders on climate change, a platform to share their ideas and concerns on climate change with those actively working on the solutions and making the decisions. It is my hope that this will just be the starting point, and citizen involvement will become more accessible for children in The Gambia and around the world.

The festival was truly inspirational. One wonderful outcome from the festival is that an NGO group is now looking at expanding solar cooker access across the country. All of the ideas were fantastic food for thought, and emphasises the need for these children to be heard and involved at all levels.


Publication

Ana Bonell et al. Grassroots and youth-led climate solutions from The GambiaFrontiers in Public Health.

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