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Young Islanders: Climate Change Leaders of Tomorrow

November 11, 2015

Those who are likely to be most affected by climate change are fighting back — young people of island nations.

Ahead of the United Nations summit on climate change in Paris taking place later this month, young people from the Caribbean to remote Pacific Islands are calling on world leaders to protect their vulnerable islands.

It Starts with the Kids

Former teacher and founder of two Caribbean-based youth organizations, Andrew Simmons (1994, St. Vincent and the Grenadines) always knew that the effects of climate change on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) cannot be addressed without the participation of young people:

“If you want to talk about environmental issues, you must start with the kids”

Andrew with young activist
Andrew with young activist. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

As part of his work to create a new, environmentally conscious generation on his island of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Simmons founded JEMS Progressive Community Organization, a volunteer organization that uses literacy and skills programs to motivate communities to protect their islands’ natural resources. Since its founding in 1978, the organization has mobilized thousands of young people to organize clean-up campaigns and leadership training. It has also successfully protected ecologically important areas of the island such as the Kings Hill Forest Reserve.

Their Islands are Under Threat: And they know it

The fact that their islands are facing the brunt of climate change is nothing new to many young islanders. Simmons and the youth he works with have observed first-hand changes to their country over the past few years; longer droughts and dry seasons, shorter but more intense rainy seasons, bleaching of coral reefs as well as stronger hurricanes. In a country that relies on agriculture and tourism these effects can be devastating in a country with already high unemployment.

As these weather patterns have become increasingly extreme, young people have been vocal advocates for the protection of their islands. Last year, 350.org asked members of the Caribbean Youth Environment Network (CYEN) — another organization founded by Simmons — why they’re taking action on climate change:

The Road To Paris

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner, island nations produce less than 1 percent of the greenhouse gases attributed to climate change yet suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change. These nations are also already experiencing up to four times the global average in sea level rises.

Their island’s unique vulnerability has spurred Simmons and his organization to advocate for the protection of SIDS like theirs ahead of the Paris summit. Earlier this year, he attended the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) climate change civil society symposium where he addressed the challenges faced by SIDS, while offering solutions both at the community and policy level. He urged developed countries to keep to pollution targets while supporting developing countries in building resilience against climate change.

His organization CYEN is also advocating for policymakers to give special consideration to their islands. This week they are hosting a forum which brings together young professionals in the climate change, policy, and environment sector to share best practices to tackle climate change issues in their communities.

A Climate Week of Action

Last month, JEMS organized a national week of climate action aimed at raising awareness and mobilizing young people across St. Vincent and the Grenadines and their communities to take action to reduce their vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather.

With the support of the Goldman Prize and the Jewish Community Foundation, the week included activities such as the creation of digital maps to identify areas vulnerable to flooding, and public information campaigns through live radio shows and cultural events. Leading the JEMS Climate Change Campaign team were Rosanna, Taj, Chioma and Janel:

4 women re-sized
Young leaders on a mission: Rosanna, Taj, Chioma and Janel.

These young women became involved in the climate change movement after a devastating storm hit their island in late 2013. Despite still being in their teens and having lost loved ones, they decided to work as volunteers to rehabilitate communities destroyed by the storm. Throughout the climate week of action, they worked late into the night attending community meetings, providing technical advice to participating organizations and communities and clearing hundreds of tons of trash from their island’s beaches.

MAPS new
An example of a community map developed by the JEMS Climate Change Campaign Project Climate Risk and Vulnerability Hazard Workshop and Mapping Exercises. This map shows the areas of St. Vincent that are at risk of landslides. (Photo: JEMS)

Young Islanders are Ready To Lead: You can Help Them

Members of CYEN emphasize that he and his fellow youth are ready to lead:

“We are taking the lead around the world in providing solutions to challenges in the field of sustainable development,” Stefan, CYEN member

“We are normal people, but with an above average awareness about the planet!” Rianna, Student and Interim Chairperson of CYEN

“Ignoring #climatechange in these days is like thinking that the earth is not round” #GlobalWarmingIsNotCool #CYEN #COP21. (Photo: CYEN Trinidad & Tobago)

You can help them build momentum ahead of the negotiations by taking the below actions:

  • Sign the petition supporting Caribbean youth lobbying policymakers attending the Paris negotiations to protect their islands.
  • Visit the Caribbean Youth Climate Change Mitigation Project website to learn more about their activities.
  • ‘Like’ CYEN on Facebook and follow their campaign “On the Road to Paris”.
  • Follow CYEN on Twitter and use their hashtag #GlobalWarmingIsNotCool to raise the voices of young people living in SIDS.

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