Children and youth participation is vital for climate decision-making processes at the United Nations 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) .
East Asia and the Pacific is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change, making it even more important that climate decision-making processes are inclusive. I spoke with four prominent youth activists from the region to get their perspectives: Garid Mendbayar (17) from Mongolia is the President of the national Children’s Climate Council; Melati Wijsen (21) from Indonesia founded Youthtopia, a platform for young leaders to connect and exchange knowledge; Mitzi Jonelle Tan (25) from the Philippines founded Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP), the official Fridays for Future of the Philippines; Abe Lim (26) from Malaysia is the CEO of Purpose Plastics and the Chairwoman of the Next Generation Board for ClientEarth.
Mitzi, Melati, Abe and Garid all highlighted how crucial youth participation is, particularly in East Asia and Pacific countries. That’s because young people bring valuable real life experience that can help directly address the issue.
They discussed how marginalised groups most impacted by the climate crisis truly understand the path to the solutions, and how having that representation in the negotiation rooms can help shape appropriate and effective policies. Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia is the coldest capital city in the world, and Garid explained how the harsh cold obliterates livelihoods, severely harming young people’s physical and mental health.
"Having seen first-hand what that disaster looks like, what standing in the freezing cold next to the dead animal livestock feels like… it's important that decision-makers hear their voices"
- Garid Mendbayar, Mongolia
To exemplify this further, Mitzi raised how a decision-maker who only works in policy spaces may lack knowledge on how to support economically marginalized girls living in evacuation centres in flooded rural Philippines; these girls have specific human rights needs such as proper sanitary care during evacuation. Decision-makers' advocacy points for adaptation and loss and damage could become strengthened with contributions from these communities, in particular girls and young women.
Another reason why it is so important to have young people from the region at COP is because children and youth are bold, fearless, and have the mandate to be provocative. In East Asia and the Pacific, formal spaces for activism are often lacking, ad-hoc, or in some cases even unsafe. COP provides a physical space for this, whilst strengthening the regional movement, acting as a mechanism for a diverse collective of youth to connect, collaborate and convene. Abe adds how building regional youth networks is essential to successful change-making. As someone who has attended multiple UN climate meetings, Abe concurred that current cohorts of young delegates from East Asia and the Pacific are minimal, and expressed a need for this to grow further. Melati was just 15 years old when she attended her first COP (COP21, Paris), and reminisced fondly on the plethora of knowledge and connections she suddenly gained. She identified them as important influencers to her strategies as an environmental advocate.
"Building of regional youth networks is essential to successful change-making"
- Abe Lim, Malaysia
Despite a clear need for East Asia and Pacific youth participation at COP27, huge barriers remain – both before and during the COP.
Firstly, all of the COPs from 2015-2023 (COP21-COP28) have been/will be in Western Europe or the Middle East and North Africa region. For young people from East Asia and the Pacific, flights and accommodation can be unaffordable, coupled with challenging visa application processes. Many young activists conduct their activism alongside full time education and during the early stages of their careers, so they do not have whole days available for flying.
Assuming that the young people overcome these logistical challenges, how can they meaningfully participate once at COP?
Melati expressed how today’s young generation feels inadequately prepared to respond to the climate crisis, and called for a radical shift in environmental education. Mitzi highlighted the greater need for tools for young people from East Asia and the Pacific to take action. Garid reflected how children and adolescents like himself require extensive training to understand their rights and what they are representing. In general, children and young people recognise that their rights are being violated, but they don't know the mechanisms available for voicing their ideas and for holding duty bearers accountable for inaction.
“Today’s young generation feels inadequately prepared to respond to the climate crisis”
- Melati Wijsen, Indonesia
There are also different, harsher barriers for young women and girls compared to their male counterparts. Melati and Mitzi commented on how social norms in Indonesia and the Philippines challenge girls and young women’s ability to speak up on issues and demonstrate leadership. Garid reflected that in Mongolia, boys typically are more confident in their abilities, despite some girls carrying greater passion and work ethic. He also highlighted how boards of directors and governing bodies are generally male-dominated – which is true. UN Women estimates that only 18% of countries in Asia and the Pacific have a woman minister for the environment 1. Abe built upon this by suggesting that the decisions that are made may not always be so applicable or friendly to young women and girls…yet young women and girls are often at the forefront of grassroots programmes in the region, and thus have the most in-depth understanding of the problem and its solutions. This is a major gap at decision-making tables.
Another challenge surrounds the lack of disaster preparedness in the region. Recently, Abe supported flood relief efforts in Malaysia, after extreme floods devastated local communities. She recounted how it was terrifying for children who couldn’t understand the situation – they powerlessly observed water rapidly swamping their homes, and were suddenly stranded on their roofs for days without food, water, electricity or internet. Unlike communities from wealthier countries which experience disaster , those in Malaysia are unable to swiftly evacuate or recover. ‘If someone dies right next to them, they have to live with it’, explains Abe. As discussed earlier, young people have boldness and braveness with their advocacy, and can bring lived experiences to negotiations surrounding adaptation, loss and damage, climate technology, and distribution of finance, to name a few.
Young people have boldness and braveness with their advocacy and can bring lived experiences to negotiations
All the young leaders interviewed expressed feelings of nervousness towards COP27, and fears that their advocacy efforts would bear no fruit. Melati divulged that she has these same worries every year, and that the time for inspirational speeches is over – she wants to see young people thoroughly integrated in the decision-making processes and strategy sessions. Garid reminisced on COP26, when we were all told that 2021 was the last year we have to take action before irreversible damage: a terrifying prospect for young people living in areas so vulnerable to climate change impacts. ‘We’re already past the deadline and it’s no time to stall. COP27 is a make-or-break moment: either we create history, or we disappoint humanity,’ he says. He pondered if the world’s leading climate decision-makers at COP will even listen to what he and other young leaders are saying.
Assisted by pressure from civil society, negotiating loss and damage finance has recently been added to the COP27 agenda. Yet, both Abe and Mitzi expressed fears that loss and damage will continue to be side-lined in international climate negotiations, and consequently the devastating losses and damages of youth from East Asia and the Pacific will also be ignored.
UNICEF’s position for COP27 centres around three Ps: protecting all children, prioritizing resources for all children, and preparing all children. I asked the young leaders what they would do to protect, prioritise and prepare…
“I've been doing a lot of environmental conservation back in my hometown. I think it's about protecting our home, as simple as that. Our planet is continuously being destroyed unnecessarily just because of economic gains that can always be gained elsewhere…the damage to nature is not worth it.”
- Abe Lim, Malaysia
“I would prepare children to become activists and that means developing their skills, knowledge, and providing tools to topple down the systems that are causing the climate crisis. That means teaching them that climate justice is possible, showing them that the world we're building is something we can have, and adapt to as a global community.”
- Mitzi Jonelle Tan, Philippines
“I want to prioritize inclusion and diversity because even in the aspect of children's rights and participation, we don't talk enough about gender equality, or about children with disabilities or other underrepresented groups. We need to gain a diverse perspective and cohort of members, which will in turn reflect onto the policies.”
- Garid Mendbayar, Mongolia
“I would prioritise improving accessibility to funding for climate resilience – this is still a resource that a lot of frontline communities lack. This funding should not only be used in moments of tragedy, such as a tornado or flood, but should be a sustainable source to build resilient communities.”
- Melati Wijsen, Indonesia
All in all, despite nervousness around meaningful outcomes, all four young leaders exuded a strong sense of excitement and hope for COP27. It appears that all corners of society – policymakers, businesses, scientists, activists, etc. – are truly starting to value young people’s participation in international climate decision-making processes. This is evident from the number of children and youth advisory groups, consultations, events, networks and tools that increase year upon year. Our next mission is to amplify the voices and recommendations of young people from East Asia and Pacific at COP. Are you ready for the challenge?
Serena Bashal is an Adolescent Development UNV at UNICEF EAPRO
 UN Women (2022). 'Women and the environment: An Asia-Pacific Snapshot'. Date accessed: https://data.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/documents/Publications/APRO_Women-environment-snapshot.pdf