An increased sense of youth self-governance

During the communist era, the belief that the upbringing of young people should be entrusted to the education system persisted. Until recently, there was a lack of initiatives describing and mapping the needs or concerns of the younger generation. The last thirty years have been a period of building a sense of self-government among the young and their awareness of their ability to influence the world around them.

The above conclusion should not surprise anyone. In a civil society, all forms of citizen participation are desirable and testify to maturity and a sense of responsibility for the community. Poland, as a relatively young democracy, is catching up on this ground, especially in terms of activating young people[1]. The first foundations of the idea of youth self-determination were laid by the Youth Council of the City of Częstochowa, which was established in 1990. The idea of developing youth self-governance was developed from 1998 by the National Federation of Local Governments. In 2011, the lead in youth policy was taken by the Polish Council of Youth Organizations, which in 2018 led to the inclusion of young citizens in the European Youth Forum community. In 2019, the Council for Dialogue with the Young Generation was established, with the final acknowledgment that the young have been recognized by those in power.

All of the above organizations have been based on one foundation, which is the activation of the younger generation to become involved in decision-making processes. The need to activate the young is not a problem of Poland alone. Eurostat data shows that as a result of the economic crisis of 2007-2008, a sense of hopelessness and uncertainty has been growing in the young for the past decade. To this day, the percentage of young people classified as NEET is still growing in Europe[2]. When looking at photos of protests taking place in countries in the south of the European Union, young people are most often visible. Such photos are evidence of a sense of exclusion and helplessness in the face of political processes. It is a complete negation of the slogan: “Nothing about us without us.” A slogan forged for the Structured Dialogue[3], it encourages inclusion in consultative processes mapping the needs of young people in the EU.

Over the years, many attempts have been made to effectively activate young people. The most prominent and far-reaching attempt seems to be the lowering of the voting age. This solution was implemented on September 28, 2008 in Austria. It was on that day that 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote for the first time in their lives during parliamentary elections. Austria thus became the first country in the European Union in which the right to vote is granted to people who are at least 16 years old. In practice, this means that election campaigns, political programs and politicians’ actions must solicit votes from 16-year-olds. At the same time, 16-year-old Austrians already have a real influence on politics by electing their representatives. However, the Austrian solution has not been implemented more widely for various reasons.

The view of the young

From the perspective of an observer of so-called youth politics, one gets the impression that young people are (still) being treated like a ticking time bomb. Those in power would like to defuse it on the one hand, while on the other hand they don’t know how to go about it. The person who does this, however, can count on the most active electorate, not shying away from creative actions and extraordinary activity. On the other hand, this electorate is highly volatile, prone to slogans and unpredictable spurts. The last such pan-European upsurge took place in 2012. It was then that protests against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (more widely known as ACTA)[4] swept through European Union countries. Thousands of young people protested in front of European Parliament representative buildings across Europe against potential restrictions on freedom of speech on the Internet. It is these events that illustrate the ability of young people to unite en masse on issues that are important to them and to exert effective pressure on decisions.

On the ground of Youth Policy, Poland can boast an original method of including young people in dialogue with decision-makers. Recent years have seen the development and establishment of new youth advisory bodies at individual ministries or institutions. This solution, seems to be a good sectoral solution, covering the need to solicit informed opinions of the young generation on issues of planned change. However, it is still too early to assess the generational impact of this strategy.

The number of forms of youth involvement in various types of activities is incomparably greater than ever before in history. The young are increasingly paying attention and are able to articulate their expectations and needs. Importantly, the decision-making lobbying carried out by youth circles is effective. An example of such youth action that is achieving increasing success and breaking through into mass consciousness is the youth climate movement. It is thanks to them, among others, that the debate about the climate future, a just transition and sustainable development are reaching the agendas of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament[5], or the United Nations[6].

The actions of youth climate activists have somewhat changed the rules of the existing debate. Indeed, climate actions are happening both in the real world and on the Internet. This type of dissent is significantly noted in the public space through protests, viral recordings or creative happenings. The increase in the number of young people involved in climate action, the amount of information circulating on social media, the emergence of formalized and informal groups aimed at climate education and informing an ever-widening range of people about the consequences of the “climate catastrophe” is described as a peculiar phenomenon. The noticeable increase in the number and importance of various projects, creates a belief in the importance of the issue. After all, it is hard to disagree with the statement that the environment should be protected. However, optimism is dampened by recurring questions: why did the climate movements begin to emerge just now, and where did such a sudden interest in climate and ecology among young people come from? How did the young bring climate issues to the attention of politicians?

Before moving on to discuss the issue, it is important to dispel a myth. Some observers claim that the environmental and climate movements are an invention of the late 1920s of the 21st century and are a temporary fad. This is, of course, an untrue statement. NGOs fighting for the state of the environment began to break through into mass consciousness in the second half of the 20th century. In 1961, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) was founded, followed ten years later by Greenpeace. Generations raised on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in the 1980s and 1990s, were inundated with reports of a widening so-called ozone hole. The emerging cavity in the stratosphere foreshadowed a global climate catastrophe. It was the “ozone hole” that made its way into mass consciousness and grew almost to a pop-cultural synonym for climate change. Many organizations, backed by young volunteers and academics, alerted the public to the danger and importance of the changes taking place. The result was the creation of a public lobby that demanded immediate action. It was effective lobbying that eventually led to the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987,[7] which slowed the decline in stratospheric ozone concentrations over the following years.

For systemic reasons, followed by economic reforms, the fight against the ozone hole was not a major concern for young Poles in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the above historical outline proves that the fight against climate change, and the social movements associated with it, are nothing new. Therefore, it is difficult not to find some similarities between the fight against the “ozone hole” and the current counteraction to the so-called “climate catastrophe.”

In Poland, among the organizations fighting the “climate catastrophe,” one sees the growing involvement of youth climate movements. These movements are formed by people referred to as young adults, that is, loosely assuming, people who are studying in high schools or are in college. Young activists face much criticism from representatives of generations that have tied their prosperity and development, closely to heavy industry and environmental exploitation. The generational conflict is exacerbated when one realizes that the coal mining industry in Poland alone – whose rapid reduction or liquidation is advocated by the young – currently generates nearly 80,000 jobs directly, and three times as many indirectly. This proves that the fight for the climate, is not just a fight by young people for clean air, it is a measure against a generational system of values created and perpetuated for many years. With such a diagnosis, the question should be raised – why the growing interest in climate issues among the young?

What definitely differs between the fight against the former ozone hole and the current climate catastrophe – are the forms of communication. In the first case, we are talking about a battle fought in the era of intense development of radio and television. It was these media that became the main medium of information and opinion. In doing so, they were subject to significant restrictions in the way they were transmitted, and even censorship. Information about the climate catastrophe is disseminated in the era of social media, Youtube and TikTok. What has the most impact on the imagination and consciousness of young people are videos of a few seconds of melting glaciers, pictures of the aftermath of huge fires in Australia, or a comparison of the gigantic loss of Antarctic cover. The speed of information dissemination and the number of data sources available today is undeniably an unprecedented phenomenon. Such multimedia evidence of inevitable global catastrophe has replaced the climate education of the young, which was (already quite poorly) offered to them in the course of their education.

The above-described phenomenon is supported by general globalization and a virtually unlimited instant online audience. In this arrangement, young people are the immediate and direct recipients of information about the effects of climate change and the catastrophic vision of the future. As passive observers, they are the group that will bear the greatest cost of the current environmental degradation. The blame for the state of the environment found by the young lies with previous generations who built their wealth by degrading the environment. Older generations borrowed, as it were, the welfare of subsequent generations. The concept of sustainable development has only been gaining ground in recent years, and is the result of reflection about what state of the environment future generations will find. All the factors discussed result in a feeling of firm opposition from the young. One of the natural outlets for the tension described is the work of youth climate movements.

The involvement of young people in the fight against the “climate catastrophe” is, of course, an entirely positive phenomenon and represents the voice of a generation in the debate about the future of our planet. This voice resounds and is recognized on the national and international stage.

Challenges facing the young

However, some criticism affecting youth climate activism cannot be passed over in silence. The most important challenge facing young activists is not climate denialism, or post-truths,[8] but facing charges of an uncritical and harsh view of the economic and social cost of the most far-reaching changes advocated. The aforementioned abandonment of coal mining can serve as an example of such harsh transformations. It seems that the remedy for the criticism indicated is to initiate more and more conversations about how and whether a fair transformation is necessary, and to educate about the reasons for making changes.

What characterizes youth climate activism in Poland is an extremely fertile ground for action. As already mentioned, the inclusion of young people in the political debate has long been a welcome and anticipated phenomenon. Activating young people to debate and participate in decision-making processes broadens the possible spectrum of action. However, there is still a very important challenge before the youth climate movement. Activists must confront the need for global empowerment of younger generations in the climate change discussion. This requires a far-reaching agreement among youth communities fighting climate change and breaking through to mass consciousness. Without the development of common demands, the voice of individual communities may be marginalized or unheard. This will be the result not so much of ill-will, but of too much fragmentation of young people’s expectations and a lack of concrete demands that can become a germ of substantive discussion.

[1] The last decade has abounded in projects activating young people to get involved in the life of local communities and become involved in the decision-making processes of local and national government. Initially, the role of stimulant was played by projects funded by the European Union, including programs such as “Youth in Action,” later “Erasmus+.” Currently, these initiatives are also supported by third sector funds from public collections, donations, grants. Of separate note is the growing importance of youth local governments, particularly youth councils and youth provincial assemblies.

[2] Following the definition from Wikipedia: NEET – the name of a sociological phenomenon and the social group defined by it, comprising young people who are outside the sphere of employment and education, i.e. those who are not in education, employment or vocational preparation at the same time.

[3] The most developed consultation tool on the future of youth in European Union countries. Constituted by the Council of Europe Resolution of November 27, 2009 on a renewed framework for European cooperation on youth.

[4] Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement – an international agreement to set standards in the fight against intellectual property infringements, whose signatories were to include European Union countries.

[5] among others, through the consultations of the EU Youth Conferences within the framework of the Structured Dialogue cycles, or the activities of the European Youth Forum and individual National Youth Councils.

[6] On September 25, 2015. The General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (A/RES/70/1), which sets out the Sustainable Development Goals, which include a just transition.

[7]Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, signed in Montreal
September 16, 1987, expanded by amendments drawn up through meetings in London in 1990, Copenhagen in 1992, Vienna in 1995 and Montreal in 1997.

[8] Post-truth (post-truth) – the effect of the spread of populism, distorting the meaning of substantive discussion in favor of discussion carried out in the media, especially the Internet media, often based on elements that are untrue or half-truths, distorting the truth of the situation, but extremely carrying due to the short construction of the message, often subject to rapid refutation after verification of sources.