Once upon a time, the words “youth” and “lobby” were never seen together, let alone heard from. Recent years however, have seen push the other way. We’ve observed renewed debate on pushing the age of voting down to 16, the founding of Melbourne’s Student Youth Network in 2003 — no doubt inspired by the birth of Triple J in the 1980s, Australia’s first youth run charity, Oaktree, as well as the more old-school means of young people lobbying, such as the National Union of Students. Even the Pope got on board in 2008 — remember World Youth Day?

Enter, the new kids on the block — the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC). As the name suggests, this is a conglomerate of disparate youth organisations, 25 to be precise, that have formed what is essentially the Australian chapter of the Global Youth Climate Movement. Their self-described aim? “Informing, inspiring and mobilising an entire generation in the struggle for climate justice and a clean energy future.”

This is Big Stuff. It’s about a politics of togetherness, the kind we’ve seen from Hugh Evans, and the kind I’m pretty sure we never saw before Obama. It’s certainly different to any kind of environmental activism that’s come before, not least because being “green” is no longer anti-industry, anti-mainstream, but accepted by most young people to be matter of fact.

AYCC’s latest campaign, Youth Decide, captures these views, perhaps better than their earlier campaign, PowerShift. The campaign asked young people to vote on three possible worlds where World 1 sees no change in our current emissions reduction policy (4-24%), World 2 sees emissions reduced by 24-40% and World 3 saw emissions reduced by over 40%. Most visible on the voting page were these images:

Carried out out over a week (September 14-21) via tweets, emails and blogs, this was an online petition that differentiated itself from the “Get Up style” by marshaling a huge physical presence wherever young people convene. Teams bearing free sausages as well as laptop “voting stations” visited schools, universities, churches, even the High Vibes music festival in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.

As teased out in this thirty-second YouTube clip, the Youth Decide campaign spoke explicitly to an iPod generation, for whom the language of self and choice is a cultural norm. Implicitly, it seems, saying yes to the environment is saying no to old folks and old ways–something that no generation before ours has legitimately been able to argue.

Yesterday, 37,472 votes were counted and Youth Decide’s simple message came through, as documented in Tuesday’s Crikey:

  • 34,267 (91.5%) voted for World 3 (40% + emissions reductions)
  • 2225 (5.9%) voted for World 2 (25 – 40% emissions reductions)
  • 940 (2.5%) voted for World 1 (4 – 24% emissions reductions)

The problem with simple messages, however, is that they can also be simplistic and in the overwhelmingly complex science and politics of climate change, it seems somehow dishonest to present the options as slotting neatly into three worlds.

I wonder how many people who voted realise what a 40%+ reduction in emissions actually involves, how it would be implemented; how it would affect their day-to-day existence and whether they’d be OK with that. I wonder what would have happened if they had presented more than three options, say 100 options — as a percentile-based breakdown would logically deem.

Of course a sweeping majority of young people want their children to see the Great Barrier Reef, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for the drastic changes to person and policy that come before that. It’s a phenomenon that recalls the Republic referendum failure of 1999 — where the framing of the question has the power to totally obscure the electorate’s actual view.

What I write is not to devalue what has clearly been communicated here and what I observe every day at uni and in the community: the environment matters immensely to young people and governments should be listening on this issue, more than any other.

AYCC are to be commended for their aims and for an impressive campaign, but Crikey asked Anna Rose of AYCC to shed some light on why Youth Decide chose the “three world” model as opposed to something more complex, which might better reflect the complexities of climate change policy.

Rose told Crikey:

At the moment the political and media debate is focused on the short-term costs of action, and many people aren’t educated about what the long-term consequences of our Government’s weak targets are for the future of our generation and those to come. This is what Youth Decide was about — reframing the debate about the impact of climate change on young people, in Australia and around the world.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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