Jasmine Brittan
Climate Delegate and Engineering Advocate

Simply put, Youthwashing refers to the act of inviting young members of society to meetings with high profile individuals with the aim of appearing to be listening to the younger generation’s voice and creating positive progress. In most instances, this is not the case as politicians and senior individuals use these meetings as PR stunts by taking photos at the events to post on media channels.

Despite young people having the opportunity to share their views, appropriate improvements are rarely made. Ultimately, young people are being exploited to make individuals and companies look good. This can include instances such as Greta Thunberg being invited to speak at large UN conferences, where the points she is conveying are not being met with impactful action. Recent examples of Youthwashing have occurred at major events such as COP27, where Youth Delegates are present for photos, but not allowed to contribute their ideas in their nation’s negotiations and decision-making. We will continue to show up and our voices will be heard where it matters.

Pamela EA Youthwashing

The media flock around a youth climate demonstration in the Blue Zone at the United Nations climate conference making sure to document the commotion. Those in power like to use the image of the youth to show their commitment to future generations, inviting them to give inspiring speeches, only to remove them from any decision-making spaces. This image represents the tokenisation of youth for greenwashing. Glasgow, Scotland, 2021.
Photography By Pamela EA

Text by Sorah Park
Research by Hajar Chams Eddine

Youthwashing refers to the act of companies and institutional bodies tokenizing young people for marketing purposes without including them in negotiations, and taking meaningful action to support their demands for a more equitable and sustainable future. With increasing youth participation in climate conferences, large corporate sponsors are taking advantage of the younger generation by inviting them to panels and photo ops, but have demonstrated practices that misalign with sustainability goals. At COP26, climate activist Ayisha Siddiqa was invited to speak at Extreme Hangout, an event venue that was sponsored by multinational food conglomerate Nestlé. In 2019, Nestlé admitted to 388,047 cases of deforestation. Environmentally destructive companies such as fossil fuel giants are often funding youth-led movements to showcase a positive public image. In COP26, the largest group in attendance was the fossil fuel industry, outnumbering indigenous representatives two to one.

YOUNGO, the children and youth constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), helps bring youth participation in policy negotiations and interact with decision-makers at UNFCCC processes. At the most recent COP27, YOUNGO published a 107-page Global Youth Statement that includes the group’s collective demands on 15 themes including biodiversity, climate adaptation, finance, and arts and culture. Each topic details how youth can become more involved around the issue. Xan Northcott, a 27-year-old Global North Focal Point coordinator for YOUNGO, explains how young climate activists are underrepresented at climate conferences due to inaccessibility and unaffordable costs. “Businesses and fossil fuel companies can afford to send hundreds of people here to COP27, and they do, whereas young people do their climate work unpaid, voluntarily, on top of their jobs or university studies, so it is really tough,” Northcott said. In contrast, non-profit Global Witness discovered that 636 fossil fuel lobbyists were registered to attend COP27—an increase of over 25% compared to COP26, demonstrating the powerful influence of Big Oil.

Young, BIPOC climate activists are especially susceptible to youthwashing tactics due to their positions within the environmental movement that is overrepresented by Western, white institutions—despite BIPOC activists fighting at the frontlines for climate action and being disproportionately affected by climate change. Krishna Ariola, a 25-year-old campaigner with the Philippines-based research institute Center for Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED) said that youth from climate-vulnerable countries are often invited to speak about their experiences. She has protested against fossil fuel financing and said, “We are not just victims. The people in our communities are also at the frontlines of fighting back against corporations, against carbon majors,”.

Alice Barwa, a 24-year-old Adivasi educator and researcher, shares her experience attending COP26, emphasizing how her community holds more knowledge, but does not have access to online platforms to communicate their lived experiences. Growing up in the digital age and having access to social media, Barwa is helping to bridge this gap. She expresses how her community’s identity is being tokenized within the climate justice space, “It’s less about my opinion and more about my presence as an Indigenous person on their forum. Half the time, I was not even asked what I did. It came down to: ‘You’re an Adivasi, just represent the community.”

The recent COP27 in Egypt established the Children and Youth Pavilion—the first official space and platform dedicated to young people at the UN climate change conference. COP27 Youth Envoy Dr. Omnia EL Omrani said, “A child born today would experience four times the extreme weather events than we do. This impact is unjust. Our world leaders must act immediately,”.

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