Spires Lan Marie Nguyen Berg was one of the speakers in the 8th March Seminar «Women’s leadership and climate-related disasters» held yesterday. The seminar was hosted by CICERO and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Lan has been active in Spire for years. Here you can read her speech:

Thank you for having me here today. I have been asked to talk about youth activism and climate related disasters.

I will start by telling a short story.

When a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand in 2010, the 21-year-old student Sam Johnson created a Facebook-group called “The Student Volunteer Army” – as a platform for how people could volunteer. In a couple of days he had mobilized over 2,500 volunteer students that he offered placement, transport, food and support in organizing their  volunteer work.

Later in 2011, when the much more damaging 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch, the group of volunteers had grown to a staggering 18,000 people. Now, not only students, but also people of all ages and stages in life joined to help.  Thousands of volunteers were in the streets every day for many weeks. The Student Volunteer Army then created an efficient system to bring the help to where it was needed. People could register their needs online or through the telephone and then the volunteering teams would be sent out to the site. In addition, they offered food, clean water, toilets and professional help in the local communities. Soon the organization was the most effective way of the citizens to request or receive help and they also managed operations for the city council and the civil defence. Today the facebook group has over 27,000 members and now facilitate general volunteer work in Christchurch.

Though earthquakes are not climate related, the story of Sam Johnson and the Student Volunteer Army is a wonderful example of how young people can be important actors in the case of a disaster.

Four days ago, I turned 25. This doesn’t only mean that I am half way to 50 and all too soon 30, it also means that about 3 billion people or almost half of the world’s population is now younger than me.

18 percent of the world’s population are between 15 and 24 years old.

Through my work in Spire, I have seen youth from over a hundred different countries that spend all of their spare time, money and creativity to create awareness, engagement and fight for the green transition that we are all dependent on. While the negotiators got stuck in Copenhagen, in Cancun and in Durban, the youth, from so many different countries and backgrounds, cooperated, discussed, found common ground and demanded action.

Young people represent enormous resources that we need as community leaders, decision-makers, doers and thinkers at all levels, in all societies. Nationally and internationally.

85 percent of the world’s children and youth live in developing countries. The countries that are the most exposed to climate related disasters and that have the least ability to cope with the consequences. It is therefore crucial to empower youth as positive actors in the communities. Also, youth leadership can have many positive spinoff effects.

For example, on the small island state Tuvalu, the Red Cross Volunteers are mainly unemployed youth. The ones I spoke to there were proud of being volunteers. It was part of their identity. If they didn’t have a job, they were at least doing something good for the community. They learned disaster preparedness, first aid and also researchers and government officials often channelled request of small day jobs through the organization so that the volunteers could get some salary here and there to take home to their families.

If half of the world’s population are youth, then about one quarter are young women. Young women are often excluded from decision-making both because they are young and because they are women.

In Malawi, many young women don’t participate in civil issues because of patriarchal structures, values in the local communities and the lack of self-confidence to do so.

One of Spires’s partner organizations is the Network for Youth Development in Malawi. Together we work on the programme called “Young women can do it!” – a project that aims to increase female participation in decision-making processes related to climate change. In the exchange programme this spring we expect to exchange experiences and knowledge about gender and climate change issues. However, this is not the only thing we are going to discuss. We will also discuss how Norwegian youth can prevent climate related disasters from home.

While there are many things that can be done to prepare communities for disasters, the best Disaster Risk Reduction is the one that we don’t have to do. Therefore Norwegian youth have a crucial part to play in disaster risk reduction. As youth of the global North and especially a country with one of the highest per capita emissions in the world, Norwegian youth have the possibility to prevent climate related disasters in the future.

Therefore we want the Norwegian government to take on strong mitigation targets. To be part of the solution. To show the world the way.

However, our leaders are not taking their responsibilities. Currently, in Norway, the public debate is more about cutting ambitions than emissions. No wonder why many youth have lost the sense of urgency of the situation. And consequently, the politicians do even less. So how do we turn this vicious circle?

Firstly, our leaders need to lead. By showing leadership, they show that the issue is important and thereby they can create a positive synergy effect instead of a negative one.

Secondly, we need to create awareness about the urgency of climate change and to empower the youth in how they can be part of the change.

A first step can be to start with the schools. We have to empower the schools as important platforms of change. Youth have the right for an education that prepares them for taking part and developing a new green economy and to create sustainable livelihoods for themselves.

Today, education for sustainable development in schools is put into the different parts of the curriculum in several subjects. However, sustainable development is still neglected. As it can involve practical work and going outside and cannot easily be measured in national and regional tests, the teachers do not prioritize them. Moreover, the test-based school system is not giving much room for the interdisciplinary teaching that is needed to understand climate change and sustainability issues.

In the year of the Rio+20 and for the two last years of the UN decade for Education for Sustainable Development, we should make an effort to fully integrate it into the schools and the universities.

I have three ideas.

Firstly, a more careful and holistic integration of sustainable development into the curriculum. Basically – sustainable development needs more space. Students need to be presented to the issues in all contexts, every day, as it will influence all contexts of their lives every day for the rest of their lives.

Secondly, we need the pupils and students to work on sustainability. Engage students in school projects related to how to implement sustainable development in their schools and universities, at home and in their local communities. Soon we will have recycling, roof top gardens, energy efficiency projects going on all over the country.

Thirdly, we need physical examples of how to mitigate emissions and live more sustainably. Make the campuses and schools as examples. Take the students on field trips to plus-houses and teach them how to eat more carbon friendly. Show them that it is possible and fun. That is how we create change!

Last but not least. Formal education is extremely important. However, informal education is also vital in creating awareness. A recent survey conducted by the Norwegian National Youth Council showed that the youth that are active in their spare-time have a broader understanding of climate change as well as other global issues. Through the organizations they get practical experience and knowledge and they are empowered as agents of change. Supporting non-governmental organizations in their awareness work is therefore important in order to create a green society and limit global warming.

Thank you.