Young people face an uncertain future as extreme weather disasters make our world more dangerous, but a growing global movement of young people are raising their voices for stronger climate action.
Increasingly, they are taking action in the streets, in the courts and through international bodies to try and safeguard their future, moving to limit the impacts of disastrous decisions not of their making.
Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The Black Summer fires of 2019-20 tore through 17 million hectares of land exposing the hostile future young Australians face.
Photographs of young people and their families fleeing the fires were shared around the world and these poignant and heartbreaking scenes became symbolic of the climate catastrophe.
“I think young people have every right in the world to a healthy and safe climate. We are the ones that are going to have to be here and create the solutions and deal with the problems once a lot of the older generations are gone.”
April Harrison, aged 22, Kinglake, Victoria, Black Saturday fires survivor.
The United Nations recognises that children are especially vulnerable to climate change impacts. Their physical and mental health, access to education, food security and adequate housing are all compromised by climate change. And for First Nations children and children living with disabilities, climate change compounds existing inequalities these groups face.
Around the world 161 countries recognise in law that children have a right to a healthy environment, but Australia isn’t one of them.
The Children's Right to a Healthy Environment report commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation reveals Australian law fails to protect a child’s right to a healthy environment. This research examines recent legal and political examples of young people pushing for change, and shows where Australia should do more to safeguard the futures of young Australians.
Young Australians are anxious about their future and they’re frustrated by a lack of action. A national survey commissioned by ACF in 2023 found 75% of young Australians believe climate change will make life harder for them in the future. Ninety per cent of young Australians agree that they have a right to a healthy environment, and two thirds believe the federal government should pay more attention to their views on climate change. Increasingly young people are exercising their right to be heard politically and before Australian courts. However, children continue to face numerous barriers and limited access to justice through the legal system.
“When I talk to my friends and other young people, they often talk about how they feel the government isn’t doing enough, and they keep funding the fossil fuel industries.
Danielle Lam, aged 19, Western Sydney resident.
In 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), enshrining the universal human rights for children across the globe.
In recent years, three landmark resolutions were passed by UN bodies recognising children’s right to a healthy environment:
In Australia, no Commonwealth or state/territory law explicitly recognises the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Australia’s national environmental law fails to address climate change adequately, in particular the impact on Australia of exporting vast amounts of fossil fuels for combustion overseas. The law also does not adequately protect and conserve threatened species or areas of environmental significance.
The Children's Right to a Healthy Environment report makes a number of recommendations for the recognition of children’s right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Recommendations include that:
“I think it is a right for every young person to live in a world that is stable and comfortable.
“All the young people, they know that all the solutions are already made and we have all the resources, we just need the politicians and other people in our communities to take action.”
Header image. School strike, 2019. Photo: James Thomas