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New voices, new narratives for climate adaptation

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 24.7% since June 2005, the baseline year for Australia’s 2030 target under the Paris Agreement. 

I don't really want to return to 2005. I think we can do a lot better than that. Our vision for the future is not returning to a place we were in the past. That should not be our baseline.

Will Hazza

But the three young leaders at the forefront of the climate crisis who came together for the AdaptNSW Forum 2023 youth panel can all imagine a world that is “radically better” than the one they have inherited. 

Mission Australia’s Youth Survey Report 2023 found the environment was the number one concern among young people aged 15 to 19. 

This generation has access to more information than any that has gone before them, but they feel a sense of “real hopelessness” because “they can see the problems and articulate the solutions “and yet “can't see them being enacted,” said Grace Vegesana. 

Grace, the Climate & Racial Justice Director for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, is pioneering a new intersectional approach through the People of Colour Climate Network – the most culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse network for climate-affected communities across Australia. 

Young people understand how the current problems in Australia are “interconnected”, Grace observed, pointing to how the housing crisis is exacerbated by the soaring cost of insurance and how food security is impacted by climate change. Young people can make the connections “and yet there are these huge forces at play that make us feel there is nothing we can do,” she said. 

Dani Villafaña, an Associate Researcher at Deakin University, agreed. She was a national organiser with School Strike 4 Climate for three years and is currently investigating why young people engage with climate action.  

“Something we ask all of the young people we work with [is]: ‘Why are you involved with climate action? Why are you choosing to give up your free time, your recesses, your lunches?’… And one of the common answers we get back is that they just have this deep-set, existential anxiety. Feelings that are bigger than our bodies about how terrified young people are about their future.” 

From eco-anxiety to action 

Eco-anxiety can be paralysing, but the panel agreed it can also be mobilising. 

Lit Wei Chin, a Senior Policy Officer in the Circular Economy Markets team at the NSW Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, and the session’s moderator, noted that young people today have the “skills of the 21st century”. These skills include the media literacy and discernment to sift through misinformation, which the World Economic Forum nominated its top risk for 2024. 

Young people are “very aware” of society’s power structures and how they can wield power “as individuals but also as a collective,” Dani added. 

Many of the most active local groups for school strikes are in regions where young people’s families have a lot “at stake” because the fossil fuel sector is a primary employer, Dani noted. These young people feel a sense of “frustration” because “they know that their parents need to have a job” and “they know there needs to be a shift in power, there needs to be some kind of transition, some kind of prioritisation of the environment over all these other sources of power,” Dani added. 

This powerlessness is a “shared experience” observed Will Hazza. A Gundungurra man, architect and community organiser, Will has worked with communities across New South Wales on campaigns to protect Country from climate change and fossil fuel extraction. He said lack of agency felt by young people is “exacerbated or intersectionalised” for First Nations people. 

“All big social change has a risk of leaving marginalised people behind. We can see this with climate change; that it is disproportionately affecting people who are marginalised in our society, like First Nations people,” Will said. 

Dani, who grew up in Western Sydney, talked about how heatwaves disproportionately harm people on lower incomes.  

"Heat waves are actually the deadliest natural disaster in Australia.” One in 11 Australians live in Western Sydney, and increasingly people experiencing disadvantage, like the elderly, sick or people with disabilities, are having to seek out heat refuges. 

“The fact that these are being called ‘heat refuges’ is because people aren't safe in their own homes. I'm thinking a lot about those communities… and the fact that they lack a lot of power in the planning and development policies that are being made. But it’s their lives that are being impacted already. This isn't about future adaptation. It's about what is happening to people right now,” Dani said. 

We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't have hope. Often that hope is manifested as anger and as fear and as being really loud on megaphones… But we do have a hope for something greater. It's a hope that we are not returning to 2005.

Dani Villafaña, Associate Researcher, Deakin University 

Amplifying hope in ‘crisitunity’ 

How can we elevate young people’s voices? 

Youth advisory councils are a “really great start,” the panel agreed, but the views of young people must be integrated into decision making. Beware of “youth washing,” Grace warned. The question for decision-making bodies is whether youth advisory councils have genuine power to inform decisions. 

Young people aren’t “monolithic” in their views, the panel added, and not everyone is engaged with climate action. The key is to “talk about climate change without talking about climate change,” Grace said. 

“Whether you look at fast fashion or the foods they love or packaging or emotional support water bottles… every single thing in [young people’s] lives is intersecting with climate change in real time.”  

Grace talked about “crisitunity” – a phrase coined by Homer Simpson which captures the moment when crisis meets opportunity. “We're in a crisis... Our generation’s entire lifetime is being defined by catastrophe and ‘unprecedented years’ year on year,” she said. “Of unprecedented heat, floods, bushfires and cyclones. And yet it’s an opportunity. So, it's a crisitunity. It is an opportunity to actually reimagine what is possible.” 

Our future: youth perspectives on climate change

AdaptNSW 2023 Forum

The AdaptNSW 2023 Forum, ‘navigating uncertainty together', attracted 350-plus attendees who heard from more than 85 presenters across 30 breakout, panel, workshop and keynote sessions in December 2023. Check out the program highlights and watch recordings of key sessions.