Strategies for Change: Youth Climate Activism in MENA

By Kristian Alexander - 14 February 2024
Strategies for Change: Youth Climate Activism in MENA

Kristian Alexander draws inspiration from youth activists around the world for those looking to advocate in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

MENA youth part of global climate movement, face skepticism and policy barriers.

In the face of an escalating climate crisis, the voices of young activists are emerging as powerful agents of change, challenging the status quo and demanding urgent action. Several young climate change activists and a myriad of youth-led organizations are spearheading a global movement that transcends borders and inspires others to join in the fight against climate change.

The tendency of the media to focus predominantly on the Global North’s climate movement, however, has resulted in the underrepresentation of activists from the Middle East and North Africa region, hindering their opportunities. This bias perpetuates a distorted narrative that overlooks the unique challenges and successes of climate activists in regions such as MENA, which faces significant environmental threats, including pollution, water scarcity, soil erosion, climate change, and desertification. The geographic and climatic conditions, coupled with rapid population growth, urbanization, and poverty, exacerbate these challenges.

Youth involvement in green organizations in the Middle East reflects a desire to contribute to the global environmental justice movement. Although participation is not as high as in other regions around the world it is increasing, especially as new young leaders emerge.

Ghaya al-Ahbabi and Oğuz Ergen have been instrumental in pushing climate concerns to the forefront of public discourse, following in the footsps of of Greta Thunberg, who rose to fame as a 15-year-old who skipped school as a way to protest against the lack of action on climate change by the Swedish government in 2018. Other students soon joined in, and the resulting movement, Fridays for Future, inspired millions to follow suit. Thunberg became the youngest Person of the Year in Time magazine history and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Last November, Al-Ahbabi, made history as the youngest attendee at COP28 in Dubai. The 13-year-old Emirati became known as the “Green Girl” as she participated in discussions with world leaders. For his efforts in raising awareness about the decline in fish populations in Turkish seas, Ergen was selected by the United Nations Development Programme as a “Young Leader” in Samsung’s Generation17 initiative.

The UNDP Arab Human Development Report of 2022 reveals that an overwhelming 71% of young Arabs, aged 18-29, perceive climate change as a serious threat, surpassing the global average of 65%. The UNICEF MENA Youth Climate Survey conducted in 2021 further underscores the gravity of the issue, reporting that 94% of young respondents across 14 MENA countries believe climate change is occurring, with 84% expressing concerns about its potential impact on their future.

In terms of action and engagement, the World Economic Forum Global Shapers Survey in 2022 reflects a robust desire among MENA youth to contribute to positive change, with 75% acknowledging their role in addressing climate change. The ICCMENA Survey of 2020 indicates that 60% of surveyed youth in the region are willing to adopt more sustainable lifestyles, and 47% actively participate in environmental or climate action initiatives.

The UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report of 2020 notes a deficiency in the depth and practical applications of climate change education in MENA schools, limiting the capacity of young individuals to take meaningful action.

Moreover, the Arab Youth Climate Survey in 2021 reveals that while many young people express concerns about climate change, they feel unheard, lacking trust in governments and institutions to effectively address the crisis.

Strategies and successes: From the classroom to the courts

Young people who are passionate about climate change often become active through grassroots initiatives such as school strikes and tree-planting campaigns. The Arab Youth Council for Climate Change, for example, is dedicated to promoting sustainable development in the region. The movement has organized several campaigns and events, including the Arab Youth Climate Summit. The Council was launched in 2023, and its most recent activities include the release of the Arab Youth Guide, a preparatory guide to enhance youth participation at the 18th UN Climate Change Conference. Additionally, the Council conducted an intensive awareness course on climate change principles, training over 1,000 young men and women.

Youth activists are employing diverse strategies to address the problems of climate change. One tool that has proven effective is legal action. In 2015, the Urgenda Foundation, an environmental non-profit in the Netherlands, brought a groundbreaking lawsuit against the government for failing to protect its citizens from the impacts of climate change. The Dutch court ruled in favor of Urgenda, the first time a government has been ordered to take action on this ussue based on human-rights obligations. In 2015, a group of 21 young Americans initiated the Juliana v. United States lawsuit, arguing that by not safeguarding the environment and encouraging the use of fossil fuels, the United States government infringed upon the constitutional rights of the younger generation, including the rights to life, liberty, and property. The lawsuit, which is still in the court system, seeks specific climate-related policy changes.

Another approach used to move the needle on climate change is education. Youth-driven organizations such as Zero Hour and Fridays For Future aim to foster a generation capable of advocating for comprehensive climate policies  by conducting workshops and training sessions, disseminating educational resources, including fact sheets, and engaging with schools to integrate climate education into curriculums.

Other groups have chosen more confrontational tactics. The German climate advocacy group Last Generation blocked traffic in cities such as Berlin and Munich in 2022. Members of the group have glued themselves to a variety of objects and surfaces, including roads, runways, and public monuments, as a form of protest to draw attention to the urgency of climate action. The group has also used fire extinguishers filled with paint to spray the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin with orange paint, demanding that Germany stop using all fossil fuels by 2030 and take short-term measures, including imposing a general speed limit of 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph) on highways, to cut emissions more quickly. The group’s tactics have drawn criticism from some quarters, including the Fridays for Future youth climate movement, which has renounced the more radical tactics used by the Last Generation.

Each of these methods have benefits and drawbacks, but together they have mobilized global attention where politicians and scientists have failed. This success is partly because of the freshness of their campaigns, which are unique, more youthful, and backed up effectively by social media, which they have used to get their message out to a global audience. These activists are skillful at presenting themselves as resiliant and courageous, and their stories help elevate the cause. The youth climate movement’s narrative is compelling. It portrays young people as victims of climate change, holding adults, politicians, and industries responsible for their inaction. The activists position themselves as heroes seeking justice for the damaged environment. The key message is that the international community must treat climate change as a crisis, and the responsibility lies with the current generation to take urgent and unprecedented action.

Overcoming the doubters: The problem with being young

Yet, young activists face formidable challenges. Many people, especially in older generations, remain skeptical, especially of the urgency for action against climate change. In Australia, political and media figures criticized the School Strikes for Climate as a disruption to education. Others questioned the scientific understanding of the young protesters. Political resistance, exemplified by the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement 2017 under the administration of President Donald Trump, poses a significant barrier to the implementation of comprehensive climate policies. The limited inclusion of youth in decision-making restricts their impact.

Despite commitments to combat climate change, some governments in the Middle East, such as Egypt, have expanded coal use to attract investments and generate revenue. This reflects the conflict between the state’s role as a protector of the country’s ecology and its role in ensuring a robust economy, a conflict that business too often wins.

In other Middle Eastern states, however, the tide is turning. The United Arab Emirates government, for example, has taken steps to address climate change and its security implications. The country has recognized the connection between climate change and security and has emphasized the importance of building resilient societies and economies that can withstand the impacts of climate change. The UAE government, a temporary member of the UN Security Council from 2021 to 2023, encouraged the Council to include climate on its agenda, with a particular focus on women, youth, peace, and security.

In Türkiye, environmental organisations often avoid overt political action and instead engage in issue-based activism. Environmental mobilisation tends to occur as grassroots efforts responding to specific development projects (e.g. mining, hydroelectric dams, coal plants and infrastructure projects), where local communities feel threatened by more powerful economic actors and their interests. Campaigns by youth climate groups that focus on issues that directly affect people’s lives can lead to unconventional alliances and can curb the effectiveness of youth environmental movements.

To overcome these challenges, concerted efforts are needed. Building alliances with established institutions can help youth activists gain broader acceptance and support. Utilizing social media and digital platforms, can counteract political resistance by amplifying youth voices globally. Continuous educational initiatives, such as those undertaken by youth-led organizations, can dispel scepticism and equip the public with the knowledge needed to support climate action.



Dr. Kristian Alexander is a Senior Fellow and the Director of International Security & Terrorism Program at TRENDS Research & Advisory (Dubai).

Photo: Samjith Palakkool/UNCTAD Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

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