When it comes to the environment, it is the energy of young people that will drive us forward
For the last two weeks, all eyes have been on Glasgow as world leaders gathered for the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26. It was never going to be an easy gathering, or an easy viewing from the outside. For years we have grappled with failed leadership and scepticism has grown as to whether the scale of this problem is being taken seriously. This year’s conference, which went to the wire over the weekend, has been a source of frustration, with many feeling that agreements did not go far enough, nor will they save the planet from catastrophic consequences of further procrastination and posturing.
We are at a critical juncture when it comes to the climate crisis, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the task ahead. Former US President Barak Obama underlined the difficult road to progress and the incomplete victories when he spoke directly to young people and addressed delegates at COP26 this week. He also spoke about the task before us being especially profound for young people who are anxious about their futures and frustrated that today’s leaders never commit quite enough to enshrine real progress. Eco-anxiety is very real in GDST schools right across the country, and our students share the concerns of the world’s young about how they might influence global leaders more fundamentally to deliver on their pledges.
Amongst the frustration of this year’s negotiations, however, there are reasons for us to be optimistic, which we must hold on to. If we are to move forward, we must believe that change is coming. I could not agree more with Barack Obama when he said, “the most important energy in this movement is coming from young people.” I firmly believe that when it comes to the environment, it is the energy of young people that will hold us all to account and, in doing so, inspire great optimism and hope for the future. This does not mean it is their responsibility alone to create change, because we all have a vital part to play. But it is the dedication, passion, drive and energy of young people that is the shining light in these times and we must do all we can to empower and support them.
Across all GDST schools, from pupils in Reception right up to students in Sixth Form, I see girls taking the initiative and committing to change every single day. At Wimbledon High School, a group of Year 8 activists are using artificial intelligence to investigate and tackle climate change by reducing their energy use at school with data collected via Energy Sparks. Sixth Form change makers at Oxford High School hosted an online sustainable fashion conference in September which brought together over 700 students from 35 schools. Our youngest students have created “pledgehogs” to mark their individual commitments to climate action during and after COP26. These are just a few examples of the incredible efforts of girls in all our schools.
As I reflect on the powerful energy and real change being made by girls in our schools, what stood out starkly as I reflect on COP26, was the lack of representation of women. It is estimated that we will only achieve gender parity in climate leadership by 2068 and women are still under-represented in climate change negotiations. What is more, research shows that when women have an equal seat at the table, policies – including those to support climate change – are more representative and effective. As climate change is critical to our collective future, we urgently need to ensure women and girls are represented equally and do all we can to support girls to use their voice and to go on to take their rightful place at the table “where it happens”.
At the GDST, our commitment to environmental sustainability is rooted in our mission to help girls learn without limits, so they can lead lives without limits. As an organisation, we have robust environmental sustainability targets. This commitment also means empowering girls as much as we possibly can, as a generation of future leaders, policy makers, change-makers and innovators. Girls in GDST schools will in time use their education to shape the world in ways that will make a difference for us all. Our teachers work tirelessly to provide this through the education they steward in our schools every day. We run education programmes, events and activities to promote student voice and student agency to bring about meaningful change. Schools across the GDST have a student Eco-Group or Green Team with the delegated responsibility to make real environmental changes in their schools. We always listen to their ideas and their views, to ensure we as an organisation are doing all we can to empower this generation of change-makers to make change real every day.
To girls in our schools, and to young people everywhere, I say keep focused. Believe you have the power to create change – just like Mahatma Gandhi told us so long ago “be the change you want to see in the world”.
In years to come, I have no doubt I will be seeing our young GDST trail-blazers leading the way on the environment at future UN Climate Change Conference negotiating tables.