IIt is ironic that Africa – sometimes called the “youngest continent” due to the average age of its population under 20 – has the oldest rulers of the world. Ten of Africa’s political leaders are over 75; the average age of an African president is 62.
According to the Global Center on Adaptation, young people in Africa are often excluded from politics precisely because Africa has its oldest generation squarely at the helm of political leadership.
There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the wisdom acquired with age, and many African societies have a long and proud tradition of honoring and respecting their elders. But the dominance of political decision-making by men (yes, it is largely men) well beyond retirement age is deeply concerning, particularly when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis – new and innovative thinking is needed now and for a long time to come.
Africa’s youth – including the unborn – will bear the financial, environmental and social costs of our failure to meaningfully address the climate crisis in the decades since the first wake-up call.
The significant income disparities and social inequalities in Africa will in all likelihood worsen as we move forward into the 21st century, exacerbating poverty and intergenerational economic injustice.
The majority of Africans are under the age of 18 and, according to Climate Risk Index for Childrenan inventory of the vulnerability of children to the impacts of global warming drawn up by Unicef, an estimate 490 million children in 35 sub-Saharan countries are threatened by the worst effects of the climate crisis. By 2050, Africa will be home to a billion children and young people who, given the right life chances, could fuel a social and economic renaissance across the continent.
However, the economic impacts of climate degradation mean that they face an uncertain and unenviable future of reduced opportunity, earning potential and productivity, coupled with reduced personal and professional development. The very people with the most to lose – children and young people – are largely excluded from shaping their own future.
This week, I am participating in the African Child Policy Forum Ninth International Policy Conference in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, which will focus on the climate crisis and children’s rights in Africa. Alongside politicians, academics and experts, I will hear young people talk about the impact of climate degradation on their present and future lives.
It is normal for young people’s voices to be heard and incorporated into policy decisions and feasible next steps – but this is all too rare. We need a surge of climate activists and young Africans in their millions to take responsibility for charting a climate just future.
I am encouraged that young climate activists are increasingly influencing global debates. From Senegal Yero Sarr to South Africa Raeesah Noor-Mahomedfrom Uganda vanessa nakate in Morocco Fatna Ikrame El Fanne, African youth are passionate and vocal. Their voices will join thousands of others at the UN Cop27 climate talks in Egypt, demanding action for a more just and sustainable future.
African governments must urgently step up their financial investments and economic policies to prevent and respond to the effects of the climate crisis on children. We know this exacerbates existing global injustice; Africa – responsible for lowest share of global greenhouse gas emissions – should face the highest cost. It is only fair that the more developed nations, who are primarily responsible for the climate crisis, pay a large part of the bill for adaptation and mitigation measures. But African governments also have a responsibility to ensure that investing in a climate-resilient future does not come at the expense of young people.
Current and future generations face a paradox. On the one hand, the economic impacts of climate degradation are significant and worsening. Adaptation, mitigation and building resilience are expensive, but without these expenditures, gross domestic product could be reduced by up to 30% – with disastrous consequences for employment and growth prospects.
On the other hand, governments and international donors may be tempted to divert valuable budgets from existing programs to fund adaptation infrastructure. This means that the already insufficient funding for education, child protection, nutrition, health and social services could be further reduced.
Faced with these existential challenges, it is clear to me that children and young people need to be more involved in building their own future. They must be an integral part of the decision-making process and meaningfully participate in shaping the climate agenda today and in the years to come.
Graca Machel is chair of the Board of administrators of the African Child Policy Forumcommunity development foundation and the Graça Machel Foundation
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