As Glasgow prepares to host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, what contribution can cultural relations make to climate action?

The Climate Connection is the British Council's response to this question through the three pillars of our work: Arts and Culture, Education and English language.

Our focus is working with young people across the world, supporting them to gain the skills, experience and connections they need to make positive change at local, national and international levels. Through this activity, we are supporting the UK’s ambitions to deliver a ‘whole of society’ COP26 and legacy.

This activity aims also to enhance understanding of how cultural relations – the overarching approach that underpins our work – can inform and enable new responses to climate change (and other global challenges).

As two of the contributors to a new British Council essay series on cultural relations and climate change have argued:

‘The practice of cultural exchange, and the dialogue and cooperation inherent in successful cultural relations … allows the creation of deep working relationships, exposure to other diverse world views, and thus the ability for reflective development and collaborative problem-solving that transcends borders and communities.’ (Figueira & Fullman, 2020)

Taking this cultural relations lens as its starting point, new research for the Climate Connection programme has captured the views, experiences and aspirations of over 8,000 young people across 23 countries. It has a clear message: to effectively tackle climate change, it is essential to ensure the active participation of young people.

A Global Youth Letter

Our Global Youth Letter is a Call to Action drawn from this research and complemented by separate country briefs for each of the 23 countries covered by the project.

It calls on organisations working to tackle climate change to redouble their efforts to work with policymakers and to be the bridge between formal policymaking organisations and young people.

There is an urgent need to enhance access to local and global literature and resources. Targeted training in communication, creative problem-solving and active citizenship skills is essential so that young people can relay their concerns and propose actions to their peers, families, communities and leaders.

This Call to Action includes the British Council itself. We are committed to engaging young people in discussions about climate change, featuring the role of educational and cultural policy in climate debates. We are utilising our unique global networks with governments, policymakers, youth organisations and cultural and education practitioners in order to do this.

On 9 September we launched our 8000 Rising campaign with youth representatives from around the world. This is an effort to ensure even more young people have the opportunity to add their voices to the Global Youth Letter in the lead up to COP26.

Voices from outside the climate bubble

Other British Council research tells us that young people across the globe see climate change as the most critically important challenge facing our world today. This finding comes from our 2020 soft power perceptions research.

It should be noted that this was based on a survey of educated young adults living (in the main) in relatively rich countries, including the member states of the G20. A relatively high degree of climate consciousness might be expected from this demographic.

Building on this and other research, making climate dialogues accessible to those outside the typical ‘climate bubble’ is a central objective of the Climate Connection programme. The 8,000 young people consulted through the research for the Global Youth Letter were drawn from both developed and developing countries.

A key requirement was to be as representative as possible in terms of gender, background, location and socio-economic status. A particular focus of the research report is the views of young women, those from rural communities and the unemployed.

Their collective voices underscore the fact that the concern about climate change is universal and unifying. Far from being the preserve of an educated elite in the global north, it transcends different regional, social and cultural contexts.

We need to do more to bring these diverse voices, experiences and ideas into dialogue with policy makers and leaders. COP26 is an opportunity to address this. But our research suggests there is much work to do.

Untapped potential

This global youth concern with climate change is not a passive one.

Our research reveals considerable confidence amongst young people in their capacity effectively to contribute to climate action.

Overall, 75 per cent of those surveyed believe they have the skills to help tackle climate change in their communities (a figure that is consistent across male and female, and rural and urban respondents).

In Mexico, to take one example, 82 per cent of those surveyed said they are willing to become community leaders on climate action. Qualitative evidence from focus groups reveals a common appetite to participate in and influence climate actions, including through social media and digital tools.

Yet 69 per cent of those surveyed report that they have never actually participated in any climate change or mitigation actions. At present, the potential and the will that exists amongst young people in communities across the world to fuel positive change is largely untapped.

Our research highlights a clear need to more effectively integrate young people in climate action programmes and policy dialogues.

As it stands, many young people continue to feel that – as widely expressed by those consulted in this exercise – political leaders and decision makers are not doing enough to address climate change.

And while most young people express a willingness to act and engage in global initiatives such as COP26 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, they report that they lack information about these initiatives. This hinders their participation and engagement.

Targeted skills development and capacity building is required to support young people to contribute to and engage with climate action plans and policies more effectively. This applies across the board, from international platforms such as COP26 to local community social volunteering projects.

Here the global picture is far from uniform. Our research reveals that in Bangladesh, for example, only 18 per cent of those surveyed currently have access to affordable capacity-building resources on climate action.

Initiatives such as Leadership for Advancing Development in Bangladesh (LEAD Bangladesh) are helping to address this, as are global Climate Connection programmes such as FameLab Climate Change Communicators and Climate Action in Language Education.

The opportunity of COP26

The 8000 Rising campaign is a cultural relations response to the challenges that our research reveals around youth participation and engagement. It is of course only part of a great wave of international contributions to the fight against climate change that COP26 is helping to inspire and stimulate.

As we build up to the summit – and start to think beyond it – we need to do more to ensure that the voices of the world’s young people are heard.

This requires the mobilisation and collaboration of everyone involved in climate change mitigation efforts: policymakers, non-governmental and civil society organisations, climate activists, educational and cultural institutions, researchers, scientists, journalists and others.

As COP26 President Alok Sharma said in a video address for our 8000 Rising campaign launch, young people are vital in the fight against climate change – and are needed at the heart of the summit. They will also be needed at the heart of the summit’s legacy.

Our research indicates that young people around the world have both the desire and the potential to become a genuinely global cohort of climate champions. To ensure that the whole of society can contribute to the shared goals for our planet, we must work together to realise the potential.

The Global Youth Letter, an accompanying research report, and recordings and other content from the 8000 Rising campaign launch can all be found on the British Council Climate Connection website.

The 23 countries covered by the research are: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey, the UK, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

Our new series of essays on cultural relations and climate change is the focus of a British Council Research and Policy Insight roundtable event on 22 September. Registration is open until the day of the event.