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Voices of change: Can China’s youth get their message across?

One antidote to pessimism lingering from China's strategic stalemate at last December's climate change negotiations at COP 15 in Copenhagen is to spend time with China's next generation of leaders. My recent encounter with an energetic, impassioned cohort of the self-named ‘Cool Climate Generation' revealed that despite official resistance to a global climate regulation framework, confronting climate change is a surprisingly hot issue amongst elite Chinese youth. 

I recently accompanied a group of well accomplished 14-20 year olds to conduct research on climate change impact on rural development and adaptation strategies in Yunnan province. It seems the interest of students in topics of vulnerability, adaptation, biodiversity, carbon forests, and low-carbon growth is matched by their interest in each other, and their cell-phones. These students have been selected as ‘Climate Change Champions' from the ‘Climate Cool, Green Your School' programme run by the British Council in China. The programme, funded by the British Council, has been running for over three years, reaching over 900 schools, and the impact seems likely to grow, as students are avidly applying social networking skills to play a leading role in raising awareness about climate change and encouraging actions - both personal and political - to tackle evident impacts.

As we travelled together to upland villages in Yunnan province, the impact of climate change was clear. Returning to an area of the country that experienced record droughts last spring, villagers largely dependent upon agricultural sector were still suffering the impact. As highlighted in an ODI public meeting last year, Can China Feed Itself, crop productivity in China is declining as a result of climate change. In this region, some crop yields had fallen by more than 70%, warmer and dryer conditions had shifted planting dates and crop species, more village members were involved in off-farm labour to compensate for reduced agricultural earnings, and conflict over water management between upland and lowland cash crop farmers had increased. In contrast to the students, these villagers are among the millions of Chinese whose rural livelihoods are exposed to climate related risks, and already experiencing the impact of trends in national agricultural productivity that are predicted to decline by 2040.

As a result of the one week research expedition, students began to balance their messages around behaviour change and making personal choices for low-carbon lifestyles with calls for government policy and national action to lessen further impacts on rural areas and vulnerable sectors and develop adaptation strategies to minimise ongoing hazards. 

Although the student advocacy germinating from the ‘Climate Generation' programme prioritises the adoption of a more responsible and sustainable lifestyle, there is increasing awareness by the students of the need to integrate national development with climate change. The Expedition provided a poignant illustration of how lifting the rural poor out of poverty is not only compatible with, but requires, action on climate change. The Climate Generation programme has sparked hope by providing a platform for the students to voice their opinions to decision makers, exposing and training Climate Champions in the role of research and communication tools for policy advocacy sparks. With the Climate Champions representing future leaders in China, the hope is that what are still advocated as ‘personal choices' in China will be transformed into policy decisions supporting pro-poor, climate compatible development in China and the rest of the world.