Why the world's young population offers hope in the fights against climate change and conflict

A couple of young men watch over their cattle at a reservoir, which is often the last water point during the hottest and dryest months of the year in Burkina Faso. Where climate change leads to desertification and shrinking livelihoods, household poverty is exacerbated, and young people’s economic and social prospects are thwarted. Photo by: Ollivier Girard / Center for International Forestry Research / CC BY-NC

Too often when we think of global population — how fast it's growing, how young it is — we start to worry. Fears of a population bomb have persisted for decades, recurring especially as we head towards the yearly climate change negotiations, with some viewing population growth as the major cause of climate change. And more recently, conflict and terrorism have brought more fears, often misplaced, of the huge current global population of young people: 1.8 billion and counting.

These two fears are intertwining this month in Paris, where world leaders have gathered just after the tragic and horrific attacks to attempt to finalize one of the most important, complex and far-reaching international agreements ever conceived. And as the international community tries to address the threats of climate change and conflict, there are three crucial facts that we must recognize:

First, climate change can, and already is, leading to global instability. Where climate change leads to desertification and shrinking livelihoods, household poverty is exacerbated, and young people’s economic and social prospects are thwarted. In the four countries around Lake Chad, for example, communities have been devastated by the 95 percent loss of the lake since the 1960s, driven by both climate change and agriculture. The loss of this vital natural resource has contributed to the destabilization of households, worsening poverty, and diminishing prospects for young people, in a setting where population continues to grow rapidly. Boko Haram is exploiting this disaffection and poverty to recruit young people into violence and transnational terror.

Second, and more positively, the world's young population has the potential to bring enormous returns for sustainable development, including innovations that can fight and prevent climate change. Young people can also lead civic resistance to violence and extremism, but only if we invest in them. If we prioritize the education and health of young people, and empower adolescent girls to reach their potential, global population growth will slow. Studies show that when fertility declines rapidly, as has been the case in many developing countries, the result can be a “demographic dividend,” in which a high proportion of working-age people with fewer young dependents creates a situation ripe for a boom in economic growth.

Third, it is a sad truth that we have so far failed to invest in our young people. While we have made great global strides in primary education, less than one-third of girls are even enrolled in secondary school in West and Central Africa, where some of the largest proportions of young people live. Tertiary or postgraduate training is barely on the map in many developing countries, and prospects for extra-curricular enrichment are far beyond the reach of schools struggling simply to have enough teachers or provide functioning toilets. In countries where fertility remains high, lack of access to family planning and health services and information is pushing off — by decades — the decline in fertility that would enable a demographic dividend. This is leaving young people vulnerable to early pregnancy and major health risks.

Without educated young people, especially young women, who can then find decent jobs, prospects for accelerating sustainable and inclusive economic growth will not be fulfilled. And when large proportions of young people face few opportunities, when they are unable to exercise their rights and are excluded from decision making, they may indeed turn to violence. Our failure to invest in and engage young people is the problem, not the young people themselves.

As we confront the world’s most challenging environmental and security threats, we must change the way we view the world’s population and its young people. When we invest in them and enable them to achieve their potential, we will see massive returns in economic growth, innovation, peace and stability, and environmental sustainability. When we see the population as an asset, and invest in it accordingly, we will be well on our way to meeting the challenge of climate change and achieving sustainable development for all.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Babatunde Osotimehin

    Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin is executive director of the U.N. Population Fund since January 2011. A renowned physician and public health expert, he was previously Nigerian minister of health and director-general of the country’s agency on AIDS. At UNFPA, Babatunde supervises efforts to promote the rights and ability of young people to build a better world in the context of sexual and reproductive health.