Turning the Tide on Youth-Washing: 5 Ways to Effectively Engage Young Environmental Leaders

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Lonely Whale (2022). Turning the Tide on Youth-Washing: 5 Ways to Effectively Engage Young Environmental Leaders.

Acknowledgments: This playbook was commissioned by Sam Barratt, Siiri Mäkelä and Georgina Avlonitis of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Youth, Education and Advocacy Unit and was published with the generous support of the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA). We would like to thank all of the young leaders who participated in this playbook’s production.

© 2022 Lonely
TO DOWNLOAD THE PLAYBOOK, CLICK HERE. Table of Contents Foreword................................ I Executive Summary........................ IV Introduction............................. 01 Trends Driving Today’s Movement.......... 05 Youth Experiences & Expectations ....... 11 5 Recommendations for More Effective Engagement of Youth ........... 17 Conclusion and Call to Action ........... 23 Recommendations for Future Research ..... 24 Research Methodology .................... 25 Definition of Terms ..................... 26 References .............................. 27 I

Today’s youth are synonymous with environmental activism, taking center stage in the global fight to protect the Earth from harm. Rising up across the world, young men and women are our disruptive innovators, our future entrepreneurs, decisionmakers and brave industry-leaders. They know tomorrow belongs to those who see beyond today. They have the courage to invent the future –and they want to carve their place in a greener economy with creative tools and new careers. Their commitment is not a game, not a hobby or a side interest. It’s a full-time dedication to ensuring the viability of our future.

Since the youth environmental movement began making global headlines in 2018, young people have been increasingly recognized for their leadership in raising awareness about the need for environmental action and seen as changeagents on the ground through climate strikes. This attention has propelled invitations to selected young people to speak on the world’s most prominent stages. Yet, despite this selective attention by media and global leaders, youth are still poorly integrated into critical policy discussions and decision making processes within adult-led arenas. Young people today refer to these invitations without impact as “youth-washing” and rightfully fight back against misalignment between their presence at marquee global events and the perception of their support for existing agendas.

As key protagonists in our collective future, young people are calling for safe spaces and enabling platforms where they can play meaningful roles as advocates in shaping the changes we need for the future we want. Melati Wisjen, a 19-year-old Indonesian activist and co- founder of Bye Bye Plastic Bags, puts it plainly: “We kids may only be 25% of the population, but we are 100% of the future.”

Youth-washing highlights a missed opportunity – the opportunity for adults in power to open avenues for access and inclusion rather than promoting further tokenistic opportunities. Their meaningful engagement and perspectives in high-level forums is crucial and, as outlined in this playbook, is exactly what today’s youth environmental movement is asking for from government o cials and key decision-makers.

Young people today are reinforcing that their involvement should not simply constitute social media retweets, youth-dedicated side events or ornaments on adult panel discussions to ‘tick a box.’ They are the generation that needs to be empowered with a seat at the decision-making table and the tools and processes to meaningfully add value at that table.

Government o cials have a responsibility to listen to the voices of young people within their communities and carry out their civic duty by ensuring actions and endorsements are informed by the demands of their younger constituents. In the words of United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres: “Young people are an enormous asset to our societies. We must cherish them, invest in them and empower them.”

Shaped and guided by the perspective of global youth leaders, this playbook provides insights for adults allies and decision-makers into the key trends of the youth environmental movement so that they may e ff ectively make space for them, not as a symbolic gesture, but as active participants in today’s policy decisions that will dictate our shared future. Our hope is that this playbook inspires meaningful engagement of young people and intergenerational collaboration in service of a bright, green future for us all.

Thank You to the Community

This playbook from Lonely Whale was commissioned by the Tide Turners programme with the support of UNEP and funds from the UK Government. Lonely Whale and UNEP would like to recognize and thank the young leaders who agreed to share their time, perspective, experiences, and vision for a future where youth are more e ff ectively engaged in critical environmental conversations. Thanks is also owed to the support of staff members from both Lonely Whale and UNEP, in addition to the Tide Turner implementation partners in Kenya and India who provided introductions to global youth leaders which further amplified the survey to their networks.

Foreword III
We need to rewrite the rules of engagement with the global youth environmental movement.

Context for Change

In 2020, Gen Z surpassed Millennials as the largest generation, making up one third of the world’s population and projected to hold the biggest-ever purchasing power (Litman, Oz 2022). Although young people are already leveraging their reach and influence to lead global demonstrations to raise awareness for the environment, they still require allyship from adult decision-makers to ensure meaningful policies are passed to ensure the future of the environment they are set to inherit.

In order to identify opportunities for more e ff ective engagement, it is vital to listen to those shaping the movement’s demands and activities. This is why we spoke with young people from across the world to create a playbook intended to give adult decision-makers insights about youth’s expectations and key principles for meaningful engagement We found that youth today are asking for a seat at the decision-making table in order to share their perspectives and influence decisions to guarantee a sustainable future for all.

This playbook aggregates our secondary and qualitative research into a compendium of insights about the state of the global youth environmental movement and its support network, and presents recommendations intended to encourage meaningful, intergenerational engagement across the spectrum of adult stakeholders. Research was commissioned by the Tide Turners programme, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) led-initiative, that educates and empowers young people around the world to take action on plastic pollution, with the support of UNEP and funds from the UK Government.

Executive Summary
© Jeremy Cohen


In order to define the set of recommendations included within this playbook, we conducted secondary and qualitative research, engaging more than 600 youth across 67 countries through one-to-one interviews and a globally distributed survey.

Interviews occurred between September 2021 and April 2022 with 25 youth environmental leaders from 14 countries, 13 of whom were female identifying, and 2 adult ally interviewers. We also interviewed 7 adult stakeholders to learn from their experiences as allies in the movement. Youth interviewees were identified by Lonely Whale and UNEP. Selection criteria included current participation within environmental advocacy, geographic location (a minimum of 1 representative from each continent excluding Antarctica), and age (interviewees needed to be 25 years old and under). Each semi-structured interview was conducted in English over Zoom and was recorded to accurately reflect answers to questions that touched upon the interviewee’s opinions, behaviors and experiences as a member of the youth environmental movement.

Our team reviewed transcripts of each recorded conversation and identified 10 trends that emerged across the conversations.

To validate the emerging trends, we developed an accompanying online survey distributed globally through a network of partners between February 17, 2022 and May 15, 2022. Before publication, the survey was reviewed for bias by MIT Solve and EMC Research. The survey was anonymous, voluntary and clearly communicated that responses would be aggregated and shared as part of a forthcoming review on the youth environmental movement. Participants were not compensated for completing the survey.

The survey was taken by 637 youth from 67 countries (with an oversampling in the United States and India), the majority of whom, 62%, identify as female, 5% whom identify under multiple pronouns and 2% use they/them/their pronouns.

Insight into the Youth Perspective

Although the majority of those surveyed (67.7%) believe that the most important thing governments can do to support youth is give them a space in the policy-making process, the resounding feedback was that they feel excluded from policy making dialogues. Indeed, many reported that they don’t know how to get started (55.81%) with engaging policymakers and others expressed not feeling welcome (22.09%). Furthermore, when asked about the biggest barrier to achieving their work, youth ranked lack of government support second only to consistent funding. Despite this engagement gap, youth leaders continue to ask policymakers for a new model of intergenerational collaboration.

While the movement is calling for deeper inclusion, youth leaders aren’t waiting to take action. In the last 5 years, youth have shown incredible selforganizing skills and a high level of collaboration among themselves, sharing information and skills through peer-to-peer training and demonstrating a will to professionalize their methods. Young leaders have also evolved their platforms, moving from singularly focused environmental demands towards complex “intersectional” asks, adding the crucial layer of social justice to their fight, aiming at a true paradigm change.

VII Executive Summary

5 Recommendations to Inform Action

These recommendations aim to provide strategic guidance on how best to design more impactful youth programmes, fund the movement, and meaningfully engage youth on environment-related policy decisions.

However they can only o ff er a slice of insight given the size and diversity of the youth environmental movement. This playbook aims to inspire adult allies towards actions that will facilitate an improved relationship with youth leaders today, rather than simply continuing business as usual perhaps for fear of getting it wrong.

Furthermore, the insights shared from the Tide Turner Plastic Challenge programme’s case studies also o ff er guidance on how adult decision-makers can open up meaningful space to youth rather than perpetuate tokenistic “youth-washing” opportunities that lead to greater distrust among youth activists.

UNEP intends to leverage these learnings to inform how the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge (TTPC) evolves, refining the way in which tools and training are provided in order to empower young people to create a better future for people and the planet.

5 Recommendations For Adult Allies:


Create consistent opportunities for conversation and consultation to meet youth leader’s requests for engagement on environmental policy decisions.

Leverage shared decision-making frameworks to unlock meaningful participation and empower youth.


Increase funding beyond microgrants to scale capacity and improve youth’s ability to create change.

Support equity in funding methods by reducing required components and written formats to support broader access and greater diversity amongst applicants.


Embrace peer-to-peer training modalities that enable youth to share lived experiences that support skill acquisition between their peers.


Introduce paid internships and positions that enable professional growth and also ensure continued participation by youth who require financial compensation for their time spent working within the movement.


Combat “youth-washing” by centering their voices in co-defined engagement opportunities and championing autonomy by limiting influence of existing adult agendas over youth work.

IX Executive Summary
© Jeremy Cohen

Understanding the Landscape of Environmental Leadership

Young environmental activists emerged into the mainstream at the same time as the environmental movement reawakened across the United States in the 1960s, becoming part of the dominant cultural lexicon (Coglianese 2001). New grassroots e ff orts were guided by the organizing examples of community-led groups who had spearheaded the Civil Rights movement (Skelton, Miller, 2016) and by the 1970s public interest in environmentalism had soared, alongside the number of organizations which had grown from a few hundred to a few thousand (Coglianese 2001). The first Earth Day, April 22 1970, was led by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, Harvard graduate student Dennis Hayes and driven by a coalition of students, NGOs, and diverse set of adult ally stakeholders (Henn 2015). The day was ultimately celebrated by an estimated 20 million people including students across 1,500 colleges and 10,000 schools (Coglianese 2001) and it forever changed the trajectory of environmental action and its presence in the mainstream dialogue (Henn 2015).

Although young people have been actively involved in campaigning for the environment since the first Earth Day, what many consider the birth of the modern youth environmental movement began in the mid 2000s when students across American universities began leading coordinated divestment campaigns as a direct aff ront to the fossil fuel industry (McKibben 2012; Rowe, Dempsey and Gibbs 2016). The second wave of youth-led action began in 2018 when global media began covering Greta Thunberg’s strikes outside of the Swedish Parliament and the resulting youth strike for climate marches of September 2019 (Marris 2019). Both waves followed examples of communitydriven organizing and peer-led action set by earlier organizers.

Today’s movement is bold, globally connected, uncompromising, and evolving quickly thanks to decentralized tools and information accessible through the internet. Notably, today’s young leaders are moving away from rhetoric that focuses only on a future with a livable environment, they are demanding action for people who are already enduring the e ff ects of a changing climate. Acutely aware of their intersecting identities and di ff erences across lived experiences, leaders within the youth environmental movement are demanding more than justice for the planet, they are demanding justice for people in order to usher in a paradigm shift that recognizes the inextricable link between social and environmental justice. Although the global media’s interest in leveraging voices of young people to communicate the urgency of the issue has catapulted select youth into the mainstream media, actions from global policymakers and the spectrum of adult stakeholders are failing to meet their expectations. This has also exposed a deep chasm between generations and geographies, with young people feeling tokenized by invitations to major events without impact and, as one youth we interviewed stated, “limited by the systemic power of older generations.”

Designed to communicate their needs and expectations, this playbook provides insight for adult decision-makers into the key trends of the youth environmental movement. The priority recommendations included aim to support collaboration between adults across the spectrum of actors — from policymakers to business leaders, funders, and adult-led environmental NGOs — and youth across critical environment related policy decisions.

Timeline of the Youth Environmental Movement


500 youth participants in the Student Group for the Promotion of Nature-compatible Culture in Sweden confronted its government and companies about environmental issues (The Conversation 2021.)


50,000 students across 1,500 colleges and 10,000 schools participated in the first-ever Earth Day with notable leadership by students at the University of Michigan (Coglianese 2001, Earthday 2020.)


Severn Cullis-Suzuki, at age 12, called on her peers to challenge their governments and campaign for intergenerational justice at the “Earth Summit” (a.k.a the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Farrow 2021.)


Students at Swarthmore began divestment campaigns after the 2009 United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP15) conversations failed to result in internationally organized action (Farrell 2013.)


American environmentalist and author Bill McKibben kicks off the “Do the Math” tour, launching divestment campaigns led by students across American universities (Bagley 2012.)


21 youth plaintiffs and organizational plaintiff Earth Guardians sued the US government, arguing that the government’s failure to act violated their rights (Our Children’s Trust.)


Youth organizers from the Standing Rock tribe launched the #NoDALP campaign on Facebook (Berkeley.)


Organizers of the youth-led nonprofit Zero Hour launched their campaign for policy action with a March on Washington (Yon-Hendricks 2018.)


Inspired by Zero Hour, Greta Thunberg began her Friday strikes in front of the Swedish Parliament (Engelfried 2020.)


Greta Thunberg’s condemnation of government representatives at the United Nations goes viral and kicks off the global youth climate strikes (Milman 2019.)


Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan youth activist, was cut off in a photo by the Associated Press, highlighting the lack of representation in mass media for youth from the Global South within the movement (Evelyn 2020.)


Disha Ravi, an Indian youth activist, is jailed after sharing a Google Document about the farmer’s protest with Greta Thunberg (Yasir 2021.)


Youth participants express disappointment in COP26’s youthwashing (Smith Galer 2021.)


The United Nations’ Commitment to Youth Environmental Leadership

The United Nations (UN) recognizes that sustainable development and peace cannot be achieved unless we involve young people and create the conditions that allow them to reach and unleash their full potential. The UN appointed its first Youth Envoy in 2017 and expanded its mandate the following year with the UN Secretary General’s Youth2030 Strategy designed to facilitate increased impact and expanded global, regional and country-level action to address the needs, build the agency and advance the rights of young people (Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, 2022).

Most recently, in 2022, the UN General Assembly decided “to establish the United Nations Youth Office as a dedicated office for youth affairs in the Secretariat” (UN. General Assembly, 76th sess. : 2021-2022). COP27 also saw increased attention to youth, where it was decided to encourage future COP presidencies to appoint a Youth Envoy, host the Youth Pavilion, and co-organize a dialogue between member states and youth.

Going forward, the Summit of the Future planned for 2024 is expected to result in a Declaration on Future Generations with a commitment to think and act on behalf of future generations and establish mechanisms to address their interests and needs, aiming to meaningfully engage youth at the UN.



Intersectional environmentalism is central to the current youth environmental movement. Articulating the relationship between social and environmental justice while also advocating for an inclusive environmental movement, the term was coined by young environmental activist and eco-communicator Leah Thomas in June 2020 in the midst of a Black Lives Matter campaign in the United States (Madson 2020). Inspired by professor and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional theory of 1989, Thomas’ new term provided an opportunity for the youth movement to strategically redefine the way it is structured in order to reflect their understanding that intersecting identities, including age, have an impact on one’s lived experience and perspective.

Dr. Jason Del Gandio, Temple University Professor in the Department of Communication & Social Influence, notes that this focus on centering diversity of experience was not present across the movement in the 1960s and o ff ers an opportunity for allyship to flourish (Biederman, Walling, Siock 2020). By holding space for conversations and actively championing historically underrepresented voices, youth leaders are drawing closer ties between people and planet and o ff ering community-based solutions as tools to fight the planetary crisis. Adult allies have the opportunity to learn from and support these dialogues. One notable example of intergenerational allyship on this topic is the Summit of the Future, set for 2024 and hosted by the UN President of the General Assembly.

Different Experiences for Global North and Global South Activists

The di ff erences in lived experiences between youth in the Global North and Global South has become a central topic within the movement with youth today understanding that their peers in the Global South are projected to be the most impacted by the planetary crisis not due to their country’s actions but by those in the Global North (UNICEF 2022, Ituarte-Lima, Aryani, Paul 2022).

Although global media most often centers school strikes, public demonstrations, and campaigns demanding corporate accountability in their youth climate coverage, youth in the Global South are actively seeking environmental action and using strategies relevant to their communities to advance their objectives. For many youth in the Global South, school is a privilege, making striking an ine ff ective tactic and, further still, not all countries are safe environments to call for political advocacy against policymakers or leading corporations.

As such, youth in the Global South may instead turn to campaigning, community-based e ff orts, or working with an established civil society organization (Pousadela 2020).

These two primary modes of advocacy, political activism and field activism, also emerged in our interviews with global youth. The first mode, political activism, is most easily defined as positioned against companies and current government policies or administrations. Advocates march and campaign, demanding environmental accountability by institutions or that government o cials ratify new policy frameworks. The second mode, field activism, instead focuses on implementing solutions to improve and restore the environment, oftentimes through community or nature-based solutions. Both modes can be implemented through a decentralized model, youth-led organization, or in partnership with existing adult-led civil-society based organizations.

Organized collective actions 67.39%

Government support 64.25% Mentorship 58.45% Trainings 57.25%

A formal network of activists 55.56%

Consistent funding 53.62%

Platform to share inspiring stories 49.28%

More funding 49.28%

A common goal 43.48%

Common strategy 42.03%

Adult ally action 36.96%

Other (please specify) 6.76%

(Lonely Whale 2022)

Critically, gaps in media coverage are also central to youth advocacy from the Global South who are fighting for increased representation within environmental negotiations and in the media. Perhaps one of the most clear-cut examples of this fight for recognition is the case of Ugandan youth activist Vanessa Nakate’s removal from an Associated Press photo of “global” youth environmental leaders taken at the World Economic Forum Davos in 2020 (McCarthy, Sánchez, Gralki 2020).

Although youth interviewed for this playbook confirmed that the movement still struggles to be inclusive, they also relayed that both sides are extremely willing to work together as a community. Notably, specific e ff orts should be made to include young women in ‘formalized’ paid leadership roles in environmental governance, as they continue to remain underrepresented across governments and organizations globally (UN Women 2022).

What does the youth-driven environmental movement need most to be successful?
Trends Driving Today’s Movement


Even with a community, it’s hard to cope in the face of a crisis. Named by 30.41% of youth surveyed as a barrier to their success, ecofatigue is not climate anxiety but a combination of pressure for perfectionism, overwork, and media overexposure that is dividing young people and driving them to exhaustion.

Many times forced into the spotlight to raise awareness for the causes they’re campaigning for, young activists are tracked and exposed, scrutinized by the media on both professional and personal levels. This pressure is also coming from within the movement. Alaina Wood , a U.S.based youth environmental leader, witnessed this firsthand with claims that “if you’re not 100% vegan or 100% zero-waste, you’re not a climate activist” which, according to Wood, is doing little more than “scaring people away from the movement” (Renwick 2022).

A 2020 study published by The Lancet found that over 45% of youth were negatively impacted daily by climate change-related feelings and that the current government response only made them feel betrayed rather than reassured (Hickman et al. 2021). This highlights the opportunity for policy makers in particular to address, and perhaps improve, mistrust through more meaningful engagement of their youngest constituents.

“Perfectionism is one of the most dangerous things in this movement because it divides us.”

and social activism rose 72% across Gen Z in the United Kingdom after the pandemic began.

(Litman, Oz 2022)

Thirst for Action and Desire for Collective Direction

Across the board, youth leaders are seeking ways to play an active role. Research from Edelman found that 70% of young people today are actively participating in social or political causes (Cooper 2021). Many lean towards opportunities that allow them to be hands-on and directly involved in the process with 66% of those surveyed reporting that they started their own organization because they felt it was the best way to make a di ff erence. Active, consistent, and frequent participation, like volunteering or reducing personal consumption, are favored over one-time e ff orts.

Although the majority of those surveyed feel included in the movement overall, they also reported feeling a disconnect. Between distinct modes of activism, di ff erent approaches to

organizing, and a multitude of organizational agendas, youth environmental leaders have to navigate a complex ecosystem to advance impact.

Of the youth surveyed, organized collective actions (64.25%) and a formal network of activists (55.56%) ranked in the top 5 of the most important things the youth environmental movement needs to be successful right now.

As one US-based youth activist interviewed put it: “Youth activism is far from a unified movement. There is a unified goal towards a healthier planet and communities that work together towards improved outcomes. But parties have very di ff erent answers on the ‘how.’”

“When I was a young person I wanted to get involved with environmental organizations, but the work they were offering was always like creating posters or social media posts. And I wanted to be the type of person that got to get my hands dirty and do field work.”

– Kamakshi Bhavnani, 16, India / Hong Kong – Anonymous, Adult Ally, United Kingdom
70% of young people in Gen Z want an activist government. (Pew, 2019)
Interest in environmental
“A huge issue that I’ve noticed when interviewing activists is the pressure of being public-facing. I think as soon as you’re labeled youth activists for anything, you open the door up to hate comments.”
- Laura Pitcher, Adult Ally, Australia / USA

”There are people in this world whose lives are significantly more impacted by climate change. But they simply don’t have a platform to be able to voice their concerns and to share their experiences. And it’s only the people who are higher up in our sort of social hierarchy that we have in the world that are able to voice it.”

“None of us sign up with the intention of being in the spotlight, it’s just about protecting what we love.”
–Anonymous, Adult Ally, United Kingdom
– Kamakshi Bhavnani, 16, India / Hong Kong

Youth Experiences & Expectations

Barriers to Success

While youth leading the environmental movement are working across global communities of their peer groups to drive forward bold environmental action, those we spoke to and surveyed reported that they are up against three key barriers driven by adult stakeholders: insu cient and inconsistent funding, lack of government support, and lack of credibility to influence change.

Reported as the primary barrier to their work, youth we spoke to shared their frustration about insu cient access to financial support beyond micro-grants. Although smaller grants can help trial ideas, o ff er credibility and, sometimes visibility, young people we spoke to reported that they are often too small to make a significant di ff erence for their youth-led organizations and campaigns. Further still, youth leaders expressed that the overall limited access to funding was compounded by the additional barriers they faced in the form of lengthy applications or grant reporting, both of which require significant time and resources and high level of writing abilities. Youth surveyed also indicated they believe that policy makers and governments should have a key role in supporting the movement by increasing funding opportunities for youth-led organizations.

Second only to funding constraints, youth also reported lack of government support as a key

barrier to their work. Although today’s youth environmental leaders are actively campaigning for policy change, the majority of youth surveyed (75%) are not working with a policy maker or government o cial. The reason? Many reported that they don’t know how to get started with engaging policymakers (55.81%) and others don’t feel welcome (22.90%). Perhaps unsurprisingly, a resounding majority (67.7%) believe that the most important thing governments can do to support youth is give them a space in the policymaking process. Youth interviewed also shared the di culty of accessing government o cials especially when they were just starting out, demonstrating the intersecting impact credibility has on their work.

Across the young people interviewed, credibility came up as a key ingredient to successfully implementing their work. While some youth have successfully leveraged social or traditional media to earn credibility, others reported earning support from adult-led nonprofits, recognition from funders, or awards as alternative avenues for recognition. Perhaps foreseeably, youth surveyed reported having the most influence locally at school or at home (66.8%), where they presumably have the most credibility, with city or district influence ranking second (45.82%).

“Many people and organizations have tried to talk to policy makers and only received ignorance or disrespect, that’s why I believe that we have to put them under pressure with demonstrations.”

– Anonymous, 25, Austria

“I received small grants here and there, but that wasn’t how I could develop. It was not enough.“

What are the top 3 barriers you have experienced in your work?

Not having enough funding or consistent funding 51.27%

Not having the government support I need 42.99%

Not having the credibility needed to influence change 40.76%

Not having the confidence I need that my plan will make a difference 31.69%

Not having training or educational resources that can teach me what I need to know 31.37%

Not having enough time to dedicate to the environment 31.21%

Not having hte personal energy to be sucessful (e.g., eco-fatigue and burnout) 30.41%

Not having access to mentors 22.64%

“We feel consistently demoralized, disappointed, and disillusioned with the government.

– Anonymous, 18, USA

“Most of the time, grants are just available for those who can write well and not those who really are engaged in what they do. It’s a big barrier for me.”

– Anonymous, 25, Cameroon

Not being able to be in-person for events and meetings dude to COVID-19 22.93%

Not having tools I need (e.g., design software, stable internet access, cellphone camera 21.97%

Not having access to the data, science or other information I need to support my work 15.13%

Other 7.80% (Lonely Whale 2022)


When have you felt successful in your environmental work?

Practicing environmental conservation in front of my peers. United States, 22

When our social media account followers increased and posts being shared. Malaysia, 24

I felt successful after being able to stop a petroleum project in India by organizing protests, writing letters and creating awareness about that project. India, 14

When a regional government announced new climate targets with a plan clearly influenced by the movement. Austria, 24

I felt successful in my environmental work when I made a federal government petition that gained 5,642 signatures in 4 weeks and got it presented to parliament by a federal MP. I felt most successful in this because I felt that I was making a difference internally in government. Australia, 16

I mobilized youth and we did cleaning in my home area. Kenya, 26

When people who weren’t interested start gaining interest. South Korea, 15

Organized a panel on sustainable start-ups and almost 100 students turned up. United Kingdom, 22 (Lonely Whale 2022)

Case Study of Success

The Tide Turners programme, funded with the support of DEFRA, is one example of successful implementation of peer-to-peer learning models, with graduates of the programme applying their acquired knowledge through skill-sharing. We interviewed graduates of the programme to learn how their experience with the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge had impacted their environmental work.

Alicia’s Campaign Against Waste

Alicia Mora is a young leader, peer-to-peer trainer and Girl Guide from Kenya who has trained over 5,000 youth on Tide Turners Plastic Challenge (TTPC) and has organized sensitization events in her community and carried out street clean ups. With tenacity and vision, Alicia used her Tide Turner skills to turn Kisii’s County Governor into a plastic advocate resulting in more investment in waste disposal sites across Kisii County.

After she participated in the TTPC training she returned to her hometown and developed a powerpoint presentation in order to share her knowledge with peers. Not only did her experience with the TTPC expand her education on plastics, Alicia also reported that UNEP taught her how to meet people, how to involve people to join, and

how to campaign. After returning home, Alicia set a strategy to involve the entire community in her education campaign, welcoming in adult allies across a variety of industries.

Although her work successfully engaged local leaders, Alicia also recognized that government o cials can be di cult to access “if you don’t have someone from the inside who can help you to reach out to [them].” Her experience echoed those interviewed and surveyed, reinforcing the opportunity for policymakers to proactively and consistently engage their youth constituents, especially locally, to build relationships that can result in collaboratively achieved and expedited environmental impact.

- Alicia

“You train, you try to involve the community, more of the local leadership and also the media... The more you speak about something, the more you also understand it.”

Preferred Methods for Upskilling Across the Movement

Young people understand that the fight for environmental conservation is not one they can easily take on alone; they do their due diligence to find like-minded individuals on whom they can rely. Although many young environmental leaders look to and ask for support from adult allies, many shared that their work was strongly communityoriented and peer-informed as they seek out nuanced understanding and examples of skills that cannot be learned online.

With a preference for community resources, young people seek out content created by peers, youth leaders, or youth-driven organizations to prepare for their work and view peer-to-peer education as a critical foundation for training and upskilling across the movement. Those we surveyed shared that it was the most e ff ective way to learn and was also emotionally beneficial, o ff ering them deeper connections, access to a network of support, and relevant real-life practice with concrete examples.

Recognizing Red Flags

Although young people are seeking support from adult-led NGOs and experts across the movement, allyship can also be fraught with issues. Due to the rise of interest in youth organizers, adultled nonprofits have opened public-facing roles for young people but these roles are not always structured to empower or benefit youth. Youth we interviewed shared experiences with “youthwashing” from adult-led nonprofit environmental organizations. One U.S.-based organizer shared that “adult led organizations saw that they can use the climate strikes to push forward their own agendas.”

Despite this caution and critique, youth surveyed are looking for adult-led nonprofits to step up their support role across the movement. Primarily, youth are looking for NGOs to connect youth leaders with relevant mentors, partners, or community (69.86%), to advocate for youth engagement in the policy-making process (67.81%), and provide youth access to internships, mentorship, or paid work opportunities (65.07%).

Adults as Aids & Allies

However, in many cases, peer-to-peer learning also requires the support of adult allies. In interviews, many young people reported that they or those who have had access to training from adult allies or more experienced youth campaigners, returned to their communities to help their peers upskill. About half of youth surveyed (52.63%) had worked with a nonprofit organization and, of those that had, viewed their help as critical in achieving their environmental goals (64.79%). But they expect further engagement. Youth we spoke to expressed their interest in further support from nonprofit organizations who have the opportunity to support youth leaders by connecting them with relevant mentors, partners, and communities which is vital in helping young people earn credibility.

“[I’ve had] good experiences with adult mentors but also a lot of situations with established non profits [who] wanted to tell [us] about the branding, sometimes using youth as puppets with the media.”
– Azalea Danes, 19, USA
“It regularly strikes me as amazing how unethical adult-led organizations can be in terms of putting young folks out to the front of the crowd, but making sure that they have the right words to parrot the exact message that they want without imparting. There was a moment where adult led organizations saw that they can use the climate strikes to push forward their own agendas.”

Youth-led learning with my peers (peer-to-peer training) 64.31%

Local learning opportunities in my community (e.g., presentations, performances, town halls demonstrations. etc.)


Case Study of Success

Mansi’s Quest for Clean Coastlines

Mansi Thakar leads a group of 100 peers called the “Environment Conservation Youth Club” that focuses on clearing discarded ghost fishing gear and other plastics that collects along coastal areas of the Gujarat Coast, where she lives. At just 24, Mansi had developed a system of waste collection, segregation and recycling with the help of the Municipal Corporation in order to help return green sea turtles to their nesting grounds.

Although she was able to incorporate local government agencies in her work early on, Mansi experienced a lack of consistent engagement from local leaders which hinders her campaign’s ability for long-term, sustainable success which requires o cial government support via policy. Her experience and words echo those interviewed and surveyed: “The youth are ready. We need more and more support from the government.”

Participation in events (e.g., marches, testifying, protesting, etc.) 53.70%

Adult-led learning events with my peers (e.g., camps, summits, training, etc.) 42.02%

Nonprofit sponsored internships 34.41%

Government-sponsored internships 18.17%

Corporate brand-sponsored internships 16.40%

Other 4.98%

(Lonely Whale 2022)

51% of survey respondents reported using social media to find others who share similar views as themselves.

(Lonely Whale 2022)

62% shared

Her participation in the Plastic Tide Turners Challenge (PTTC) was critical in her work. After spending what limited time she had available outside of her Geology studies, Mansi was discouraged by the continuous wave of plastic pollution brought to her doorstep each week. Participating in the PTTC was motivating, giving her the opportunity to share her work and get recognition from not just her peers but also from the United Nations Environment Programme, which boosted her confidence.

“We came from a small town… some of our National Guard, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. They were supportive like they were encouraging. We need support from local governments. [I]nitially they are supportive. Then after one month, it’s it’s become boring for them, so they didn’t support.”

- Mansi

(Lonely Whale 2022)

Which of the following types of training or educational programmes do you find most important in helping to prepare for your environmental work?
that nonprofit organizations help them achieve success with their environmental work by making introductions to potential partners.

5 Ways to Effectively Engage Youth

1.Require Youth Participation

In Rooms Where Decisions Happen

Enable Engagement through Consistent Conversation: Young people have a role to play in the democratic process and they’re asking to be engaged. Of those surveyed, 67.7% said they want governments to provide space for youth in the policy-making process. Policy makers can specifically help create this space with young members of civil society both under and above the voting age by establishing and engaging in consistent conversations with them to better understand their asks and expectations on policy decisions. As much as possible, these conversations should be promoted publicly through channels most relevant to young people in order to raise awareness about the opportunity to engage with policy makers.

Empower Participation by Implementing Shared Decision-Making Frameworks: In addition to specifically enabling youth participation within policy decisions, it is also vital that adults across the spectrum of allies invite youth participation into their processes by establishing shared decision making frameworks. A key to unlocking meaningful participation by youth, shared decision making enables participatory consensus building which helps ensure policies are positively received and e ff ectively implemented.

2.Make Long Term Investments

Increase Funding Beyond Microgrants:

Although they can be useful for those just getting started, or in support of rapid response campaigns, for many youth, the work to apply for and report out on the use of small scale funds often results in more time spent on administrative work versus implementation of planned activities. The sentiment amongst youth interviewed is that microgrants can undermine their capacity and ability to create change. Adult allies have the opportunity to recognize the maturity of youth-led campaigns by allowing them to dictate their own funding needs as part of the application process and also supporting longer term funding agreements that allow youth campaigners a realistic timeline to implement their work.

Support Equity in Funding Methods: Coupled with insubstantial funding opportunities, equity of access is a limiting funding factor for youth environmental leaders. Youth interviewed shared that some grant processes require lengthy applications with written components that result in a reduced applicant pool. Funders should also consider reducing required written components to support broader access and greater diversity amongst applicants. Of additional note, current reports indicate that female researchers publish less, which limits their progress as compared to their male counterparts. Funders should consider special measures such as funding quotas put in place for women, to ensure equitable access.


“Microgrants can help small organizations to trial ideas, but they are all too often really, really difficult to maintain once the grant runs out.”


Youth Preferred Learning Modalities And Resources

Embrace Peer-to-Peer Training Modalities: There is a dearth of resources currently available to youth through both educational institutions and informal programmes and young people are instead looking for support from both their peers and communities (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] 2021). Youth surveyed indicated that learning events with their peers is the most important way

to prepare for their environmental work. Adult allies can expand opportunities and environments for youth to lead through their lived experiences and support skill acquisition between peers by facilitating in-person and virtual connections. These touchpoints also allow adult allies to introduce other resources (e.g. mentorship) available from them or their organization.

“If we’re expecting the young folks who are able to work for free to be able to do this organizing work, it’s just going to reproduce all of the systems of domination and power that have been endemic to the environmental movement. We need to be able to bring in the young folks who need to have a part time job to pay rent, who are also the most likely to be adversely impacted by the climate crisis at the

4.Facilitate Career Growth Opportunities

Introduce Paid Internships and Positions:

Youth surveyed indicated that providing youth access to internships, mentorship or paid work opportunities is a priority area of support for youth across nonprofits, governments, and policy makers. Investing in expansion of professional opportunities is of critical importance as it helps both build capacity across the movement by enabling skills acquisition while also supporting continued participation by youth who may otherwise be unable to without financial compensation for their time. Importantly, all youth positions should be empowered with shared decision making frameworks implemented and specific measures to engage girls and young women are skey; eliminating barriers and gender biases is a critical step for women to move forward with science/climate-related careers.

5.Rethink Mentorship And Media


Combat “Youth-Washing” by Centering

Youth Voices: Young people have called out “youth-washing” as a problematic trend most often experienced in media and when working with adult led organizations. For youth, presence on global stages is critical - but ensuring their platform is presented and respected is of the utmost importance. Youth interviewed reported receiving invitations to participate in public events or media interviews which sometimes turned out to be opportunities for adult-led outlets or organizations to leverage young people in order to appeal to the public’s interest in youth environmental leaders through photo opportunities and sound bites. In order to combat this experience in both media and with adult led organizations, it’s critical that every opportunity for youth engagement is co-defined with members of the movement to ensure their needs are reflected and met in resulting press, programmes, or positions.

“The imposition of adult ideas in youth spaces I think is something that happens very frequently and that has caused a lot of problems.”

– Azalea Danes, 19, USA

Champion Autonomy: Although mentorship is critical, so are boundaries. It is important that youth leaders maintain their autonomy and adult allies should be careful to limit the overt influence of their existing organizational agendas. This too will support in combating “youth-washing” within media moments.

“I would value activism as a key part of the functioning of government because I think that activists and nonprofits are key to how this whole ecosystem of government and policy works.”
“I still have so much stuff to learn, but the things I learned were coming from my team members.”
5 Ways to Effectively Engage Youth

Conclusion and Call to Action

Today’s youth environmental movement is bold in its demands. Pushing forward the entire conversation on environmental action, they are asking for adult allies to think bigger and shift the paradigms in place to secure their future on a livable planet. From campaigning for inclusion and gender equality to combating eco-fatigue, this generation of young leaders is acutely aware of the human toll the climate crisis is already having and the importance of bringing compassion into the fight for an equitable future. As today’s generation continues to gain influence, it’s vital that adults in power meet youth environmental leaders where they are and foster intergenerational engagement that supports shared decision making on policies that will impact the future of both parties. By reframing youth participation in the climate conversation from passive to active, adults have the opportunity to step into a critical allyship role, empowering youth not just as spokespeople for the environment, but as critical constituents within the decision making process.

Although the environmental movement has been driven by young people for decades, today’s movement is unique in both its intersectional values and ability to connect with and mobilize a global community of peers. And adults currently in power have a responsibility to ensure the future of the next — and largest — generation. It’s no longer enough to simply ask young people to share their perspective on environmental issues, it’s about empowering their ideas, experiences, and values at the decision making table. Successful integration of youth hinges on adults’ ability to evolve their engagement methods in order to consistently and transparently empower its youngest community members. This evolution, if properly executed, is poised to change engagement frameworks across government and business, ushering in a new era of shared, intergenerational decision-making.

Recommendations for Future Research

This playbook highlights opportunities for further research to more e ff ectively engage with young people globally across adult-led organizations, government institutions and also UN entities. In order to build upon the present publication and broaden understanding of today’s youth environmental movement, further research recommendations include:

1. Study on e ff ective engagement platforms. A report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that when communication is tailored to young people it can support transparency and trust with the government (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] 2019) . Deeper understanding of how governments can use social communication platforms to open a dialogue with young people through tangible case studies would assist a range of adult stakeholders in more e ff ectively reaching young people en masse to participate in policy discussions, especially those who might not otherwise engage with or seek out government interaction.

2. Research the impact of shared decision making models in institutions where they have been successfully implemented with intergenerational stakeholders in order to validate and create case studies highlighting successes.

3. Rerun the global youth environmental leaders survey. In order to gain more diverse insights and broader representation, we suggest re-running the survey undertaken in Spring 2022 in multiple languages and on a longer timeline with dedicated support from global organizations in order to validate the findings and sentiment of youth at a larger scale.

Conclusion and Call to Action 24

Research Methodology

Definition of Terms

Our qualitative research included interviews hosted between September 2021 and April 2022 with 25 youth environmental leaders from 14 countries, 13 of whom were female identifying, in addition to 7 adult allies to learn from their experiences across the movement. Youth interviewees were identified by Lonely Whale and UNEP with selection criteria including current participation within environmental advocacy, geographic location (minimum of 1 representative from each continent excluding Antarctica), and age (25 and under). Each semistructured interview was conducted in English over Zoom and was recorded to accurately reflect answers to questions that touched upon the interviewees opinions, and experiences as a member of the youth environmental movement. Our team reviewed transcripts of each recorded conversation and identified 10 trends that emerged across the conversations.

In order to validate our qualitative findings, we launched a global online survey for youth environmental leaders with a focus on responses from those 25 years and younger. The survey included 34 questions broken into 5 sections covering: 1) reflection of their work to help protect the environment 2) their perspective on the youth environmental movement 3) their perspective and experience working with governments and 4) their preferences and experiences with communication mediums. The survey also included 4 optional sections which covered: 1) learning from their peers, 2) learning from the Tide Turners programme, 3) learning from Ocean Heroes Network and 4) experience with nonprofit organizations. Open to all youth under the age of 25, the survey was made available in English from February 17, 2022 - May 15, 2022. Hosted on SurveyMonkey, the anonymous questionnaire earned 637 responses and was shared with more than 100 amplifying organizations via both Lonely Whale and the UN Environment Programme, including its partners in the Tide Turners Programme. To reach a wider audience it was also promoted on Lonely Whale’s social channels and through direct invitation of publicly known

youth leaders to both take and to amplify the opportunity to their network of peers.

Before publication, the survey was reviewed for bias by MIT Solve and EMC Research. The survey was anonymous, voluntary and clearly communicated that responses would be aggregated and shared as part of a forthcoming playbook commissioned by the UN Environment Programme and produced by Lonely Whale. Participants were not compensated for completing the survey.

We also recognize that this research was limited by a few factors. Importantly, the survey was only available in English which likely resulted in fewer respondents than if we were able to o ff er the survey in multiple languages. Overall, this resulted in a smaller sample size than we aimed to earn with an oversampling in countries where we had stronger relationships with organizations that facilitated distribution of the survey namely the United States and India. Equally as important was the limited timeframe for the survey to earn organic distribution. Considering these limitations, we would suggest future research that includes re-opening the survey for a longer time period in order to return responses from a larger sample set. However, this survey still supports our understanding of the youth environmental movement, providing a snapshot of its sentiments and critical insights into the viewpoints of some of its most active participants.


A mix of eco-anxiety, overwork, media overexposure, and pressure for perfectionism.

Global North and Global South

Broadly referring to global regions as one of two categories, the Global South most often includes South America, Asia, and Africa while the Global North includes North America, Europe, and Australia. The Global South identifies lowerincome countries while the Global North identifies rich nations.

Intersectional Environmentalism

Articulating the relationship between social and environmental justice in order to advocate for an inclusive environmental movement.


The study of overlapping but interdependent identifies that result in nuanced experiences and unique disadvantages.


Small scale grants that usually amount to a few hundred or thousand dollars and support the earliest stages of an initiative.


A rejection of anything less than the absolute defined by any industry or community.

The Tide Turners Plastic Challenge (TTPC)

A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) led-initiative that educates young people around the world about plastic pollution, giving them the tools to change their personal behavior, inspire their communities, and create a better future for people and the planet.


An intergovernmental organization whose purpose is to maintain international peace and security.


The United Nations Environment Programme is the global authority for the environment with

programmes focusing on climate, nature, pollution, sustainable development and more.

Youth Environmental Movement

The global collective of young people advocating for the reduction of carbon emissions through grassroots organizing and participation in coordinated climate and environmental campaigns.

Youth Leader

A young person who is actively coordinating an e ff ort dedicated to advancing a specific goal. The United Nations defines youth as someone 25 years old or younger.


Youth-washing happens when young people are invited but not allowed to participate in high-level meetings where decisions are made.


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