Climate change is one of the most alarming global threats of our time, and its effects are being felt by people of all ages, young and old. For a significant segment of our population, though, climate change has become a particularly pressing issue; for the youth, the future of their planet is in jeopardy, and their outlook on the world is quickly shifting to reflect that.
Climate change is already having numerous impacts on the lives of youth worldwide. Young people are witnessing and actively experiencing its effects first-hand, whether through extreme weather events like floods, droughts, freak storms, wildfires or increased air and water pollution. These alterations make accessing various activities, from leisure to livelihoods, more challenging. Youth are then met with reduced opportunities for meaningful growth and engagement in a world increasingly shaped by the unpredictability of extreme weather events. Moreover, the emotional distress experienced by youngsters when contemplating the effects of climate change on their future is alarming.
Over the past few decades, the Caribbean region has experienced a significant shift in weather patterns, resulting in an increased frequency of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts. This has significantly impacted the region, with effects seen from Jamaica in the north to the South American area. From 2019 to 2022, the Caribbean experienced severe storms that caused immense damage and loss of life. Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in 2019, leaving behind a trail of destruction with at least 70 people dead and over $3 billion in damages. In November 2020, Hurricanes Eta and Iota struck the Northern Caribbean and Central America, leaving over 200 people dead and forcing thousands to flee their homes. In 2021, a series of hurricanes hit the Caribbean island of Dominica. The first hurricane to land was Hurricane Grace in late August, causing significant damage to the island’s infrastructure and leaving thousands without power. A few weeks later, Hurricane Ida unleashed even more devastation on the battered island. Many more countries in the region have faced a similar fate of the rise in freak storms. Higher temperatures and increased precipitation have also caused the spread and increased presence of invasive species, including the Sargassum seaweed.
Sargassum seaweed is a brown alga belonging to the Sargasso family. It is commonly found in the pelagic regions of the ocean and is known for forming large floating masses, referred to as the Sargasso Sea. Seaweed is essential in marine ecosystems as it provides shelter and food for sea animals such as turtles, crabs, and fish. Despite its significance, sargassum seaweed growth can become invasive if not properly managed and controlled, as excessive growth can pose risks to human health and disrupt aquatic ecosystems. Sargassum seaweed began attracting international attention when it washed up on Caribbean islands in the summer of 2011. This trend, commonly called the ‘sargassum bloom’, has continued every year since then in varying amounts.
The seaweed contains chemicals, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulphide, which harm human health. For example, they can cause rashes and other skin irritations in contact with the skin. At the same time, inhaling sargassum-associated air pollutants often leads to respiratory tract irritation, asthma attacks, and other related illnesses. In addition, the seaweed serves as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which is particularly of concern for those living in coastal regions, as the insects are vectors of severe illnesses such as malaria, Zika and dengue fever. As such, the physical health of youth living in affected areas is often compromised due to the presence of sargassum seaweed.
Not only do the massive accumulations of seaweed create an unsightly landscape and block access to beaches, but they also considerably harm economies dependent on the tourism industry and the sale of seafood. Excessive persistent sargassum seaweed not only has a direct economic cost due to the expenses incurred in its removal and disposal, but it also has an indirect economic cost in that it drastically reduces local tourism, leading to a decrease in revenue for beach-associated businesses and a subsequent decrease in job opportunities for youth living in the area.
As the effects of climate change worsen, the implications can be seen in new generations through the increased burden of mental health issues and psychological distress. Youth are particularly vulnerable to the psychological impacts of global warming, especially when the livelihood of their parents, communities, and themselves faces the threat of becoming socioeconomically vulnerable.
Today, youth are more conscious and aware of their environment than ever and are part of a significant and inspiring movement sweeping the world. Climate change’s economic, environmental, and political implications are becoming increasingly apparent, and young people are responding with innovative, inspiring initiatives. Their critical involvement is essential to tackle the climate crisis, especially considering their broad outreach and ability to spur change quickly. For example, in Grenada, groups such as the Caribbean Youth Environment Network-Grenada (G-YEN) and Leo Clubs of Grenada, Rotaract Club and various School groups have been engaged in activities and public awareness campaigns that have proven practical ways to draw attention to environmental causes and bring about change.
To further support these efforts, international organisations such as the Global Youth Environment Assembly (GYEA-UN), convened by the UN Environment Programme and Global Youth Climate Action Fund (GYCAF), provide small grants and finance that support the youth’s role in this fight. In addition, they spread awareness, inspire and encourage child to act, and connect youth organisations and activists worldwide. On the international scale, young people use social media platforms such as Tik Tok, Instagram, and Facebook to organise initiatives such as global climate strikes and participate in online petitions and discussions.
The youth are proving that their innovative solutions can tackle and resolve some of the most complex climate challenges. Despite the daunting task of halting global warming, these young people are bringing the fight to the politicians, corporations, and communities, exhibiting impressive determination and creativity.
Encouraging youth participation in local initiatives such as community clean-ups, smart agriculture & composting programs, and renewable energy projects helps young people see the impact they can have on the environment. Additionally, donor-funded agencies can further empower youth initiatives by providing more grant funding opportunities and funding pools to support their efforts, especially at the community level. It must be noted that while many funding streams are available to support climate resilience projects, youth are often unable to mobilise these resources since they lack the skills and competence necessary to create winning proposals to secure funding. Therefore, capacity building and training in resource mobilisation strategies can form an integral part of the support given to youth climate advocates and groups.
Providing funding to support youth-driven innovative climate-smart small businesses and cooperatives is an excellent strategy for allowing creative young entrepreneurs to contribute to promoting climate resilience while earning sustainable income and providing employment opportunities. In the Caribbean, one such business example is the attractive option for sustainable business ventures that the Sargassum seaweed offers. It can be used in various industries, such as agriculture, cosmetics, and animal food production. Sargassum seaweed is rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, making it ideal for fertilising and processing into fertilisers and animal feed supplements. Businesses supported through a grant or concessionary business loans are bound to enjoy high yields given the low competition in this field of speciality. With its numerous benefits and growing concern surrounding consumer sustainability, start-ups utilising sargassum seaweed have great potential to succeed in the marketplace.
All in all, the Caribbean must recognise and appreciate what the youth are doing and support their journey in every way possible if we are to have any chance at solving the critical issue of climate change and essentially saving the planet.
Johnny J. Calliste, MSC, CMC, Dip (M&E) is a Grenadian with a master’s degree in International Business from the Arthur Lok Jack GBS-University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. He also holds post-graduate certifications in Youth Development, Monitoring and Evaluation, Project Risk & Cycle Management, and Human Resource Management. He is preparing for doctoral studies/research in Developmental Economics and Public Policy Management. Johnny works in the Global Development sector with an international organisation and is a climate change and youth development aficionado. As part of his studies, he will conduct considerable research to understand climate change’s socioeconomic and psychological impact on Small Island Developing States. Please feel free to contact him via LinkedIn.