A UN-style Youth Assembly on climate change can give young people a powerful platform to address climate issues, find Kieran Li Nair, Josephine Koay and Lee Ee Jenn of the Malaysian Youth Delegation (MYD).
IT WAS 2pm on 12 Dec 2020, the first day of the Youth Assembly, the first-ever Model United Nations-type platform set up solely to discuss climate change issues in Malaysia.
As organisers, we had logged onto the server early and were watching in anticipation as dozens of participant icons lit up.
We had received an impressive 137 signups from 6 different countries, a number unusual even for typical Model United Nations (MUN) events.
(Photo: Youth Assemblies can empower every participant to freely speak their minds. Pic by MYD)
But how many delegates would actually turn up? Did they read the study guide for the event? And would introducing such a different interactive platform for discussion work?
Youth Assemblies are based on the MUN, a simulation of the UN where youth represent countries in different UN councils and debate and develop policy solutions to pre-assigned topics.
But Youth Assemblies are different as participants (delegates) debate on the basis of their own opinions, rather than the foreign policies of assigned nations.
From our experience, by avoiding the geopolitical manoeuvring characteristic of MUN councils, they allow the voices of youth to shine through.
That is why we decided to hold a two-day Youth Assembly as part of the Malaysian Local Conference of Youth (MYLCOY) last year, to hear what the youth had to say on the topic of ‘Mitigating the Socioeconomic Risks of Climate Change in ASEAN’.
“Hey everyone. Welcome to the Youth Assembly session of MYLCOY2020!”
To begin the first session, we called on participants to give an opening speech on the topic, as per the Youth Assembly format.
Four out of five of our registrants were new to this but the topic set was intentionally broad and open-ended in order to allow them freedom to explore aspects which were most important to them.
An awkward moment of silence ensued as we waited for the delegates to volunteer for their speeches. We started to wonder: Was the topic too broad? Too vague to grasp?
Chair Amirah Fatimah’s voice cut through the silence to ask if the delegates had any reservations. One delegate admitted that they were hesitating because they were not familiar with the structure of a Youth Assembly-style opening speech.
We reassured them not to worry about the formalities and to instead focus on channelling their ideas through their speech.
After several minutes, we were delighted when each delegate delivered an impactful speech offering their ideas and insights. Clearly the delegates had done their homework and had some good ideas up their sleeves.
Some wanted to focus on renewable energy, while others lobbied for the Assembly to address food security, education, and carbon management. At the end, these four concerns became the focus areas for further discussion.
The next challenge would be to piece together a coherent draft resolution.
The delegates organised themselves into virtual lobby rooms based on those focus areas and delved into in-depth discussions.
As chairs, we had a great opportunity to observe different discussions blooming and developing: participants collectively setting the direction of their policy solutions and critiquing each other’s clauses.
Interesting and creative ideas were bounced around in each lobby room. For example, regenerative farming to preserve soil health, the possibility of a national climate education syllabus, as well as small-scale hydropower and waste-to-energy plants for Malaysia.
We were pleased to note that all the delegates were enthusiastic and spoke out without hesitation. Although there were several delegates who were more vocal than others, the discussions appeared to be inclusive.
Delegates later told us that they enjoyed the sessions as they were highly constructive, and they felt comfortable expressing themselves freely.
In a mere two hours, the delegates had finished drafting their recommendations.
As we compiled them into a single draft resolution, the document was shaping up to be ambitious, powerful, and quite possibly controversial: the crystallisation of the ideas of our youth participants.
And so the Youth Assembly was adjourned for that first day.
But the youth did not rest. In anticipation of the next day’s scrutiny and evaluation of the draft resolution, the delegates carried out further research and polished their recommendations all night. It was a heart-warming showcase of camaraderie.
The second day’s Youth Assembly was opened by Chair Lee Ee Jenn. Ee Jenn introduced Nithi Nesadurai, the Regional Coordinator of the Climate Action Network South East Asia (CANSEA), serving as the expert witness for this Youth Assembly.
CANSEA represents 21 environmental organisations in ASEAN and we were drawing on Nithi’s expertise to advise delegates on the feasibility and effectiveness of their proposed solutions.
Each focus group explained the rationale behind their recommendations to Nithi, who in turn provided feedback.
It was very rewarding to see the delegates so actively engaged in the session. In turn, Nithi was both impressed by and responsive to the delegates’ suggestions and questions.
Armed with the feedback, the delegates industriously collaborated to make changes, culminating in the document being unanimously passed as the Youth Assembly Resolution.
It’s almost cliché, but the most meaningful part to us, as the chairs, was being able to provide an opportunity for these passionate individuals to speak up for what was important to them.
Everyone – including the delegates themselves – was surprised at how strongly each person seized the opportunity to express their own thoughts and push forward their ideas, even if it started off a little rough.
Perhaps the nature of the Youth Assembly is a double-edged sword: while the formal, structured and output-focused nature of the Assembly may have dissuaded participants from speaking up at first, it also produced insightful discussions and concretised results.
Every voice heard
In contrast, in free-flow workshops, we have often observed individuals join and remain as bystanders; providing participants with a direction and meaningful end goal is a more empowering alternative.
This is especially true for those who need some prompting – our MUN experience has consistently demonstrated that mandating that every delegate give an opening speech is an important stepping stone for them to feel more comfortable expressing themselves later on.
Many of us youth are not used to being given the space to wholeheartedly speak our minds, after all, so it truly drove home how important this platform can be.
Delegates went away with increased awareness of climate policies, as well as the potential and difficulties of implementing various climate solutions to mitigate the socioeconomic risks.
In a single experience, they were active leaders and participants, championing and challenging each other’s ideas, while also learning from the initial research report, Nithi, and each other.
More than that however, the experience allowed youths to debate and take part in climate policy discussions.
The resolution will be submitted to international climate governance government stakeholders, while locally, it will serve as an important resource for our organisation’s future engagements with policymakers.
The participants also built connections and friendships with other Malaysian and overseas youth delegates, bonding over a shared passion for our climate.
Our server is now a thriving virtual hangout space where our delegates continue to freely discuss their ideas and seek teammates for future projects.
Lessons for the future
We are optimistic about hosting more events to involve youth in climate policy in the future. In particular, for future Youth Assemblies, we would have participants take on different stakeholder positions with conflicting interests and goals.
That would allow a more in-depth exploration of overlooked, and even conflicting, perspectives within the topic, prompting delegates to brainstorm more inclusive solutions, as well as practise negotiation tactics and diplomacy skills.
There are myriad existing methods for youths to discuss climate change, but by taking a leap of faith and trying something new, we uncovered the power of Youth Assembly simulations in connecting, elevating, and empowering youth. We hope that other activists give it a try as well.
[Edited by SL Wong]
Kieran Li Nair, Josephine Koay and Lee Ee Jenn are activists with climate change NGO Malaysian Youth Delegation. They organised and chaired the first climate-focused Malaysian Youth Assembly in collaboration with the United Nations Association Malaysia Youth. The session was held at the 3rd Malaysian Local Conference of Youth, under the purview of YOUNGO, the youth constituency of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Read the Youth Assembly Resolution here.
Related report: Climate Action: Youth-Led, Not Youth Only
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