Why we need to share knowledge with young people on the ground: Lessons learned from Nairobi and Mombasa

April 17, 2024

By Clara Botto, Director of Youth Engagement

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” a Kenyan student* said to me during our meeting in early March. They had just learned about solar geoengineering for the first time and were feeling frustrated that decisions were being made without the wider public’s awareness or input. 

Following DSG’s time at the 6th UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-6), I stayed in Kenya for another week and a half to talk to different youth organizations and activists about what happened at UNEA with regard to the SRM resolution (as discussed in depth by Alia Hassan, DSG’s Director of International Policy, here). Unsurprisingly, the people I spoke with had little knowledge about this recurrent Assembly that happened in their own country, either because information about its existence isn’t widely known, or because accreditation to UN conferences proves challenging. And still more unsurprisingly, the awareness about solar geoengineering was almost non-existent, as is often the case when I talk to youth climate and environmental organizations.

This time around, the fact they didn’t know about SRM before caused frustration when finding out that the African Group had opposed a resolution on a topic civil society didn’t even know about. “Aren’t we supposed to speak up for ourselves?” asked one of the young activists I spoke to. In my time in Kenya, I was able to host capacity-building sessions with the Kishoka Youth Organization, the Kenya Youth Assembly Foundation and the Chiromo Environmental Awareness Club from the University of Nairobi. I gained valuable insight that can be taken to policymakers and the wider SRM community. 

Youth Reactions to SRM

A simple introduction to SRM typically sparks debate. Witnessing young people’s agitation firsthand, followed by lively conversations and several questions, showed me that DSG’s mission is needed now more than ever. News about SRM is breaking almost daily, yet many young people still lack general knowledge and understanding of the field. A youth representative asked me, “If I’ve worked with this [environmental and climate action] for years and didn’t know about this solar geoengineering thing, what about the ‘common man’?” We have a lot of work to do on this, making information accessible and allowing citizens to speak for themselves – especially the younger generation, who will deal with the climate crisis for longer.  Apart from having content about solar geoengineering translated to other languages, being able to talk about it in a “layman’s language” is vital.

Civic awareness can be key to driving policy change as long as communities are given enough information about a specific matter and a deliberation space. During my visit, I learned about the barazas, a Kiswahili word meaning citizen public meetings. In the Mombasa region, they have been organizing youth barazas, which have been key to enacting policy change on topics such as waste management. One of the ideas raised by youth activists I met with is that to foster civic awareness they could organize a baraza to discuss SRM. Another point raised was the need for climate modeling for the Kenyan coast, but there’s a lack of policy drive. On SRM specifically, some would like to see tailormade research for the country and the African continent, with a speaker stating that “there’s nothing wrong in expanding our horizon and having more knowledge and options because the ones they have provided us with so far aren’t working [for climate change].” As concerns rise in Kenya about the situation of the corals on the coast, I was asked if technologies such as marine cloud brightening could potentially help prevent bleaching. 

Research Concerns

But research on SRM comes with worries. On the one side are concerns about the lack of funding to pursue science in the country, but on the other side are concerns about who would fund such research while also ensuring its credibility. On the subject of research governance, a young lawyer said “I don’t have a problem with SRM research, but it has to be anchored in strong legal frameworks, first thing.” 

Before even conducting research, it was pointed out that education is essential to fight the “traditional mindset” of rejecting new things. An example was given that without addressing fears about the COVID-19 vaccine, such as it being linked to infertility, many people wouldn’t have been vaccinated. The people I met with asked for unbiased information and to be presented with all potential impacts. 

Knowledge and Climate Justice

Some may say that these points have already been discussed in several papers and discussions within the insular SRM community, but these were new concepts to the young people I met with during the meetings held in Kenya who had never heard of solar geoengineering before. The concerns raised after a short introduction and discussion about SRM were the same as those from people who have been looking into this topic for years. These reactions underscore the need to meet directly with young people to gather their perspectives and input. “You’ve just elaborated to me what it [solar geoengineering] means and now I know. People feel the [increased] heat but they don’t know what’s going on. That’s why you need to share this knowledge with the people on the ground.”

To have climate justice in solar geoengineering discussions means we must get more people to the table. Some might see their youth, lack of knowledge, or priorities as a reason for their current exclusion. But it is someone with those characteristics who is prone to suffer the most from the climate crisis, and they’re precisely the ones who should have more information about solar geoengineering. We can never forget that the climate crisis is systemic, and the fight is intersectional. Shutting people off from the discussion based on their socioeconomic or age status is one more form of injustice. And if we don’t bring young people to the table to learn about and discuss solar geoengineering, especially the ones who are already being the most impacted by the climate crisis, then they’ll simply be “on the menu” – subject to decisions that others have been making for their future without taking their views into account. 

*All speakers are anonymous