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Most young people know — and as driven home yet again by Monday’s IPCC report — the climate crisis is coming for them.

One way or another, on their terms or not, it's going to enlist them.

It won't ask their permission.

In the face of more frequent and severe extreme weather events, disrupted food and water systems, humanitarian crises, shattered infrastructure, threats to global security exacerbate by the “threat multiplier” that is the climate crisis, and economic and employment upheavals, the climate emergency will impact their lives in immeasurable ways. And they know it.

It will test their character and ask them to decide what kind of people they want to be.

Knowing what is coming, it is advisable to take pre-emptive action and prepare on one’s own terms. Better still is to go all in building what is needed to rapidly transition our economy and society off fossil fuels to limit and prevent the damage and dangers to come. The antidote to despair can be found, at least in part, in collective action.

I’ve written previously about the need for a national and audacious Youth Climate Corps. The Climate Emergency Unit (CEU) and a coalition of partner organizations are now ramping up the call for such a program. You can see the campaign’s inspiring new video here.

A Youth Climate Corps (YCC) would represent an invitation to Canada’s youth to mobilize to confront today’s gravest threat: the climate emergency. It could be a new flagship public program and, funded at sufficient scale, would send an electrifying signal. It would indicate our governments are indeed entering genuine emergency mode and would communicate to young people that they are being called to join in a grand societal transformation.

Today, as I give talks and meet young people across the country, I am convinced that tens of thousands of them are once again eager to serve, ready to confront the civilizational threat of this generation, writes @SethDKlein for @NatObserver

Some say young people should be protected from “fear-mongering” about the climate, so as not to risk their mental health. But young people are plenty aware, and they can smell phoney and trite messages a mile away.

Far better to honour them with the truth. And the truth is — we do not yet have the situation in hand. If we are to truly bend the GHG emissions curve at the pitch and pace that climate scientists say is necessary, we desperately need all hands on deck, especially theirs.

A January report from Lakehead University researchers Lindsay Galway and Ellen Field (and superbly summarized by CNO’s Chris Hatch in a recent column) lays out what many young people and parents already well know — thousands of Canadian youth are wrestling with significant climate anxiety. Their study, Climate emotions and anxiety among young people in Canada, surveyed 1,000 young people aged 16 to 24. Among their findings: at least 56 per cent of respondents reported feeling afraid, sad, anxious, and powerless; 78 per cent reported that climate change impacts their overall mental health; 39 per cent of respondents report hesitation about having children due to climate change; and 76 per cent report that people have failed to take care of the planet. Respondents rated governmental responses to climate change negatively and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance. How then can we regain their trust?

Earlier this month, over 200 people joined a CEU national online event launching a campaign for a YCC, at which they heard a panel of inspiring speakers share their visions of what a climate corps could look like (a recording of the event can be viewed here).

And while this campaign presses for a national YCC, similar campaigns are underway in Alberta and British Columbia, pushing on their provincial governments to implement climate corps in their respective jurisdictions. Perhaps a provincial government will blaze a trail, piloting what a national YCC might achieve (and in doing so, make the YCC their gift to Canada, much like Saskatchewan did for medicare and Quebec did with $10-a-day child care).

Young people want to enlist in this task of our lives, but our government has not provided the opportunity, writes Seth Klein. Photo submitted

One of the lessons from the Second World War — a previous mobilization to confront an existential threat — is the potentially transformative power of a Youth Climate Corps.

During the Second World War, from a Canadian population at the time of just over 11 million people, remarkably, over one million enlisted. More staggering — 64 per cent of those who signed up were under the age of 21. They left their farms, delayed their work and careers, and deferred their post-secondary studies because they understood the emergency to be in that moment. They volunteered to meet the civilizational threat of their generation. And even though in the early days the training programs to receive them were barely ready, none who enlisted were turned away. I interviewed a Chinese Canadian veteran for my book, the late George Chow, who recalled training with broom handles in place of rifles in the war’s early days.

Looking in the rearview mirror of history, we now know how their story ended. But those who enlisted did not know if they would succeed. For a good part of the war, the outcome was far from certain. But those young people enlisted regardless and surprised themselves by the speed and scale of what they accomplished.

Today, as I give talks and meet young people across the country, I am convinced that tens of thousands of them are once again eager to serve, ready to confront the civilizational threat of this generation.

But where is their invitation to serve?

Sadly, our country today has yet to issue them such a summons. These young people want to enlist in this task of our lives, but our government has not provided the opportunity.

At scale, the Youth Climate Corps could be a two-year, government-funded training and employment program for people 35 and under, engaging them to work in their communities and across the country on low-carbon and climate mitigation and adaptation work. YCC participants would be employed in meaningful climate work: restoring ecosystems, managing forests to reduce wildfire risks, responding to climate disasters, enhancing community resilience and safety, building new climate infrastructure (renewable energy projects, building retrofits, high-speed rail) and engaging in low-carbon care work (elder/child care). For two years, young people would be well paid as they get trained up in vital work; work that may set them on a new life and career course.

While a YCC should be federally and provincially funded, local and Indigenous governments should guide what projects are supported and how the funding and youth are deployed to ensure the work aligns with provincial and community climate and GHG-reduction plans.

To be clear, the point ought not to be the creation of another new non-profit program. That’s too small. The climate emergency is all about speed and scale, and the response needs to be state-led. We have plenty of student and youth programs across the country that provide placements for a few dozen or even a few hundred youth a year, mostly in four-month summer jobs or volunteer internships. Meeting the climate emergency requires something much grander.

Imagine instead a government program that turns no one away — for which the only requirement for entry is the desire to sign on. Today, there is only one national youth training and employment program that is genuinely barrier-free, especially for disadvantaged young people: the military. The YCC could be a more peaceful and timely alternative.

There are roughly 10 million people in Canada between the ages of 18 and 35. If only five per cent of them were moved to enlist in a program like the YCC, that’s 500,000 people — half a million young people saying, “We are ready to serve, ready to meet the emergency.” That’s what makes this idea a game-changer.

At a time when many communities are grappling with the future prospects for their youth and when many young people are wrestling with climate anxiety and mental health, an ambitious Youth Climate Corps could be just the hopeful solution to captivate people’s excitement — and signal that we are taking their fears and their futures seriously.

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Seth and Climate Emergency Unit,

Thanks for the Youth Climate Corps. We need more of this kind of empowerment and cross-generation coalition building. I encourage youth to engage in this opportunity. This is the real thing.